Road to the Pulitzer
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
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
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
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
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
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.
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.