School for ScandalBy any measure, the Penn State University scandal is a tragedy. It allegedly has victimized children, cost the jobs of a university president and legendary football coach, and tarnished the reputation of a great institution. But they all add up to something every journalist covets—the big story.
“It is just so energizing to be working on this type of story because we are doing something important and making a difference,” said John A. Kirkpatrick '73, publisher and president of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's state capital.
The paper's efforts were rewarded in April, when reporter Sara Ganim and the staff won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the scandal. “We never lost sight of what the true story was,” said Kirkpatrick. “Sara and the staff kept focused on what was important.”
Kirkpatrick has been in the eye of a hurricane since March of 2011, when his newspaper broke the story that former Penn State assistant football Coach Jerry Sandusky was being investigated for sexual misconduct with young boys. The Patriot-News has owned the story ever since. In November, a day after a grand jury indicted Sandusky on multiple counts, the newspaper published an unprecedented front-page editorial calling for the ouster of university president Graham Spanier and the resignation of head football coach Joe Paterno. (Paterno died of cancer in January.)
At a time when newspapers are cutting staff and expenses, The Patriot-News “muscled up” for the Penn State story, devoting extra staff, newsprint, travel, and other resources to its reporting. “We went all out,” said Kirkpatrick. “We let the news dictate the story, not our budget or the way the community would respond. We were on a high wire and we didn't want to fall off.”
Readers reacted with anger over the early reporting, but the heinous nature of the alleged crimes eventually trumped the public's criticism of the newspaper. “We expected central Pennsylvania to be outside our building with torches and pitchforks,” Kirkpatrick said, “but just the opposite happened: an overwhelming number of people have thanked us for our work. Talking about a college football coach in a shower with a ten-year-old boy is a different story than a recruiting scandal.”
The coverage continues a record of accomplishment for The Patriot-News under Kirkpatrick's leadership. Competing against larger papers from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Allentown, it was named Pennsylvania Newspaper of the Year in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010, and is among a small number of newspapers in the United States still growing its core audience. The Penn State story has enhanced its reputation and increased its exposure. Kirkpatrick was a biology major at Kenyon and “not a very good one.” He turned to journalism after an unfulfilling stab at engineering. “Kenyon taught me to write and prepared me to learn whatever I needed to learn,” he said. Four years on the swim team “taught me the importance of always striving to reach your potential, both as an individual and organization.”
His most pressing challenge these days is bucking an industry trend toward decline. New technology, slumping ad sales, increasing costs, and drooping circulation have been responsible for the closing or downsizing of many metropolitan dailies. The Patriot-News is eagerly accepting change for its survival. “With our presence in newsprint and on the Web site, mobile phones, and now Kindle and iPad, we are reaching more people than ever,” Kirkpatrick said.