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Road to the Pulitzer

Wednesday, September 12, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
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Crime reporter Sara Ganim, who broke the explosive child sex abuse story and stayed out in front as big media descended on Penn State last November.

By Cate Barron

Describing our coverage of the Jerry Sandusky story, former Editor David Newhouse liked to say The Patriot-News was "punching above our fighting weight." 

In our corner was crime reporter Sara Ganim, who broke the explosive child sex abuse story and stayed out in front as big media descended on Penn State last November. Today, with Sandusky behind bars and investigations continuing into the university’s culpability, she continues to break major stories from the scandal called the biggest in college sports history. 

Ganim will be among the featured speakers at September’s APME Annual Conference in Nashville. In addition to a panel discussion with other Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, she’ll meet with students at Vanderbilt University. At 24, the recent Penn State grad has spoken to hundreds of young journalists about her work in the past year. 

The Sandusky story turned into a reporting marathon for our small newsroom as the scandal grew to envelop the university and cost the jobs of legendary football coach Joe Paterno and three Penn State administrators. During the course of coverage, more victims came forward, the children’s charity founded by Sandusky closed and Paterno succumbed to cancer. A scathing internal report released in July laid blame on Paterno, among others, for fostering the cover-up to shield the school and its football program from bad publicity. 

Ganim combined classic shoeleather reporting with prodigious new media skills to stay on top of these twists and turns from the start. 

Our newsroom also powered up.

Our most important decision was to clear the decks and let Ganimrun with the story back in March 2011. We shuffled bodies and assignments to fill in for her daily police beat duties — not an easy task with our small staff of reporters covering sprawling central Pennsylvania. But everyone pitched in and continues to do so.

Managing Editor Mike Feeley was assigned to serve as first read on all the Sandusky stories. He became as knowledgable as Ganim on its many intricacies. Senior editors fell into distinct roles that helped us avoid bumping into each other in the heat of constant deadlines. 

We developed a close relationship with our corporate lawyer who helped us vet many of the major Sandusky stories. She worked to get news in the paper and online rather than keep it out. 

This was particularly indispensable due to the volatile nature of the Sandusky stories. While we’ve always tried to avoid using anonymous sources in our reporting, they wereimpossible to avoid this time around. 

As a rule of thumb, we required two and sometime three independent verifications before we would publish major information from unnamed sources. 

We also needed to be extremely cautious when writing about Sandusky’s alleged victims. The boys we knew about came from small towns and it would have been all to easy to accidentally give away their identities with too much descriptive detail. Like most media, we’ve had a long standing policy not to name victims of sexual abuse unless they wanted to be identified. 

Practically everything we wrote was posted to our PennLive website first. At the height of the scandal in November, we were seeing a million page views a day - four times our usual traffic. Those numbers ended any lingering doubts in the newsroom about the incredible reach and power of digital journalism. 

In turn, we tried to resist the rush to publish online without solid confirmation. The noise from the growing media din, coupled with the demands of the 24/7 news cycle, made this hard to resist. But sticking with our traditionalstandards ended up saving us on the weekend Paterno died when several websites reported his death many hours before it actually occured. 

We tried not to get discouraged over missing out on some exclusives. No, we didn’t get Paterno’s last interview or a one-on-one with Sandusky. But The Patriot-News continued to advance the story beyond the day’s breaking events by writing enterprise about who knew what and when, and why the investigation took so long. Ganim became a master at casting her net among her many sources for new information and turning her findings into compelling reads. 

And, in the middle of thiseffort, we all took heart in learning that six of Sandusky’s eight known victims came foward after The Patriot-News broke the story. 

Along the way, Ganim didn't let us forget that the story, at its heart, is not about the worst scandal in college football history or the downfall of coach Joe Paterno. 

"It’s a crime story," she’ll say, "It’s about the victims." 

Cate Barron is editor of The Patriot-News and an APME board member.


Associated Press Media Editors

APME is a professional network, a resource for helping editors and broadcasters improve their news coverage and newsroom operations.

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