Pitt’s Maddy Ross Recounts How Pittsburgh’s Biggest Newspaper Went From Ordinary to Pulitzer Prize-winning

Issue Date: 
May 29, 2007

In accepting the President’s Award—a lifetime achievement honor—during The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania’s annual Golden Quill Awards dinner May 14, Pitt Associate Vice Chancellor Madelyn “Maddy” Ross recalled joining The Pittsburgh Press as a 22-year-old reporter and encountering what she called that now-defunct afternoon newspaper’s “extremely talented, underutilized, and profoundly miserable senior staff.

“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,” said Ross, who would go on to serve as managing editor of The Press and, following its 1993 demise, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Day in and day out, the collective performance in the newsroom was mostly mediocre, and the mood was at best flat and, sometimes, bitter.”

Feeling herself “being sucked into the abyss” and not wanting to leave her hometown (“apparently being the only young person in, say, a millennium, who didn’t want to flee” Pittsburgh, she quipped), Ross proposed to her editors the idea of starting a writers’ lunch—a once-a-week, brown-bag, everyone-invited, check-your-titles-at-the-door session during which Press writers could talk about how to improve their writing and speak the truth about their newsroom’s culture and performance.

“Even with the specter of union organizing rising in front of them,” Ross said, the editors approved her idea.

Ten minutes into the first writers’ lunch, however, as Ross and her colleagues were admiring the elegant details in a feature story by Gay Talese, a basso-profundo voice raised an inconvenient truth. “Excuse me,” said staff writer Larry Walsh. “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… .”

The 14 staffers at that lunch decided that, to break out of their rut, they would have to violate The Press’ restrictive writing rules. “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,” Ross remembered. “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.”

Then one day Ross and her colleagues turned around and they were better, winning national recognition that included two Pulitzer Prizes. “We were on our way, soaring right out of mediocrity,” Ross said. “No great infusion of money, no huge increase in staff, just truth and ideas. The mood was electric, even if the typewriters weren’t.”

Two decades later, the paper’s owners pulled the plug on The Press following an eight-month strike that had shut down both The Press and its longtime rival, the Post-Gazette(P-G). The P-G bought out The Press, and Ross was named the surviving paper’s managing editor. Since August 2005, she has been associate vice chancellor for national media relations in Pitt’s Office of Public Affairs.

To read the full text of Ross’ President’s Award speech—including her recollections of confronting headstrong Press executives and a mob of angry Teamsters during the 1992-93 strike visit— www.chronicle.pitt.edu/.

Also during the Golden Quill Awards dinner, the Pitt Chronicle won a Quill in the feature writing/nondaily newspapers category for stories by John Harvith, Bruce Steele, and Patricia Lomando White.