In this era of disappearing ink-and-paper, journalism schools are scrambling to make sense of the media chaos -- tracking today's wildly proliferating distribution channels, mastering professional uses of social networking, and monitoring the traditional news outlets' search for a business model that allows them to survive and thrive once again.
But if this mightn't seem a great time to be talking to students about the "back stories" of the best of America's print journalism -- the recent and not-so-recent reporting honored with Pulitzer Prizes -- my recent classroom visits suggest otherwise. From Boston College, BU and Northeastern University to the West Coast journalism bastions of USC, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton, I find students eager to explore how reporters get these stories-of-a-lifetime -- and a bit bewildered that these historic reporting lessons are so rarely taught these days.
These reporters-in-training all know something about what went into the Washington Post's breakthrough stories about Watergate -- thanks in part to the cult status of the movie version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's "All the President's Men" -- but it's almost as if some think that was the only journalism that shook the world.
Far from it.
While the Post's coverage of the break-in and its aftermath may have led to the best known of the prizes -- the public service Pulitzer in 1973 -- explosive reporting going back to the earliest years of the Pulitzers also resonates with students once they hear these real-life "how I got the story" tales. There's a special fascination about the "Aha!" moment a reporter experiences -- that point when an ordinary assignment magically transforms into the story of a lifetime. Nearly all the journalists working on these great Pulitzer-winners, of course, had such moments, even if what they accomplished in the end was something a bit less dramatic than participating in the ending of a presidency.
Take Gil Gaul, who 22 years ago got his Aha! on his first interview after deciding to report what he thought would be a routine Philadelphia Inquirer business story, about Red Cross blood drives. Gaul, now with the Washington Post, was himself giving blood -- watching the bottle fill from his arm -- when he realized that he knew nothing about what happened to the blood from that point on. He proposed a story. After arranging to talk with the director of the local Red Cross office, Gaul got out only a few basic questions -- How much blood's in your bank? What does a unit of blood sell for? -- when the director stopped him with: "Why are you asking these questions? We don't have to tell you that."
"My journalistic antennae went up," says Gaul, who then launched into a national follow-up with yet another question at the top of the list: Why all the secrecy? Editors detached him from regular duties to pursue it, and his 1989 series established that a huge, unregulated market existed for those units of donor blood -- a "blood brokering" business in serious need of control. Congress toughened the regulations after the stories.
Mike Rezendes, of the Boston Globe's investigative Spotlight Team, had his Aha! in late 2001, while squirreled away in a courthouse sorting through recently-unsealed documents from lawsuits that families had brought against the Catholic Church -- suits suggesting that Cardinal Bernard Law protected child-abusing priests by shuttling them from one parish to another, where they molested more altar boys. Reading one particularly stark warning to Cardinal Law about such a priest, just before the cardinal had transferred him, Rezendes remembers bursting out with "He knew!" in the quiet office where he was working. Soon, the Globe team was ready to publish the 2002 stories that created full-fledged international scandal.
As early as 1920, reporters at the Globe's old rival, the Boston Post, broke a huge story after one was tipped that New England's heralded financial wizard -- a man who promised to double investors' money in 45 days -- had served prison terms under another identity. The investigation brought to justice dapper charlatan Charles Ponzi, whose name lives on in the pyramid scheme he employed in one of the Jazz Age's biggest scams.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the journalism students I meet seem most dazzled when remarkable behind-the-scenes stories are broken by a small paper -- of a type occasionally recognized by a Pulitzer Prize organization that seems genuinely fond of David-and-Goliath tales. (The 2010 judging process is now beginning; we'll see what landmark newspaper and online work the Pulitzers honor when its prizes are announced April 12.)
Classes love the 1978 case of young Stanford graduates Dave and Cathy Mitchell, who had just purchased the weekly, 7,000-circulation Point Reyes Light in west Marin County, California. Their little paper courageously exposed violent changes in a reclusive local cult called Synanon, including large purchases of weapons, and allegations of young members being held against their will at its encampment. Few publications heeded the stories in the Light -- located just a few miles from the Synanon compound -- until two members attacked a Los Angeles anti-Synanon lawyer by stuffing a de-rattled rattlesnake in his mailbox. The attack suddenly cast the spotlight on the Light, making the Mitchells national experts on the story.
And last year's winner touches students deeply, too. For her very first assignment after joining the Las Vegas Sun, Alexandra Berzon -- 28 and just out of Cal Berkeley graduate school -- was asked to explore why so many construction workers were dying on Strip construction sites. After angering everyone from union officials to casino executives to regulators, who all had reasons for not wanting the story told, she wrote a series of articles pointing to failures among all three groups and winning grudging changes in policies and regulations. The construction-site deaths stopped.
Such relatively low-budget successes in public service should be exemplary today, as many newspapers scale down their investigative efforts, and the new breed of online watchdog start-ups struggle for funding. For students, of course, the real power of these tales should be the inspiration and reassurance they provide that the sacrifices and risks of journalism today are worth it because of the changes they can produce.
After all, the desire to make a difference through their reporting was the reason most of them chose journalism in the first place. They deserve to be taught about those who came before and made an impact -- and who, incidentally, validated the role that America's Founding Fathers envisioned for a free press.
With apologies to George Santayana, I suggest to the classes I visit: "Those who cannot remember the past have no way in hell of ever repeating it."
Roy Harris, who reported for The Wall Street Journal for 23 years, before joining The Economist Group as senior editor of its CFO Magazine and CFO.com, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism. He also writes about journalism topics for Poynter.org. An updated paperback version of the book was released this month (February) by the University of Missouri Press. www.pulitzersgold.com
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more