Sara Ganim was a cub crime reporter at the Centre Daily Times near Penn State University in 2009 when she got a tip that would change her career.
Ganim is a believer in talking frequently and directly to sources. But she often asks them “what else is going on?” Late one night, a source dropped a bomb: “Jerry Sandusky’s been accused of molesting boys in sleep overs at his house,” Ganim later recalled being told.
Jerry Sandusky was a retired assistant football coach to the legendary Joe Paterno at the time. Ganim didn’t know who he was. So she ran a search on him, finding he’d retired and founded a charity called The Second Mile. But six weeks later, the same source told her the rumor was a lie.
The paper for which Ganim worked had a small staff, she remembered in a talk last week at Penn State, where she’d graduated in 2008 with a degree in journalism. The general feeling was that some day, her bosses would hire someone more experienced to help Ganim and, perhaps, edge her out of a job.
She remembered the Sandusky tip a few months later when, on a quiet weekend shift, she decided to attend a fundraiser for the ex-coach’s charity. Sandusky wasn’t there, but the varying explanations, ranging from health problems to family issues, raised a red flag.
Sandusky in 2011 became infamous when, after a two-year grand jury probe, he was charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. On June 22 he was found guilty on 45 counts and last Tuesday, was sentenced to 30-60 years in prison.
Over 200 journalists and video technicians showed up at the sentencing, but at the time Ganim harbored doubts about Sandusky’s absence at his own fundraisers, she was the only journalist remotely involved in the story — a lonely world she inhabited for 18 months. As she learned that a grand jury had taken up the Sandusky case, she saw the issue as primarily a crime story. The involvement of head coach Paterno and the Penn State football program would not take center stage until later.
In January 2011, Ganim moved to the larger Patriot-News in Harrisburg, the state capital. As part of a larger crew, she was given two weeks to work the story. It would take a little longer, she recalled last week at the Foster-Foreman Conference of Distinguished Writers.
“I was doing good work,” she recalled of her days at the Centre Daily Times. “I was writing stories that mattered to the community.” At 24, Ganim this year became the third-youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for those early days when she had to figure out how to interview grand jury witnesses, including some of the young victims Sandusky met through his charity.
Ganim didn’t give up on the story, and found that one-on-one conversations with her sources were the only route that would yield fruit. Though social media like Twitter are useful for “breaking” information, they would not help in a story such as the Sandusky-Penn State sex abuse case.
“I was never going to get someone to tell me they were abused on Twitter,” she told her audience last Tuesday. “That was never going to happen.”
Despite detractor complaints that she’d ruined Penn State by the damage the scandal caused to the football program and the reputation of the late Coach “Joe Pa,” she noted that Penn State had taught her the tools she would need to dig into the murky rumors, which remained hidden for years before a grand jury was convened.
Last week Ganim had lots of advice for younger aspiring writers, topped with finding a good employer that might trust a young journalist’s off-the-wall tips.
“It really matters who you work for,” Ganim advised, noting that good bosses might carve out extra time for a cub reporter to chase a story that might not go anywhere. Larger, more name-brand establishments would quickly take a good story from a younger writer and hand it off to someone else, she explained.
“People will lie to you,” she also noted, conceding she was shocked to first discover that sources will make things up. “It’s a hazard you should be aware of.”
She also noted that the Patriot-News insisted each new story be different, and adds new details. “The motto in our newsroom is ‘move the story forward’,” she noted.
A mini-controversy developed on blog sites last week over her mention of the fact that lawyers had completely written the original story reporting the grand jury probe of Sandusky. With only transcripts, writers were in varying states of disbelief about such an event. One claimed Ganim said she’d made the “lawyering” remarks tongue-in-cheek.
The actual video doesn’t confirm that, however. Ganim said she outlined the original story, but that attorneys had written it. “The lawyers really wrote that story. There’s none of my writing in that,” she said. But she appreciated the lawyering, noting that the legal attitude was to figure out how to run the story, not how to spike it.
Ganim’s two other tips are predictable — or maybe not. First: find a mentor who does what you do but is a lot more knowledgeable. Second: love what you do. Be prepared to “lie on your time card” to protect your ability to work longer on a project than you would if you were strictly watching the clock.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.