By Larry Atkins
It’s been almost a decade since Don Barlett and Jim Steele, Philly’s version of Woodward and Bernstein, left the Philadelphia Inquirer, but the legendary investigative team is still alive, kicking, and muckraking.
The Washington Journalism Review called Barlett and Steele “almost certainly the best team in the history of investigative reporting”. They have won 50 National Awards for their reporting, including two Pulitzer Prizes for the Inquirer for National Reporting in 1975 and 1989. Barlett and Steele worked together at the Inquirer as a team from 1971 to 1997. They were key players in the Inquirer’s glory days under executive editor Gene Roberts, when the paper won 17 Pulitzer Prizes in an 18 year span. Their 1992 Inquirer series “America: What Went Wrong?” was rewritten as a book and became a Number 1 New York Times bestseller and was mentioned by President Clinton in his 2000 State of the Union Address. From 1997 to 2006, they wrote for Time Magazine and won two National Magazine Awards for Public Interest Reporting. Since 2006, they have been contributing editors for Vanity Fair.
Both men still live in Philadelphia and they look back fondly on their Inquirer days. “The Inquirer gave us a lot of freedom to pursue all kinds of topics,” says Jim Steele. “There was a great camaraderie and quality people. From the 1970s to mid 1990s, the Inquirer was a magnet for outstanding reporters from all over the country. It was the place to try to come to. When we left, it wasn’t because of disenchantment with the Inquirer, we just saw another opportunity to write for a larger universe at Time. We also weren’t sure about the Inquirer’s future at the time. From the mid 1990s to early 2000s, the Inquirer was an unhappy place to be, so I think we were right to leave in retrospect.”
Don Barlett agrees. “The Inquirer of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was a unique situation. It was, quite frankly, ‘the place’ to work as a reporter or editor. There was an unmatched level of energy and enthusiasm and a shared commitment to produce not just the best newspaper possible, but one that stood apart from all others. As for why we left, TIME made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. If TIME hadn’t come along, we’d probably still be there.”
Like everyone else in Journalism, they ponder the future of newspapers, particularly local papers like the Inquirer. Steele says, “The Inquirer will survive, whether it’s a physical or online product. There’s a lot more energy there with the addition of Bill Marimow as Editor. It’s still the dominant news gathering organization, even in its reduced state. It still can cover news and do research in ways that other mediums can’t.”
Barlett believes that the survival of the Inquirer depends on whether it can get rid of its huge debt. “Some major papers are in no danger because they have no debt. During the last decade, the new newspaper owners paid too much for those papers. If the Inquirer can restructure in bankruptcy and get rid of its debt, it will be fine. The survival of newspapers in general isn’t a simple black and white issue. While people in their early 20s don’t read newspapers, that was always the case; then when they got married and had families, they became newspaper readers. It’s hard to say whether that pattern is still applicable. There is still a demand for newspapers; the newsstands near where I live still sell a ton of Inquirers and Daily News. Newspapers are still a profitable industry, but again it comes down to debt.”
Ever since leaving the Inquirer, Barlett and Steele have continued their muckraking ways for magazines. In 2005, they wrote “The Great Retirement Ripoff: The Broken Promise” for TIME, which described how American corporations were walking away from their promises of providing retirement benefits and health care to their employees. In 2008, their Vanity Fair article tackled Monsanto’s attack on small farmers and its history of toxic contamination.
As to why they tend to focus on populist issues affecting the middle class, Barlett says, “One of the questions we try to answer when researching a subject–whether it be bankruptcy, health care, illegal immigration or taxes–is this: Are people treated equally? Is there one rule for everyone, or do government and the big and powerful institutions of society favor one group of individuals over another, one business over another. The function of government in a democratic society should be to level the playing field rather than tilt it so that it favors a few over the many. Yet that’s exactly what happens–over and over.”
Writing two detailed articles a year for Vanity Fair gives them a great deal of freedom to delve deeply into complex topics. Barlett says, “Vanity Fair gives us a lot of space and freedom. There was an adjustment in going from a weekly magazine like Time to a monthly like Vanity Fair. We had to be more careful in story selection and had to reorient to a different schedule. We just signed a new three year deal with them. What’s not to like?”
As for the challenges of investigative reporting, Steele says, “You need to stay focused and not be overwhelmed, especially on a large project. When you start researching certain areas that seem promising, you’re not sure of if it will work out. You need to be patient or you’ll get agitated. Many talented writers have tried to do investigative reporting but couldn’t due to the emotional factors and getting frustrated.”
Despite the troubles of the newspaper industry, Steele is still optimistic about the future of investigative journalism. “It will exist, but I’m not sure in which forms. One emerging trend is nonprofit funding of investigative journalism such as the Center for Public Integrity and Pro Publica. I also think that newspapers will continue to do investigative journalism. Despite the Inquirer’s loss of circulation and reduced staff, I think the Inquirer does more investigative journalism today than they did in the 1960s. They’ve done some first rate projects recently, including a piece on the EPA that was a Pulitzer finalist. In light of the loss of newspaper jobs, I was surprised at the large turnout at this year’s IRE conference in Baltimore, so there is still a great deal of interest in this type of writing.”
Barlett says, “The question isn’t whether investigative reporting will continue to exist, it’s a matter of how it’s distributed and how the average person will see it. Will it be through Kindle? I don’t know. At the turn of the 1900s, it was magazines, not newspapers, that did this type of muckracking investigative journalism. I don’t know what’s next.”
They have written seven books. Their 2004 book “CRITICAL CONDITION: How Health Care in America Became Big Business-and Bad Medicine” described the flawed health care system and urged reform.
So how have they managed to stay together for so many years? “We’ve worked as a team since the early 1970s,” Steele says. “It wasn’t originally by design. At first, it was project to project. After our first article, we looked at each other and said, ‘That kind of worked, didn’t it?’ Writing as a team is different than writing individually. Other newspapers have tried to put writing teams together, but usually the chemistry isn’t right. We have similar work habits and like to emphasize the same type of detailed, intensive research. We both write, report, and research and try to divide the workload down the middle. When you work as a team, the possibilities are limitless. You can take on huge projects, do in-depth reporting, and detailed analysis. It helps to be able to have another reporter read what you’ve written. An editor can’t give the best feedback since they haven’t done the research. Working as a team has enabled us to make strong statements and make things powerful. You have to know what’s involved and be able to form interpretive comments.”
Barlett indicates that their similar styles and work habits have made their work almost interchangeable. “Our biography of Howard Hughes offers the best illustration. Jim wrote one-half of the book; I wrote the other half. Jim wrote one chapter in my half; I wrote one chapter in his half. One of the best compliments we ever received came from an actor who recorded the book for the blind. He said it was impossible to detect the work of two writers. In other words, it was seamless. All our books have been produced the same way. Likewise, newspaper and magazine articles. We both research, interview and write. Then we edit and rewrite.”
Barlett says that this formula continues to work. “We just keep rolling day to day. When we started, it was just one story. Then we moved from one story to the next. Then it took on a life of its own. The editors’ philosophy was ‘if it’s working, don’t mess with it.’ That’s still the case today.”
Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University
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The Writer Magazine
By Larry Atkins
How I Write
Mark Bowden has achieved literary and journalistic success in a variety of media outlets, including newspapers, magazines, books, and film. Bowden has been an award-winning staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1979. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and has also written for Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone. His book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War was published in 1999 and became an international best seller that spent more than a year on the New York Times Bestseller list. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award and was turned into a film by Director Ridley Scott. Bowden also wrote the international best seller Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, which won the Overseas Press Club’s Cornelius Ryan award as the best book of 2001. He currently lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania with his wife Gail and teaches creative writing and journalism as an Adjunct Professor at his alma mater, Loyola College of Maryland. Bowden has five children–Aaron, Anya, William, Daniel, and Benjamin, a daughter-in-law, Beth, and a granddaughter, Clara. Bowden’s son Aaron is also a writer and together they teamed to write a television documentary in 2006 for Discovery Times Channel that was based on Mark Bowden’s book Guests of the Ayatollah.
I really don’t know the answer, other than it is something I feel compelled to do. I see it as an effort to think clearly as well as to understand my own experience and the world. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Most of my ideas come from my own experience. I also get ideas from my reading–I read a lot. I am writing a novel right now about an incident in 18th Century Pennsylvania that I learned about in a biography of Ben Franklin. Many times, my story ideas grew out of work that I did while writing other stories and articles. My book Killing Pablo, for instance, grew out of my reporting for Black Hawk Down, and tells the story of another mission by the unit at the center of the Mogadishu story. As I became better known as a writer, many people would come up to me and suggest article and story ideas. Finally, my editors at various magazines and the publishing house have given me some fantastic ideas.
When and where:
I write in my office at home in Oxford, Pennsylvania. I own a horse farm with my wife and my office is adjacent to the house. I almost always write during the morning. Every day I do a little bit on one thing or another.
I have too many influences to be enumerated completely. Some of my influences would include George Orwell, whom I studied in college, John Hersey, the author of Hiroshima, Truman Capote, Ryszard Kapuscinski, the war correspondent and author, and Tom Wolfe, whom I never tried to imitate, but whose writing influenced me greatly. I never tried to imitate the style of these writers, but reading their work gave insight on their way of looking at the world and their way of thinking about writing and conceptualizing stories. So far the major thrust of my work has been to write creative nonfiction, to employ fictional techniques – plot, character development, dialogue, etc. – in telling true stories, and these writers gave me excellent examples of how this is done.
Writing is revision. I don’t think that anyone who sits down and writes puts down clean, perfect prose in the first draft; if they say they do, they’re lying. Writing is the effort to sustain a coherent train of thought. It is hard. I generally work on any piece until I just can’t write anymore. Even when it gets published, I still read it and want to make even more revisions. It’s painful.
Writing for different genres:
Even when I write for newspapers and magazines, the process of writing varies from one piece of journalism to the other. The variation is even greater when I’m working on a screenplay or a work of fiction. I have to reinvent the process every time out, but my experience helps me.
The main piece of advice that I give to my college students and other aspiring writers is to learn how to read like a writer. Most readers read for enjoyment or education. A writer ought to read with more in mind. If you admire a certain piece of writing, you should study it and reread it often. I frequently copy passages of writers I admire by writing it out longhand to study word choice, rhythm and sentence structure. I would also advise writers to always be working on the most ambitious thing they’ve ever done. If you do that your skills will consistently improve
Interview by Larry Atkins, who teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University
U.S. Catholic Magazine
In Person Profile of Tommy Geromichalos
By Larry Atkins
The graduation ceremony for Tommy Geromichalos and his fellow members of the St. Cyril’s Elementary School’s Class of 2008 seemed typical enough. There were 47 students dressed in maroon and gold graduation robes lining up to receive their diplomas. After the graduation ceremony, scores of maroon and gold balloons were released into the air and a Mummers String Band serenaded the students.
However, this graduation wasn’t supposed to occur.
Two years ago, things looked bleak for St. Cyril’s, located in East Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Archdiocese announced that it would close the school because it didn’t have enough money to operate.
There was no way that Tommy Geromichalos was going to let that happen.
Tommy, or Tommy G. as he’s nicknamed, was a sixth grader at St. Cyril’s. He has Cystic Fibrosis, a serious hereditary disease that affects the lungs, sweat glands, and digestive system and affects approximately 300,000 people in the United States, according to cysticfibrosis.com
. The median age of survival for CF patients is 37 years, and people with CF who live longer often need lung transplants.
Having Cystic Fibrosis made Tommy eligible for Make-A-Wish. Most kids use their wish for something like a trip to Disney World or the Super Bowl, but Tommy had other plans.
“I love my school,” says Tommy, now age 15, who lives in suburban Philadelphia in Media, PA with his mother Connie, father Dan, and sister Samantha, who also has Cystic Fibrosis. “I’ve been going there a long, long time. Most of my family went there. Also, my aunt had gone to school there and had just passed away from cancer, lymphoma, so I really wanted to graduate from there.”
On November 18, 2005, Tommy sent a letter to Make-A-Wish asking that his school be kept open for two more years until he graduated eighth grade. Tommy said that he had waited his entire life to be on the third floor with the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, and that he looked forward to 8th grade trips to Washington D.C. and Dorney Park.
In his emotional “special EMERGENCY WISH”, Tommy said, “…The Archdiocese plans to close my school. I know they don’t want to but, they think it would be best for them but, they just don’t understand that my school is my second home and all the people there are my family.” In his letter, Tommy also detailed his struggles with Cystic Fibrosis. “I don’t make CF a big part of my life because I just want to be a normal kid but sometimes it’s just too hard. I’ve been in the hospital for CF with IV’s in my arm and I’ve had surgeries on my stomach and my polyps.”
Unfortunately, Make-A-Wish couldn’t afford the $400,000 needed to keep the school open, but that didn’t stop Tommy.
Local newspapers printed his letter to Make-A-Wish and that led to many fund raisers for the school. Columnists from the Delaware County Times and Philadelphia Daily News continued to follow Tommy’s story, which led to even more publicity. Eventually, enough money was raised to keep St. Cyril’s open for another two years.
Fund Raising with a Mission
The fund raising efforts didn’t stop. Modells sporting goods store auctioned off a chance to throw out the ceremonial opening pitch and then sit in front row seats with Tommy at the Phillies home opener in 2007. Tommy also got to meet Phillies stars Chase Utley and Shane Victorino through the Boomer Esiason Foundation. In March, 2007, Tommy received an award from the Boomer Esiason Foundation at a banquet at the Waldorf in New York.
As of July 2008, St. Cyril’s has raised over $460,000 and they expect to reach $500,000 by January 2009. Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), which has raised scholarship money for Catholic students for many years, announced earlier this year that it would help St. Cyril’s develop a 10 year business plan as part of a pilot program to help struggling parish schools nationwide. St. Cyril’s will continue to operate this year with over 200 total students and the school’s future looks bright.
If you go to the school’s website, SaintCyril.org, you’ll hear the Rocky theme play in the background. “We want to keep this going continuously, beyond Tommy’s wish,” said Connie Geromichalos, Tommy’s mom.
“It feels really good that we raised all that money to keep the school open,” Tommy says. “I didn’t really expect it.”
How Faith Helped Tommy
Tommy’s religion is important in his life. He was an altar boy for three years at St. Cyril’s Church, played in CYO leagues, and has turned to his faith during tough times.
“Faith and religion are important to me because they always help me through hard times like when I’m sick and when no one else can help me it’s all I got.”
In his letter to Make a Wish, Tommy detailed how his struggles with Cystic Fibrosis caused him to question his faith at one point. “One time when I went in the Hospital I even cried because I was afraid that God didn’t love me because I asked my mom ‘How can God love me if he makes me suffer?’ My mom cried and told me God loves all of us and some things happen for reasons we don’t know about. Father Kearns came to visit me at St. Chris and he talked to me and I got my faith back again.”
Tommy is proud of his faith and it was important to him to attend Catholic Schools.
“The best thing about going to Catholic School is I never have to hide my beliefs and I can say God and pray to God and wear a cross without breaking the law because I let the “G” slip out. I’m proud of my religion and I’m proud to defend my faith.”
Tommy believes that his faith in God helped him in his efforts to keep his school open. “I feel God’s presence in everything I do. It taught me to never stop believing in God and in myself.”
Naturally, his parents are proud of Tommy and how he dealt with his own illness, his sister’s illness, and his efforts to save his school. “Tommy and his sister Samantha both had their ups and downs during the save the school efforts,” says Connie Geromichalos. “Samantha had been in the hospital many times. Tommy always found the time to visit his sister, pray with her, call and text her all while making every effort to make his wish come true. That’s just Tommy. He is a brave kid who in the last two years had taken on an enormous task and has achieved great things simply because he believes in God and himself. We are very proud of him and all of his efforts.”
Due to the efforts of Tommy and many others, Tommy’s dream came true on June 9, 2008 when he walked down the aisle with his fellow St. Cyril graduates. Local television stations came to cover the event. In a post-graduation ceremony honoring Tommy’s efforts, the St. Cyril Development Committee gave Tommy a $2,500 check for his education at Monsignor Bonner High School.
“When I got my diploma I was excited because I finally got my wish and I got to share it with everyone who helped me and my friends,” Tommy said.
“Me and my husband were really proud to see that all of Tommy’s hard work had paid off and come to an end,” said Connie Geromichalos. “We were also sad to see the end of that chapter of his life. It was very emotional.”
Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University
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Favorite Sports: Baseball and rowing
Major Influences: My mom and dad are my influences because they brought me into this world and gave me a great life.
Hobbies: Going to Cape May, New Jersey, fishing, and traveling anywhere by train.
Favorite School Subjects: Science and Gym
Favorite books and other things to read: Flags of our Fathers is my favorite book. I like to read the TV Guide and Ads in the local Sunday paper.
Favorite music: I like all kinds of music but rock and country are my favorite.
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