April 18, 2012

There’s no question that the investigative soul of The Patriot-News now resides largely with its first Pulitzer Prize-winner: 24-year-old Sara Ganim, whose reporting of alleged sexual abuse by an ex-Penn State football coach shook the paper’s 67,000 central Pennsylvania readers, and resonated with journalists far beyond.

“Better than any award,” she said in post-Pulitzer newsroom remarks to the 19 full-time staffers on Monday, “the most rewarding thing through this whole process has been people telling me that this story and our courage has changed their minds about local reporting, and we all know that there are a lot of minds yet to change.” Continuing that rallying cry in a telephone interview Tuesday, she said that “there’s been a feeling that we don’t do what we used to do, and that we’re not as good as we used to be. A lot of that changed with the reaction to this story. People have been telling me that it restored their faith in local journalism, and that it was wrong what people had been saying about local newspapers.”

That faith is tangible in the sprawling suburban Mechanicsburg, Pa., offices of the 157-year-old Patriot-News. In accepting the Ben Bradlee Award from the National Press Foundation for his role in the story, 10-year veteran editor David Newhouse said a new approach to covering news took hold under his predecessor, John Kirkpatrick, now the Advance Publications paper’s publisher. Rather than be a paper of record, staffers basically have “one assignment,” Newhouse said. That is to “bring us the stories that no one else has,” he said, bringing a laugh with his next line: “Of course, who knew Sara Ganim was actually going to take me seriously, right? My kids never did.”

Many papers express similar philosophies, though, and they don’t develop one of the stories of the year, in spectacular, prize-winning fashion.

So it’s worth examining the invisible elements that helped build the drive and tenacity at the Patriot-News — elements that underlie much of Ganim’s own experience there.

Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, 24, left, calls her sister while hugging Patriot-News reporter Jan Murphy after winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, Monday, April 16, 2012. (Christine Baker/The Patriot-News, AP)

One is the peculiar power of the Penn State story itself, which basically was the paper’s alone from March until early November. That’s when the announcement of the indictment of former coach Jerry Sandusky – whom Newhouse describes as “in many people’s minds one step below Mother Theresa” because of his charitable work — suddenly created a national reporting frenzy. With 200 reporters suddenly “crawling around Penn State,” as Newhouse described in an interview, that put Ganim and the entire news operation in the position of trying to stay out front, building a special pride in their role in what had become their signature coverage. This week’s Pulitzer, in part, is an acknowledgment of how far ahead they stayed.

Such “ownership” of a story brings to mind the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning 2002 expose of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and a Church coverup of it – with the paper’s legal campaign to unseal court documents playing a big part, along with its reporting. And Patriot-News comparisons also have been made to the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate break-in and its aftermath, 1972 reporting that other publications were slow to follow. Both the Globe and Post cases famously reflect the tenacious leadership of managers like then-Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, and Globe editor Marty Baron.

While Patriot-News staffers celebrate their top editors’ support of the story, though, they express a deep additional debt to the legacy of investigative reporter Pete Shellem, who died at 49, in October 2009. That was more than a year before Ganim was hired from her previous job, at the Centre Daily Times in Penn State’s hometown of State College, about 90 miles from Harrisburg, but Ganim says that Shellem’s power in her career is hard to overemphasize.

A 23-year Patriot-News veteran most known in journalism circles for reporting campaigns that freed wrongly-convicted prisoners – often by exposing erroneous laboratory evidence and coerced confessions – Shellem committed suicide, something people at the paper discuss only in hushed tones.

Pete Shellem learned of Ganim’s work while she was a college student at Penn State; later, she worked for one of his former editors while she was at the Centre Daily Times.

As assistant managing editor Mike Feeley put it, Shellem “just had a phenomenal way of putting together stories. He was like a prosecutor; he would create a case that people couldn’t punch holes in.” Feeley added, “He was our standard bearer, and a guy who never got as much credit as he deserved.”

If there was a problem with his work, Newhouse said laughingly, it was that it required years of meticulous research through court documents, even before writing began. When it got prisoner-freeing results, that came even more years later. And this made Shellem’s accomplishments hard to submit for awards, which generally look at work accomplished during the calendar year.

Newhouse did submit one Shellem project for a Pulitzer, he recalled, but realized the chances were slim because he had to attach background stretching back to past years.

None of that, of course, mattered to the staffers and editors who worked with the curt, soft-spoken Shellem.

“Pete was a legend for us,” executive editor Cate Barron simply put it.

“I knew he was kind of like this legend guy,” Ganim told me, but “he was an incredible mentor for me. I would run things by him all the time.” And — in one of those peculiar newsroom relationships that involves far-flung reporters who never actually meet face-to-face — “it was a phone friendship,” one that reflected not only their pursuit of similar stories but other bonds.

In an eerie twist, it wasn’t until Shellem died that Ganim learned something else about Shellem: It was his recommendation that had led Barron and Newhouse, in late 2010, to hire her.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010.)

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, published in an updated edition…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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