In the summer of 1966, when he took his first reporting job on the Metro desk at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Roy Harris, Jr. was still a teenager. The city editor at the time, Selwyn Pepper, was not much older when he worked on a series on voter fraud that won the paper the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism. So it seemed fitting early this year that one of the first-off-the-press copies of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public-Service Journalism,” Harris’s exhaustive history of print journalism’s most coveted award—the prize for Public Service Journalism—would go to Pepper on his 93rd birthday in Overland Park, Kansas.
Even on major stories like the discovery of 40,000 “ghost residents” on the St. Louis voter registration rolls, most newspapers in those days did not carry bylines. In a book that is crammed with the kind of details that are like heroin for hard-core news addicts, Harris mentions this fact almost casually. Stop for a moment and consider the kind of egoless camaraderie that had to have existed among the team of reporters, editors, photographers and the paper’s editorial cartoonist that uncovered a scandal that brought down the city’s election board. Contrast that collaboration with today’s star-studded newsrooms. My, how times have changed.
Not incidentally, Harris’s father was one of the unnamed reporters who broke the voter fraud story. Roy J. Harris, Sr. also took part in the reporting that brought this Pulitzer to the Post-Dispatch in 1940 for a successful campaign against the industrial smoke that had made St. Louis one of this country’s filthiest cities. In 1948, the senior Roy Harris—along, once again, with Selwyn Pepper—helped the Post-Dispatch earn another of these Pulitzers for its coverage of a mine explosion in a remote town in southern Illinois. The eternal journalistic virtue of persistence is what paid off for the Post-Dispatch reporters who stayed around the site of the Centralia coal mine catastrophe after all the other newspapers packed up. By lingering, the St. Louis reporters came across letters the dying miners had left for their loved ones.
Dear Wife and Sons,
Well, hon, it looks like the end. Please tell mom and dad I still love them. Please get the baby baptized and send [the name was withheld] to the Catholic school….
Love to all of you.
In a way, it would not be inaccurate to characterize “Pulitzer’s Gold” as a sort of love letter in its own right. The book, reflecting five years of research and writing, evolved from a presentation Harris made for the Post-Dispatch in 2002 on the occasion of what would have been Roy J. Harris, Sr.’s 100th birthday. Roy Harris, Sr. also helped the Post-Dispatch share the Public Service Pulitzer with the Chicago Daily News in 1950, in an exposé of 37 Illinois newsmen who held “gravy train” jobs on the Illinois state payroll.
“It was a tribute to my dad, and to the paper where I got my start, and grew up reading,” Harris recalled. “I worked there for five summers. I had my first front-page byline there—all of these things that mean so much to us as journalists.”
Harris loved his father, who—in the fashion of a generation that seldom talked about its war experiences, either—did not make a practice of coming home and regaling his family with his latest acts of professional heroism. He respected the senior Harris enough to follow him into the news business. The younger Harris went on to work at the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and, most recently, CFO magazine, in Boston. (Selwyn Pepper’s daughter Miriam Pepper also became a journalist and is the editorial page editor of The Kansas City Star.)
With a heavy note of nostalgia, Harris adds, “I did love the paper.”
Small, Approachable Stories
"Journalists and Neighbors: Mehren and Harris"
— Elizabeth MehrenIn a conversation I had with Harris about his book, he bristled slightly when I said I thought “Pulitzer’s Gold” might be described as encyclopedic. Far from a doorstop, one of those books that people buy—or authors hope they buy—to gather dust and look lofty on a coffee table, Harris prefers to think of his work as a collection of small, approachable stories that remind journalists why they are in their business and inform the rest of the world how the mission of the press fits into society. Really, Harris protested, the text is only 488 pages. It’s all that tiny-type appendix that makes it feel like a bicep-builder.
In fact there is something to his remonstrations. “Pulitzer’s Gold” is a newshound’s “story behind the story.” It’s all about the people who made great news and who made the news business great. It is loaded with the Aha! moments that make us, as journalists, glad we passed up the big-bucks MBA track to try to save the world instead.
There is the tale of a then-Philadelphia Inquirer reporter named Gilbert Gaul—cool byline, by the way. Gaul made a habit of donating blood whenever the Red Cross came around. One day, with his arm outstretched and a technician taking his blood, Gaul got to wondering: What happens to all the blood that is donated? Where does it go? Who processes it and how? What kind of dollar value might be placed on all that blood?
Thinking he might have a “fun little business story” on his hands, Gaul called the head of the local Red Cross. “Why are you asking these questions?” the director snapped. “We don’t have to tell you that.”
Never say “No” to an investigative reporter. That’s all it took for Gaul to start reporting the series that won the Inquirer the public service Pulitzer in 1990 for disclosing how the American blood industry operates with little government regulation or supervision.
With the news industry changing so rapidly, Harris predicts developments in the Pulitzers, too. Before long, he believes that blogs will be included in the public service category, or perhaps as an entry zone of their own.
For unrepentant journalism junkies, “Pulitzer’s Gold” is fun to read, too. It’s history in digestible snippets. Each entry comes with its own headline, proving that Harris just can’t help himself: The man who got his draft notice while working on the Los Angeles Times metro staff in 1968 has newsprint in his DNA. But one mission of any work of history is to record the past and, sometimes, the passing of great movements and institutions. If all the major newspapers fold up and die, disappearing like the dinosaurs that naysayers already think print journalists have become, this book will remind journalists of purpose-driven professionals whose goal was to right wrongs and, above all, to find and tell the truth.
“I am not sure whether this book is a eulogy or a call for action,” Harris admitted. “But I hope it is the latter.”
Elizabeth Mehren, a professor of journalism at Boston University, was until 2007 a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.