Maddy Ross' President’s Award speech (complete text)

Issue Date: 
May 29, 2007


Remarks by Madelyn “Maddy” Ross in Accepting the President’s Award from The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania—May 14, 2007

Thank you, Jim, and thanks to The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, for an award that has very special meaning to me because it comes from my peers across the communications spectrum, it comes at the Golden Quills—an event that has been near and dear to my heart for many years—and, best of all, it comes with 10-year-old photographs.

Over the years, I’ve heard so many worthier recipients of this award worry that getting lifetime-achievement recognition means their lifetimes must be over.

So to dispel that notion, I brought along my amazing mother, who has suffered through my entire career, to prove that life isn’t anywhere near over when you’re fift…when you’re my age. Mom, please show these nice people what 90 looks like.

And I want to especially thank all of you out there since for all my years in the news and communications business I had to keep my opinions about anything to myself because it would be unseemly to mix news and opinion. So thanks for agreeing to sit through 37-years-worth of pent-up opinion.

But in case I only get to one, it’s this:

The relentless battering of the news media; the focus on a few high-profile cads in newsrooms across the country; the incessant charge that news decisions are made only to sell papers, sell advertising, sell influence, (even though it should be pretty obvious that nobody in the news business really knows how to sell anything); the discouraging and demeaning mantra that nobody’s reading or watching or listening to you anymore because they’re too busy on the internet reading, watching and listening to you—that’s Yogi Berraesque, you know, “nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded”—all this lamentation about the news is just plain nonsense, as those of you laboring inside newsrooms. Despite occasional missteps caused by original sin or the odd managing editor, the criticism is unfair and unwarranted.

And to the public relations professionals in the room: You’ve been battered, too. Some say you stay up nights to manipulate and obfuscate, frustrate and spin-ate; some of you will even pay money to corrupt the journalistic process; and that personal integrity in PR is harder to find than Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But, of course, you know—and now I do, too, having seen first-hand the integrity and precision of Robert Hill’s inspiring Public Affairs staff at Pitt—that that image is also nonsense.

What gets hurt in all this battering, besides our feelings, is the essential understanding that what you all do is still absolutely necessary to the orderly and rational life of our democracy.

The professionals in this room, employing accuracy, fairness, curiosity, responsibility, courage, and, occasionally, some really bizarre corrections, are our community’s—and the world’s—truth-tellers.

And that truth, or as reasonable an approximation as words and pictures can get, defines our world in ways accessible to nearly all, whether rich or poor, Black or White, young or old, male or those still hitting the glass ceiling. (But I digress). The four corners of our local newspapers, our TV screens, our radios, and our local Web pages form the only town squares we have left, where we can all gather in common knowledge and experience. It is shared truth that is our best hope of bridging the cultural divide, improving our conditions, and sometimes making the impossible possible.

Shortly after joining The Pittsburgh Press as a 22-year-old reporter, I became aware of the extremely talented, underutilized and profoundly miserable senior staff around me. The Press at that time was successful by every commercial measure, but except for a few heroic personal efforts, there was little staff motivation to raise the quality of the journalism. Day in and day out, the collective performance in the newsroom was mostly mediocre, and the mood was at best flat, and, sometimes, bitter.

As I could feel myself being sucked into the abyss, I knew I didn’t want to work in that atmosphere for very long, but I also knew I didn’t want to leave Pittsburgh, apparently being the only young person in say, a millennium, who didn’t want to flee, so the only choice was to try to turn The Press into the newspaper we all wished it were. It was an audacious and presumptuous mission for someone still trying to figure out what a prothonotary was.

I said to the editors at the time, “Let’s get everybody together in one room and have them figure out where we go next. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Even with the specter of union organizing rising in front of them, the editors granted permission to start a writer’s lunch—once a week, brown bag, everyone invited, check your titles at the door. We’ll talk about how to improve our writing, you know, metaphors and adjectives and dangling things. And primarily, we’ll speak the truth about our newsroom culture and performance.

The truth came within 10 minutes of the start of our first meeting as we admired the elegant details in a feature story by Gay Talese. “Excuse me,” Larry Walsh’s basso-profundo cut through the preciousness of our literary analysis. “We wouldn’t be allowed to write like this even if we knew how. We have rules at The Press against everything—rules against using brand names, against sentence fragments, against three-sentence paragraphs, rules against mentioning snakes and popes and pregnancy and dwarfs, and the existence of television… .”

When that first hour ended, the 14 staffers in the room decided that, to break out of our rut, we had to throw away all the writing rules. Back in the newsroom, I wrote a summary for the whole staff, including the editors, saying that we had a very nice first meeting and by the way decided to throw out all the rules. See you next week.

For the next seven days, the editors flailed madly to catch our mercurial freedom from scattering all over the newspaper, and they saved us from ourselves. But a few of our experiments made it through and, best of all, everyone lived to tell about it.

The next week, 30 staffers showed up for the writers lunch, and that time we talked about why we don’t do more investigative reporting, why we talk about the Steelers game but not our Steelers coverage, why we use photographers like cab drivers, why we only set foot in the Hill District when someone gets shot there, and why the hell don’t we have a parking lot? We were telling the truth out loud and without fear.

Every week, we outgrew the size of the previous week’s meeting room. Before long, some 50 folks were cramming into the session, editors and mail clerks, sports columnists and secretaries and the odd ad guy who made a wrong turn, all talking at once; all talking about how we could get better.

And then we turned around one day and we were. Better. We now had an investigative team, and stories that were readable all the way to the end, our shooters had become photojournalists, our editors had become listeners, and we were winning national recognition—including, eventually, Pulitzer Prizes. We were on our way, soaring right out of mediocrity. No great infusion of money, no huge increase in staff, just truth and ideas. The mood was electric, even if the typewriters weren’t.

Unbeknown to us, the editor of The Press at the time—John Troan—was making a copy of each weekly summary about our lunches and sending it to Scripps-Howard’s headquarters in Cincinnati. There, they were copying and disseminating them to all the editors in the chain, of which the Birmingham editor, Angus McEachran, was one.

Later, when Angus came to Pittsburgh as editor of The Press, he said he was already impressed with the innovations of our staff, was already a fan of our writers’ lunch, and after a while, to my utter amazement, named me his managing editor. The Press was at the time the 12th-largest metro in the nation. I was 34. A woman. In 1984. In Pittsburgh. His was a leap both outrageous and courageous.

In announcing the appointment to the staff, Angus said he was about to change Mother Teresa into Attila The Hun.

But it was Mother Teresa who was still evident years later when the unions struck, shutting down The Press and the Post-Gazette for a devastating eight months, and I found myself one of the few Press executives who would say out loud that I didn’t support the plan to publish and distribute a daily paper without the unions because it would only delay a real settlement and I felt sure that someone would get hurt. Knowing they’d say I threw like a girl, I pitched it anyway, because I believed it was my duty to speak my truth. Why, after all, would any institution want diversity without wanting diverse opinions? What, after all, was the worst that could happen by speaking out?

Even though I was bobbing in a sea of testosterone during that conversation, my wee small voice was heard. And what do you think happened? As fast as you could say “perky,” my view was quickly and decisively rejected. (I know, it wouldn’t have happened to Sally Field that way.) And the plan to publish proceeded.

Early the next morning, Attila The Hun was back, as I drove in the parking garage on the deserted Hilton side and walked out on the other to cross the Boulevard of the Allies to The Press entrance. I emerged into a scene from hell—a seething mob of thousands of gigantic teamsters who had gathered from across the country through the night to stop the planned publication.

I stepped off the curb into the crowd that had suddenly turned its attention to the only person in the street with an up-do, as I tried to get to the door. They were not impressed. I tried again. No go. Finally, I yelled in frustration: “You can have the street, but that’s my building!” From somewhere in the middle of the mob, a disembodied voice hollered over the din, “Okay, let her through.” They parted like the Red Sea as I walked regally to the door marveling: Did I really say “That’s my building?” What next, claim ownership of the Berlin Wall? But the proclamation was emblematic of my loyalty to the place, a mother loving even her ugly child. It was my truth, in a pinch.

Eight months later, when Scripps-Howard gave up and Bill Block Sr. made the move to buy The Press, there was a lull while the U.S. Justice Department considered the legality of the purchase. During those weeks, I found myself in what may be a unique situation in the history of journalism. I was, in effect, managing editor of two competing newspapers in the same building, at the same time.

On the second floor, I was a managing editor mourning the impending dissolution of my beloved newsroom family and working frantically to find jobs elsewhere for many fine journalists that I had helped to recruit to Pittsburgh and who had worked so hard to improve The Press but for whom there was no room in the new P-G.

Then I would walk up to the fourth floor where the P-G news staff was working, and there it was widely believed that I was the managing editor-elect, helping another fine staff to organize a new newspaper in a new world. Reinventing a metro newspaper in two weeks’ time amid such tremendous loss for some of the staff and such unbridled exhilaration for others—despair and hope on two floors—what would be the principle that could possibly unite us?

The first time [Post-Gazette Editor] John Craig and I addressed the combined staff, it went something like this: We are embarking on a grand journalistic experiment with our new team born of different newsroom cultures and different traditions, but we share so much, including high aspirations for our beloved community and the ability to tell its truth.

And what’s the worst that can happen when you speak your truth? Perhaps I found out some 12 years later: The listeners don’t want to hear it or don’t recognize it because they have no historic context. Perhaps you even lose your job. But you keep your spirit, you keep your nerve, you keep your respect, and you keep the mutual affection of entrusted colleagues. On top of that, you may find yourself among wonderful new colleagues who share your commitment to the truth in a monumental setting in Oakland.

So esteemed truth-tellers, do not lose heart over the current condition of the communications business. Your commitment to the truth despite all has actually put you in an enviable position.

A very wise person described it: “We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

That was Mother Teresa, sounding deliciously like Attila The Hun.

Thank you for this moment.