Tuesday, April 11, 2017


My favorite Pulitzer Prize winner this year had to be the tiny Storm Lake Times of Storm Lake, Iowa, a 3,000-circulation paper that took home the editorial writing prize on Monday for some real  shoe-leather work.

Editor and publisher Art Cullen raised the issue of how local government entities planned to defend themselves against lawsuits related to agricultural and irrigation toxins in local water. When they would not reveal their funding, the paper kept digging and uncovered the fact that the defense cash came from companies known for their own questionable practices such as Koch Industries and Monsanto, according to The Washington Post.

The Pulitzer Board described the work as "editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa."

For years I was lucky enough to cover the Pulitzer Prizes annually for Editor & Publisher. When the biggest awards in journalism were announced inside the third-floor World Room at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, I was as excited as any of the hopeful candidates.

At E&P, we also had a string of finding out the finalists names in advance for several years, a scoop that upset the decision-makers at Columbia, but one that still gets some people reaching out to me for such information. Alas, the well of leaks dried up years ago.

More important, however, was the idea that the Pulitzer could be won by any newspaper, of any size or readership. To this day, The New York Times - which garnered three more prizes on Monday - can be challenged by the likes of a Point Reyes Light or Grand Forks Herald in the competition that gives no weight or sympathy to staff size or revenue.

You win because you speak truth to power, dig up the real story, or challenge the status quo. 

In my 11 years at E&P, I was lucky to write about many notable Pulitzer winners -- ranging from The Village Voice's Mark Schoofs, who won that weekly's first Pulitzer in 2000 for a lengthy series on AIDS in Africa (for which he caught malaria during his time overseas) to The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, MA., honored in 2003 when it went all out on the story of four local boys who drowned in a river boating tragedy.

One of my favorites, however, was The Boston Globe's Spotlight team revelations about the Catholic Church. Although far from a small newspaper, The Globe had additional challenges as it took on one of the city's sacred institutions - a battle many saw in the 2016 Oscar-winning film Spotlight

What the film failed to mention, however, was that the coverage won the 2003 Public Service Pulitzer, considered to be the most prestigious, and the only one without a cash prize.

So as this year's winners properly enjoy their accolades, knowing they are well-earned in this time of newsroom cutbacks and instant deadlines over dogged reporting and fact-finding, readers should also rejoice that such true newspapering is still going on.

And as the editor of the Storm Lake Times put it, still scaring "the bejeebers" out of those in power.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


Very sadden to hear today of the death of Jimmy Breslin, the legendary former columnist for the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Herald-Tribune and others.

For those of us from several generations, Breslin was New York. The epitome of the loud-talking, tough-writing, cigar-smoking newsroom scribe who would dig out the news, and his views, with little concern for backlash.

He took on the streets with real stories about real people, and the politicians with gritty truth -- even running for city council president himself once. His typewriter -- yeah, remember typewriters? -- plucked words that attacked many previous ivory towers, from City Hall to the Vatican.

His books ranged from novels of quirky characters to non-fiction looks at issues ranging from the early New York Mets to the Nixon impeachment.

When he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, I was a sophomore at Brooklyn College studying journalism and news and read his daily missives with joy and hope that a journalist's words could make a difference. 

I am sure I was not alone in seeing the way Breslin, and many in those past tabloid and daily newspaper days of New York and elsewhere, could speak truth to power and demand answers.

And he was in the news himself at some moments. Along with his city council run, Breslin drew international attention in the summer of 1977 when the so-called Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz sent a letter to Breslin revealing his psychotic thoughts and plans during a murder spree that ended with six dead and seven wounded. 

When the Pulitzer committee gave Breslin his prize, they wrote that it was for "columns that consistently champion ordinary citizens." That was him to a tee.

When I got my first job at a small newspaper in New Jersey two years later, I always remembered Breslin's approach in that way. That it is how ordinary people were affected by government, crime, taxes, schools, and daily events that was important in journalism. Any news person worth their salt knows that is the focus, or should be, of most any news story.

During my career, I have been lucky to interview Breslin on several occasions. First during my time at Editor & Publisher, and more recently at Media Matters for America. The last time was just four years ago when I wrote about the 37 journalists on the NRA's "enemies list," Breslin among them. 

His reaction: "Put me first on the list."

One of my favorite stories was Breslin's piece in 1963 on the man who would dig JFK's grave. Dispatched to Washington by the Herald Tribune to find an angle on the funeral of the 35th president, Breslin has written that the gravedigger was the most likely unknown part of the story, and among the most important simply for his job.

Breslin wrote, in part:

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. "Polly, could you please be here by eleven o'clock this morning?" Kawalchik asked. "I guess you know what it's for." Pollard did.

He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

See the entire column HERE.

He revealed years later that when Pope John Paul I died in 1978, he went to Rome looking again for the under-written story. He came up with the idea of writing about the embalming of the pope, which his piece viewed as poorly done in Italy at the time. He said his then editors at the Daily News declined the idea.

And now it is we who write about this death, and his life. And at a time when national politics and local government need fiery news voices more than ever, let's hope that those in our profession seek to continue Breslin's work even as they face stiffer competition, budget cutbacks and a White House more anti-press than ever.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Jill Abramson never wants to run a newsroom again.

And with a new five-year agreement to continue teaching journalism at Harvard University, the former executive editor of The New York Times won’t have to for a while. 

“I never want to run anything again in any sphere, whether it’s media or any place else. I don’t want to manage people ever again,” Abramson, 62, said in a recent interview. “Because, A, I don’t think it plays to my strengths, what I love most is writing and reading and interviewing people. That is why I got into journalism in the first place.

“The other side of it, the running people and being a manager, I’ve done it in three different venues ... I’m done with it,” she added.

It’s been two years since Abramson left the Times after a rocky tenure that lasted less than three years and included some internal battles over news approaches and reportedly her complaints that her pension and pay were less than her male predecessors.

Her firing also raised concerns that she was being unfairly criticized as “pushy” and “brusque” because she is a woman and that no male editor would be so vilified.

Despite that she said she still “roots for the Times” every day in its news mission, although she admits still having some mixed memories.

“It’s like the rest of life, the honest answer to the question, do I have bad memories? Sure,” Abramson said. “That tends to be true for much of life, the bad memories are completely outweighed by the good … working with reporters on fantastic enterprise and investigative stories that did help change the world or change important institutions in key ways.

“The fun of helping oversee journalism projects and to be in the hunt with reporters is what I loved about being editor,” she said.

And she is not completely out of the news game, writing a regular column on the political world for The Guardian, and writing a book on the transition of news to digital.

“The freedom of being able to sort of control my own workload and not be running from meeting to meeting, which was basically my life certainly as executive editor,” Abramson recalls. “I was scheduled in half-hour segments, it’s much better for me to be the master of my own time and to be free to really dig in to subjects.”

And another new venture is being a grandmother for the first time to 11-month-old Eloise, her daughter’s first-born. Abramson said she lives with her daughter and son-in-law, both surgeons, and takes the youngster to and from day care each day.

“From what I can tell from many of my contemporaries who have senior editing jobs at important publications, so much of the work is related to the business model and coming up with new ideas for ‘innovation’ that isn’t my cup of tea,” she added. “I find the innovations themselves interesting to watch and observe, but working on business models myself is not playing to my strengths.”

She calls the Times an “irreplaceable institution and it still has, thank God, the resources to provide a banquet of fabulous news stories every day.”

And Abramson still has high praise for much of the news world.

“The best work I’ve ever seen is being done now, whether it's at Bill Keller’s Marshall Project or the Times, or The Washington Post is so great these days. The New Yorker, The Atlantic. At the top end, the work has never been better,” she adds. “I’m troubled by a number of developments in the news business generally. I think that the focus, that the line between advertising and content has gotten a little blurrier than I’m comfortable with. The need for massive audiences to attract advertising.”

Asked about the rise of conservative media, she said much of it is still within a small audience, but says the “echo chamber” can promote it further, which is a concern.

“There is an echo chamber where stories that start, let’s say on Breitbart, ricochet through that pipeline of different like-minded news organizations,” she said. “It ricochets in a more disciplined and powerful way on the right than on the left.”

Still, her main focus is teaching her students, who comprise two classes this semester in introduction to journalism and political journalism.

“I love it, the students are so interesting and full of enthusiasm and that’s why,” she said. “Harvard is a great institution. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, I love the place.”

Friday, August 26, 2016


I was sad to hear of the death of Warren Hinckle, the outspoken, hard-writing, hard-drinking San Francisco journalism legend.

He was both a testament to muckraking journalism and a character of excess and outlandish behavior. Some praised his willingness to take on tough issues like Vietnam, the Catholic church and San Francisco politicians, while others decried his scattered writing, drinking and ruffled image.

I was glad to see that today's S.F. Chronicle gave him a prominent spot above the fold on Page One.

I got to know him in the 1990s during my four years at the S.F. Independent, a now-defunct citywide free paper that covered both city issues and local neighborhoods. Hinckle, with his ever-present eye-patch (the result of a childhood accident), had burned bridges at the S.F. Chronicle and S.F. Examiner and was now writing for our gritty small paper.

While I covered City Hall, I got to see him tweak local politicians and push his favorite issues. After helping to get Mayor Frank Jordan elected in 1991, he turned the tables on him, making the first outward request that former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown run against Jordan.

Brown won in 1995 and again in 1999.

In between, we shared drinks at S.F. watering holes on a few occasions, and once in New York when I met up with him years later. At both the screwdrivers flowed.

Then there was Bentley, his companion basset hound that followed him to meetings, bars, City Hall hearings and more. With Bentley near death and needing to be "put down," Hinckle organized a "last supper" at Stars restaurant, among the top eateries in the city at the time. The menu: sparkling water and a premium hamburger.

I never had to edit Hinckle, which I learned quickly from others could be a nightmare for those who suffered his late deadlines, outlandish prose and bad spelling. But I did learn from him the need for newsmen to demand answers, anger the powers that be and challenge authority.

Bill Fazio
Once when I was under attack by a candidate for San Francisco District Attorney for writing a series of stories that exposed his corruption and questionable approach, Hinckle advised me to take it as an honor. When the candidate, Bill Fazio, lost, his brother, Joe Fazio, called and left a threatening message on my phone.

Joe Fazio also happened to be an investigator in the D.A.'s office, a job he soon lost for such criminal behavior.

One of my favorite possessions from those years is a copy of Hinckle's book, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade. He signed it to me after an SF Weekly article on the Independent that wrongly re-hashed the Fazio incident referred to both of us as the paper's "political hitmen.
I lived in San Francisco from 1990 to 1997, a final era of much of the city's great news times. Along with Hinckle there was the Chronicle's legend Herb Caen, the famed three-dot columnist who personally led efforts on many issues; Examiner editor Phil Bronstein, who was a great mix of flamboyant character and smart newsman; and The Bay Guardian's Bruce Brugmann, who used to say the job of a newspaper is to "report the news and raise hell!" 

The city had a handful of great news sources that could compete and dig into all areas of politics, issues, culture, bohemia, and style. Much of that is gone with the Chronicle cut down in size and staff and most of the others either gone or reduced.

Journalism will likely not see the likes of Hinckle again for a while if at all. But I am glad that I at least got to see him in action. And never had to pick up the bar tab.

Monday, April 11, 2016


My favorite story of the week could be that of young Hilde Lysiak, the junior publisher of a hometown website in Selinsgrove, Pa.

The website, Orange Street News, and related print version, is the 9-year-old's own local news outlet.

She first got attention last fall when Columbia Journalism Review gave her some ink, saying she "provides a public service in a town without a dedicated local news outlet." 

Her stories have ranged from a missing cat to local vandalism.

You might have seen some more recent notice after she covered a local murder earlier this month.

When some criticized Hilde, and her mother for allowing her to work the crime beat rather than "play with dolls," she shot back:

Good for you Hilde, keep up the good work!