East magazine Winter 2009
Cover Story

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Sandra Mims Rowe leads an editorial meeting of her top staff at the Portland Oregonian.

Pirates & Pulitzers

East Carolina has never offered a major in journalism but a surprising number
of graduates have succeeded in newspapers and television news, including four
who have won journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, 12 times.

Who are these people and why do they keep winning awards?
We asked one of their ink-stained brethren to investigate.

By Roy Martin

RoyMartinAbout the author:
Roy Martin ’61 MA ’67 was the night metro editor and assistant news editor at the Washington Star during the Watergate era, and admits his newspaper got scooped lots of times by two cub reporters named Woodward and Bernstein at the crosstown rival Washington Post.

Roy jumped to television news in 1978 as news director of WSLS-TV Roanoke. After five years at the NBC station, he changed careers again, becoming an English as Second Language teacher in the Roanoke Public Schools. He retired from that post in 2002.

Roy started his career at the Daily Reflector and the old Raleigh Times, then was at the Greensboro Record from 1967–72, where he won a Washington Journalism Center fellowship in 1969; he was nominated for a Pulitzer there in 1971 for environmental reporting.

A native of Greenville, Roy is author of the 1997 mystery novel Whisper My Name.

ood writers have been coming out of East Carolina at least since my time there. As associate editor of the student paper and editor of the Rebel literary magazine, I worked with many fine writers such as Jim Stingley Jr., from Jacksonville, who was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times for many years. But this relatively recent bunch of Pulitzer Prize winners and other top media people is notable for their numbers and accomplishments.
One thing many of these East Carolina-bred journalists have in common is they worked for the college newspaper, the yearbook or the Rebel. Sandra Mims Rowe ’70, who has won five Pulitzers as editor of the Portland Oregonian, and one before that as editor of the Virginian-Pilot, worked two years on the campus paper, which back then was called the Fountainhead. Then she moved to the school yearbook, the Buccaneer, where she was editor her junior and senior years.

Tom Tozer ’76, deputy managing editor of The Charlotte Observer, was a staff writer for the Fountainhead for three years and was managing editor his senior year. Down the hall from his office at the Observer is Mary Schulken ’79, who worked for the student paper and the Greenville Daily Reflector. She became an editor at the Reflector immediately after graduation.

Many of this crowd studied under Ira Baker, who taught English and journalism courses from 1968 to 1980. You usually don’t get far in a conversation with an ECU journalist before his name comes up. He was behind the creation of a minor in journalism here in 1970 and was faculty adviser to the student paper for many years, where he tutored a generation of student journalists. He also edited The Collegiate Journalist, the journal of Alpha Phi Gamma, the national journalism fraternity.

Schulken is one of Baker’s many protégés. “Perhaps the most important thing he did for me was to teach me to work fast, be accurate and meet deadlines.” Tozer learned under Larry O’Keefe, a young assistant professor, who “told me there was a market for a clear writing style like mine.” O’Keefe focused on the basics: “Two key lessons East Carolina burned into my memory that I have lived up to all these years: Get it right, get it done on time and never miss a deadline.”

But some never had a college byline. Rick Atkinson ’74 was an English major who studied literature, which helps explain the two Pulitzers he’s won for writing books. But he’s also worked for The Washington Post for 20 years and has a Pulitzer for his newspaper reporting. Margaret O’Connor ’71 studied art and design at East Carolina and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree. She was a sorority girl who went to all the socials but had enough grit to run the photo department of The New York Times during 9/11. She won two Pulitzers for that work.

Then there’s Dan Neil ’82. To hear him tell it, he didn’t do anything but show up for work one day at the Los Angeles Times to write reviews about new cars and before his seat was warm they handed him the 2004 Pulitzer for criticism. He usually fails to mention that, after earning a master’s from UNC Chapel Hill, he paid his dues working several years at the Raleigh News & Observer and Spectator magazine. Talk about a prolific writer: At one point after leaving the N&O he was writing about cars simultaneously for Autoweek, Car and Driver and Attaché magazines and The New York Times.

Why so many from one university? The answer to that question probably lies in the compelling events of the 1970s and early ’80s, the time when most of these Pirates were in college. Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Benjamin Bradlee and Kathryn Graham of The Washington Post were becoming legends secured by the paper’s painstaking and sometimes frustrating investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal. It was common knowledge then that enrollments in journalism schools across the country reached unprecedented levels due to Watergate. Colleges around the nation had to scramble to accommodate aspiring journalists wanting to be the next Woodward and Bernstein or whoever else was making headlines then by taking down Nixon and his cronies.

But enough reminiscing. Let’s get acquainted with today’s bunch of ECU-trained journalists.

Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times
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No one had ever won a prize for writing about cars until he did. The judges marveled at his “one-of-a-kind reviews…blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations.”

Neil writes reviews of new cars and—get this—yachts. Above, he’s apparently testing the seat cushions on the $30 million creation of Luca Antivari, a Milanese yacht builder, during the boat’s shakedown Mediterranean cruise in June. He wrote about Luca Antivari for a story in Men’s Vogue.

•    Distinguished criticism, 2004
The Pulitzer is a funny thing. It is the only validation of journalistic excellence that the public knows or cares about. You can be a giant in the field, a genius. And if you don’t get a Pulitzer you’re still a wannabe. It’s actually quite unfair to the thousands of people who work their guts out every year to produce exceptional work.”

That didn’t happen to him. “I was a little embarrassed by the Pulitzer. I had been working at The Times for all of four months when they nominated me. So, I started in September 2003 and won the Pulitzer in April of ’04 and I had to walk by those ink-stained wretches with 30 years on the job and nothing to show for it but a dingy coffee cup. I won for car reviewing, for God’s sake. And yes, I did come to the paper with the expressed desire to win a Pulitzer. I just thought it might take a little longer.”

Make no mistake, Neil is an excellent writer because no one had ever won a Pulitzer for writing about cars until he did. The judges marveled at his “one-of-a-kind reviews…blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations.”

Here’s a taste, from his review of the $320,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom: “Not since torch-wielding peasants chased Frankenstein’s monster through the town square has such a noble spirit been so mercilessly taunted. One critic compared the…Phantom to a coffin maker’s ‘Executive Slumber Series;’ another called it the world’s most majestic air conditioner. Allow me to pile on. Man, this thing is ugly.”

Sandra Mims Rowe of the Portland Oregonian
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Since becoming editor of the (Portland) Oregonian in 1994, the paper has won five times and been a finalist four other times. She also won as editor of the Virginian-Pilot, which she led from 1984–1993. She served as a Pulitzer board member for nine years.

•    Editorial writing, 2006
•    Feature writing, 2001 and 2002
•    Gold Medal for public service, 2001
•    Explanatory reporting, 1999
•    New reporting, 1985

Her byline didn’t appear on any of the news stories or editorials that have won six Pulitzers, but the journalists who did write those pieces say she deserves a lot of the credit. Rowe has edited The Oregonian, the most prominent paper in the Pacific Northwest with a Sunday circulation of 450,000, since 1993. Before that she edited the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and Virginia Beach and worked there for 22 years.

She came by her ink stains honestly: Her father was editor of her hometown paper in Harrisonburg, Va. Under her leadership, the Portland newspaper has won five Pulitzers—so far—to go with the one she won back in Virginia. She’s revered in the newsroom and gives her reporters the freedom to chase down a story, no matter where the facts lead.

“I would call it embracing complexity. Most of our stories aren’t just about one thing. When we won for breaking news, [the story was about] this family tragically lost in the snow and mountains and nobody knew where they were. So, you begin thinking a story is about one thing, but you assume there is complexity. You have the story of the drama and the tragedy. The drama may also be about a couple of people who are at the heart of the rescue or how the state botched the search party. In that story, we recognized and embraced the complexity of the situation and the people in it.”

She’s honored by the recognition. “Whenever you win a Pulitzer, no matter how long you live, your obit will say that you became a Pulitzer prize winner. Is it the highest recognition of your peer group. It’s something that will always be attached to your name.”

Rowe is a major figure in the journalism industry and is considered the top woman newspaper editor in the country. She was a board member of the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University from 1994–2003 and was its chairman in 2002–03. She was on the board of the American Society of Newspaper Editors from 1992–99 and was the organization’s president in 1997–98. She’s a past chair of the Knight Foundation Advisory Board. In 2004, she received the George Beveridge Editor of the Year award from the National Press Foundation. “She’s been a mentor for everybody, particularly for women all over the country,” Amanda Bennett, editor and executive vice president at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said when Rowe won the Beveridge. “You’d be hard pressed to find a woman editor who hasn’t had some kind of inspiration or advice or help or something from her.”

Rick Atkinson, author and Washington Post editor
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Atkinson learned he’d won the 2003 history prize for An Army at Dawn, his account of the World War II North African campaign, while pushing toward Baghdad as an embedded reporter with the 101st Airborne Division. He’s won that Pulitzer along with two for newspaper reporting as well as the George Polk Award.

• History, 2003, "An Army at Dawn"
• Public service, 1999
• National reporting, 1982
“Like many people, I blundered into my life’s work. So I’m not sure there were many influences from college in play. I didn’t work for the school newspaper. I studied literature so I came to appreciate fine writing but can’t say I practiced it much at that time.”

But the seed was planted in Greenville and grew while Atkinson was earning a master’s in English lit at the University of Chicago. As a reporter at the Kansas City Times, he won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for pieces about the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, an Air Force officer who was spying for the Soviet Union and a series on the West Point class of 1966, which eventually became his first book, The Long Gray Line.

That same year, Atkinson was among several Kansas City reporters covering the Hyatt Hotel catastrophe in which more than 100 people were killed when an overhead walkway collapsed in the middle of a dance. The Kansas City Times and its sister paper, the Star, were awarded the 1982 Pulitzer for local spot news reporting for revelations about the design and construction of the hotel. Atkinson does not count that prize among his awards. He joined the staff of The Washington Post in 1983 and has been a figure there ever since, with leaves to write books. He won the 1989 George Polk Award for national reporting and the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for public service for a series of investigative articles on unwarranted shootings by the District of Columbia police.

An Army brat who once was The Post’s Berlin bureau chief, Atkinson won the 2003 Pulitzer for history for An Army at Dawn, a narrative history of the American Army in North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe during the Second World War. He learned he had won his third Pulitzer while pushing toward Baghdad as an embedded reporter with the 101st Airborne Division. In 2004, he was Gen. Omar N. Bradley Chair of Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College.

Does a Pulitzer validate your career? “I never think in terms of accolades, partly because I know what a crap-shoot the prize business can be. My ambition these days is to write compelling, insightful history, to marry vivid narrative with rigorous scholarship in pursuit of the story-telling art.”

Margaret O’Connor of The New York Times

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As photo editor of The New York Times, O'Connor won two prizes for photography on 9/11 and its aftermath. The Times has won around 100 prizes for its writing; these were the first won by the paper for staff photography.

• Breaking news photography, 2002
• Feature photography, 2002

O’Conner “didn’t start out with journalism in mind at all.” As a bachelor of fine arts major, she was mostly interested in art and design. The photography classes she took at East Carolina grabbed her interest right away. “Those classes made me fall in love with the process, which at that time meant the darkroom process. I remember I made a lot of ‘photoillustrations’ for my senior show.”

Click here to read an Alumni Profile of O'Connor.

The BFA program was hard work. “A lot was expected and I benefited from that. I feel I came away from school with the confidence I needed to find the best job I could. It wasn’t easy back then. There was a real job shortage and I remember beating the sidewalks and sending out tons of resumes. Somehow I knew I had to aim high and never let myself give up.”

She worked at the San Francisco Examiner as an art director for five years before going to The New York Times in 1984. She’s been there ever since. She was photo editor of the paper during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. She and her staff won two Pulitzers for that work—the 2002 prizes for breaking news photography and feature photography. Those were the first Pulitzers won by The Times for staff photography.

“I had worked at The New York Times for 13 years and was deputy design director when Joe Leluveld, the executive editor at the time, approached me about heading the photo desk. I loved working with pictures, but I was not officially a photo editor. I did, however, have management experience which made him think of me. So, I took over as photo director in early 1998. We had a good staff of photographers and I was allowed to hire more. I spent a lot of time trying to educate the newsroom on how to take advantage of our strengths in visual journalism as well as words.

“We covered [9/11] and its aftermath closely and heavily for months and, unlike in the past, the paper devoted lots of space to allow our pictures to run in the paper. We won lots of other photo contests that year as well, including ‘Best Use of Pictures by a Newspaper’ in the pictures of the year competition. That was something no one ever imagined the ‘Old Gray Lady’ would be able to do.”

This just in…
Television news can be just as exciting as newspaper work. Just ask John Beard ’75, who was the evening news anchor at KNBC Los Angeles in 1987 when an unbalanced viewer stormed onto the live news set with what appeared to be a .45-caliber pistol and forced consumer advocate David Horowitz to read a rambling statement about space creatures and the CIA. As Horowitz finished reading the paper, the man set the gun down on the desk and Beard quickly grabbed it. Luckily, it turned out to be a realistic toy gun. Beard subsequently moved to KTTV-TV, the big Fox affiliate in LA, and anchored the news there through 2007. Now he travels and writes books when he’s not playing the quintessential blow-dried TV news anchor on such shows as Arrested Development and 24.

Maureen Jeralyn O’Boyle ’83, former anchor of tabloid TV news shows A Current Affair and Extra, returned to Charlotte in 2005 as evening news anchor at WBTV. As a deejay at the college radio station, she was discovered by the news director at WITN, the TV station near Washington, NC, and hired to do the crack-of-dawn news. “I had to go to work at 3 a.m., and I lived in a loud dorm,” she said in a story in Business North Carolina magazine. “Some of the girls were just going to bed. It was scary, driving 15 miles along country roads in the middle of the night.” 

Marian Pittman ’87, news director at WSB-TV Atlanta, gives her take on why TV news is appealing: “My newsroom is a melting pot. I hire on character as much as experience. My staff must be team players to produce almost 40 hours of television a week.” She’s won several regional Emmys and other awards from the Associated Press. But TV people use a different yardstick. “I don’t take much stock in awards. I follow ratings and try to win viewers.”

Other notable Pirates in the news:

Caulton Tudor
Sports writer, columnist
Raleigh News & Observer

Carl Davis ’73
Assistant general manager,
UNC public TV network

James Dodson ’75
Golf magazine columnist,
author of seven best-sellers on golf

Sue Price Wilson ’75
Carolinas bureau chief,
The Associated Press

Thomas G. Tozer ’76
Deputy managing editor,
The Charlotte Observer

Mary Schulken ’79
Associate editor,
The Charlotte Observer

Charles Chandler ’82
Sports writer
The Charlotte Observer

Jimmy Dupree ’82
Sports editor
Durham Herald-Sun

Mark Kemp ’83
Grammy-nominated music journalist,
former music editor, Rolling Stone,
and VP, MTV Networks

Brian ’83 and Bradley ’85 Beasley
Beasley Broadcast Group,
owner of 44 radio stations