The Press and the Passion: Susan Snyder ’85 on Winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize

By Susan Snyder
November 30, 2012
Appeared in the
Fall-Winter 2012 issue of IUP Magazine

Snyder gives the back story on the Philadelphia Inquirer series on school violence: 20 months of work; countless sleepless nights; many resulting changes in the schools--and, ultimately, one bottle of champagne poured in jubilance over her head.

Taking on the Issue

Sue Snyder

Susan Snyder, Photo: Keith Boyer

Susan Snyder ’85 was co-lead reporter on a series about school violence that earned the Philadelphia Inquirer the Pulitzer Prize for public service in April. She shares her story for IUP Magazine.

The story was heart wrenching: More than 30 Asian students at a Philadelphia city high school were targeted and brutally beaten by their classmates, mostly African American. The school district’s top official, then Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, was slow to react. The attacks made international news and prompted a federal investigation, once again thrusting the district into the spotlight for its all-too-familiar problem of school violence.

For nearly a decade, I had covered the now 146,000-student urban school district as the primary beat reporter. Each year, I wrote various takes on the problem: Violent assaults in elementary schools. Roving gangs terrorizing school corridors. A female student whose face was slashed with a razor blade during a hallway brawl. Physical assaults on teachers by students, including the 2007 case of a Germantown High teacher whose neck was broken.

Each time, the district pledged new programs and strategies for improving conditions, but the blatant assaults of Asian students at South Philadelphia High in 2009 indicated that the school violence problem was as bad as ever. The Philadelphia Inquirer, my employer, decided to take on the issue like never before—to look at the school violence epidemic from every angle as well as potential solutions.

In an extraordinary commitment of resources at a time when the newspaper industry continues to struggle, the Inquirer assembled a team of five reporters. In addition to me, it included John Sullivan, one of its top investigators; Dylan Purcell, its computer-assisted reporting whiz; Kristen Graham, its current school district beat reporter and one of the best in the industry in the use of social media; and Jeff Gammage, a gifted writer who not only got the school district to allow him to be embedded at South Philadelphia High, but also endeared himself to the principal, who even gave Gammage his own locker in the building.


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Heart-Wrenching Accounts

As co-lead reporter, I was asked to capitalize on the extensive sourcing I had developed during my time as the beat reporter. I reached out to virtually every teacher, administrator, city official, and other school-related person whom I had met and interviewed over the years to get their view of the problem. Through sources, I obtained dozens of confidential school police reports with the names and phone numbers of both victims and perpetrators.

Tamika

Tamika McNeill, 12, described to Susan Snyder a cafeteria attack that caused her to consider suicide. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer

The reports allowed us to find and hear firsthand from students, such as Tamika McNeill, 12, a brave, resilient girl who had been attacked in a school cafeteria. After months of being bullied, Tamika didn’t feel there was anyone she could trust at school, so she fled the building and went home. There, she poured her heart out in a poem and drew a picture of a face flooded with tears. I’ll never forget sitting beside Tamika on the couch in her home when she told a colleague and me about the cafeteria attack, in which students wedged their hands under her shirt and tried to fondle her breasts. The assault was so scarring, so traumatizing that she said she thought of killing herself.

We initially thought the investigation would take about six to eight months, but the district was slow to release the data we needed, and even with public records requests, more months passed. We also found new angles to explore just about every week as we delved deeper into the complex issues. And to fully gauge the level of the problem across the district, the paper commissioned an extensive, independently administered survey by Temple University of more than 750 teachers and aides.

Getting the right visuals also took time. It wasn’t until just a couple of weeks before publication that I was finally able to secure the haunting school district security footage that showed groups of students walking the halls of Audenried High School and rushing into a classroom to pummel 15-year-old freshman Teshada Herring. The video became the highlight of our online presentation for the first day of our Pulitzer Prize-winning, seven-part series, “Assault on Learning.”


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The Findings

In the end, the project spanned 20 months, including the work leading up to the initial publication of the series in March 2011 and the nine months of follow-up articles. There were many late nights, many sleepless nights, times when I had to miss family functions, emotionally grueling moments. I found myself even working in my dreams.

The findings were disturbing: More than 30,000 serious incidents were reported in the district over a five-year period. On an average day, 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or made victims of other violent crime. As large as those numbers seem, they didn’t represent the full gravity of the problem. Many violent incidents went unreported. Some attacks were carried out by children in the earliest of grades. The school district’s main intervention program for troubled students was little more than a paper shuffle. And though the system had some schools with good violence-prevention programs, it had failed to implement those programs district-wide.

The district downgraded incidents that resulted in serious injury and failed to devise effective plans to improve the most dangerous schools. It employed an inadequately trained school police force, some of whose members had their own trouble with the law, including one uniformed officer who was caught swiping doughnuts and orange juice from a local WaWa while on duty and another who had to show up in court on the first day of school to answer to cocaine possession charges.

As we worked, our newspaper—as well as many other newspapers around us—was facing extraordinary challenges that would cause even the most committed journalists to question their chosen profession. There was another round of layoffs, another round of tearful goodbyes to colleagues who shared our passion and our dreams.

There were many late nights, many sleepless nights, times when I had to miss family functions, emotionally grueling moments. I found myself even working in my dreams.

The paper went up for sale again, and we didn’t know what that was going to mean for us. Even our iconic headquarters were sold to generate revenue. But the Inquirer’s commitment—and our commitment—to the project never wavered.

Our work was validated, long before we received the Pulitzer Prize in April 2012. In the aftermath of our series, the paper received hundreds of responses via e-mail, telephone, Facebook, and its website. The state appointed a safe schools advocate to help victims of violence in the Philadelphia schools. Students such as Tamika and their families now have someone to turn to for help. The district changed the way it reports violent incidents and began disclosing more information on its website. Principals participated in a multi-day safety summit before the start of school in the fall, leaving no doubt that safety would be a priority in the year ahead.


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That Rare Pinnacle

Sue Snyder at the Philadelphia Inquirer soon after hearing that she had won the Pulitzer PrizeA colleague pouring champagne over Susan Snyders head after Pulitzer announcement

Snyder amid the Pulitzer victory celebration in the newsroom. Photos courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer

It was mid-March when rumors started spreading that our project was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in public service, considered the most prestigious award in journalism. As finalists, we heard we were up against the behemoth of journalism—the New York Times—and the Miami Herald. It seemed almost inconceivable that we could actually win.

I flashed back to my days as an undergraduate at IUP. My esteemed journalism professors, including Randy Jesick, Pat Heilman, Bob Russell, and David Truby, prepared me well and taught me early on the importance of taking my class assignments as seriously as if the stories I turned in would wind up being published in the local newspaper. I had no car at that time, so I rode my powder blue Schwinn bicycle all over Indiana, conducting interviews for freelance stories. The hard work paid off. By the time I graduated, I had two series published in local newspapers, one on civil defense and the other on trends in elementary education.

But at that time, I hadn’t dared to dream of reaching that rare pinnacle—the Pulitzer.

On the morning of the Pulitzer announcement, one of my colleagues called me at home. We had no idea what the day would bring. But the editor had just told him that he had asked one of our other colleagues, who had since left the paper, to fly to Philadelphia as soon as possible. Then it hit me: Oh my God, we may have won. I cried, and that was the beginning of perhaps the most memorable day of my life.

“Dreams do come true,” I would soon be telling the staff, gathered around my desk in the aftermath of the announcement. A picture of a colleague pouring champagne on my head went international.


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Over the Rainbow

Sue Snyder with the gold medal at Columbia University. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer

Sue Snyder with the gold medal at Columbia University. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer

Since then, life has felt much like a fairy tale. The mayor of Philadelphia called me on my iPhone the next morning to congratulate me. Former Philadelphia Phillies star Shane Victorino invited the Pulitzer team to batting practice and posed for pictures with us. The Inquirer held a beautiful reception, which felt like Cinderella’s ball, at the National Constitution Center. Jesick and Heilman invited me to speak at IUP’s Journalism commencement ceremony last May and gave me the honor of handing out the diplomas. Villanova University hosted a Pulitzer Week and highlighted our project.

“Assault on Learning” has won several other prestigious awards, including the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, which was presented by the Journalism Center on Children and Families in Washington, D.C., in October. In addition to television and radio appearances, I have been asked to present the work in a variety of forums this fall, including at the Associated Press Media Editors conference in Nashville, Tennessee, at the New England First Amendment Institute in the Boston area, and at Columbia University in New York City.

After receiving the Pulitzer at Columbia’s stately Low Library in May, another member of the team and I were waiting to catch our train home. We heard a street musician playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” The moment was surreal. And indeed, there are some mornings I wake up and wonder if it all happened. Did I really get over the rainbow? Then, I look at the Pulitzer crystal on my mantel and smile.


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Susan Snyder's Commencement Speech

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak here today. I’m honored, truly honored.

First, congratulations to each and every one of you for reaching this important milestone in your lives. Our editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bill Marimow, has terrific advice for such a special occasion: Savor it.

And I pass that advice on to all of you today. Savor this moment. Cherish your achievement. Be proud. Be very proud.

The theme of my speech is simple: Anything is possible if you care enough, if you work very hard and if you persist.

I don’t come from an affluent family. I didn’t have a lot of advantages. I was the first person in my family—and, ultimately, the only person—to go to college.

I didn’t score well on my SATS—that revered predictor of college success. I still remember my lowly score because it used to haunt me: 970.

At that time, there was no writing portion, so it was 970 out of a possible 1600. What the heck was I going to amount to?

Many of my friends—well, almost all—scored higher, and many headed to “elite” private colleges. But what I’ve learned in this life is that another measure is far more important than SAT scores that tend to label you as a teenager.

Heart.

That is: How much do you want to succeed? How hard will you work for that success? Will you persist even in your darkest moments?

On that particular scale—the scale of the heart, that is—I earned a 1600, a perfect score. And it was, with that score in mind, that I embarked on my career as a journalist.

Twenty-seven years ago, I found myself sitting where you are today…

Hung over as Hell.

Just kidding.

I don’t think I drank much on graduation eve, though I was known to have quite a bit of fun during my college days—that is, when I wasn’t riding my powder blue Schwinn bicycle all over Indiana, conducting interviews for freelance stories for the town newspaper, the Indiana Gazette.

I’m sure my esteemed journalism professors, Randy Jesick and Pat Heilman, could tell you a story or two. Perhaps that is why Randy, when asked about my latest and highest honor, told the Penn: “Nobody could predict the Pulitzer Prize was in her future.”

Although I must say, Randy, Pat, and my other IUP professors prepared me well and taught me early on the importance of taking my class assignments seriously, as seriously as if the stories I wrote would wind up being published in the local newspaper. And indeed, by the time I graduated from IUP, I had two series published in local newspapers, one on civil defense and the other on trends in elementary education.

I also enjoyed many of my other non-journalism classes at IUP, in particular Theater Department professor Barbara Blackledge’s wonderfully creative Intro to Acting class and Connie Sutton’s astronomy class. I never liked science much, but after I had her for astronomy as part of an Earth Sciences course, I took another whole course in astronomy because I was so interested.

And, I also fondly recall Barbara Kraszewski’s poetry course. I used to like to write poetry, and she always made time to meet with me, read my work, and give me feedback.

But back to graduation day, 1985. There I was, with a journalism degree and a head full of dreams about how I wanted to change the world, how I wanted to move the masses by telling the most important stories of the day.

The Pulitzer wasn’t even a goal on the distant horizon. I just wanted a job, to get paid to do what I love, success by any definition.

My dream was to work for my hometown newspaper, the Allentown Morning Call, the same paper that I had delivered when I was in high school. I walked the streets of my neighborhood during those dark, quiet mornings, dreaming and hoping that one day I’d work at the Call.

And, indeed, eventually I would get to the Morning Call and spend nine rewarding years covering the very schools I attended, reporting and writing about how to make those institutions better.

But the only job I could get upon graduation was at a little weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y. So I moved there, lived right across the street from the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was the only reporter at that paper, the Freeman’s Journal, and I did absolutely everything—took the pictures, covered the village board meetings, school board meetings, helped lay out the pages, even covered high school sports.

And trust me, at the time, I knew almost next to nothing about high school sports.

But I was a quick learner.

I soon discovered that all-nighters were not just for college students.

My annual salary was $10,400.

I furnished my apartment with lawn chairs.

And so the dream began.

But journalism is more a passion than a profession, and early on—until I paid my dues—I knew it would feed the soul more than the stomach.

My soul has lived large.

I’ve done many things I never would have done had I not been a reporter. Like spending a weekend in New Vrindaban, West Virginia, with a couple hundred Hare Krishnas. They were thinking of starting a commune in Northeastern Pennsylvania, so I went to see what they were really all about.

I’ve also had a lot of fun along the way. Like New Year’s Eve, 1996. I bet a group of friends $25—roughly the cost of a good case of beer at the time—that I could pretty much get any word or phrase in the paper that I wanted to, probably within 24 hours. One guy shot back, I bet you can’t get “hyperkinetic troglodyte” in the paper.

I smiled and said, “Sure I can.”

Of course, first, I had to find out what that meant.

A hyperactive caveman?

Okay, really, it means nothing.

The next day—New Year’s Day—I proposed a story to the editor on New Year’s resolutions.

The story began: “It’s that time of personal reassessment, gallant goal-setting, and playful promises: the New Year’s Resolution. Unveil the new you. That’s the challenge.”

Had to set the mood for what I was about to do. So I interviewed a 10-year-old at Chuck E Cheese. I went to a bar, a local jail. My favorite interview, though, was the guy I caught going into an adult book store.

“I quit smoking,” he said, when asked for his resolution as he disappeared inside the door. “I got to get in here now.”

So, at the end of the story, I felt it was only fair to disclose to readers my New Year’s resolution: To get “hyperkinetic troglodyte” in the newspaper.

Which, of course, I did.

On the front page.

There’s that 1600 talking.

That $25 was mine.

I should note, however, that this was not for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

On a more serious note, I’ve had the chance to tell the stories of many courageous people: like the seven-year-old girl who inspired everyone around her as she fought bone cancer, aided by her fierce belief in God. That was the first time I spent months on a story, truly getting to know the girl and her family.

Her name was Amber.

Amber eventually died, and the story was among the hardest I ever had to write. I can still say that, 24 years later. I had to leave the newsroom and sit in an isolated office as I composed the story on deadline, the tears flowing almost as fast as the words.

As an education reporter at the Inquirer, I was one of nine reporters around the country invited to the White House for a roundtable discussion with President George Bush, the second, early in his presidency.

There I was, at a table with the president of the United States, only 15 years after I left Oak Grove.

But most importantly over my 27-year career, I’ve had the chance to make a difference, just as I hoped—perhaps no more so than over the last two years as co-lead reporter of the Inquirer team on school violence.

I had covered the Philadelphia school district for nearly a decade and knew it well. I had many sources from classrooms to offices, from law enforcement to counseling centers.

For 20 months, I, along with four other reporters, did virtually no other assignments other than investigating, from every angle, the city’s epidemic of school violence.

There were many late nights, many sleepless nights, times when I had to miss family functions, emotionally grueling moments. One day before publication of the series, I had a dream that one of our facts was wrong. I checked and, indeed, it was wrong. So that’s what it had come to—I was even working when I was sleeping. But the good news is—we got it all right by the time of publication. No corrections.

There were times when we couldn’t possibly see how the stories would unfold or how we would get all the information we needed.

But then we thought about Tamika, a brave, resilient 12-year-old girl who had been assaulted in a school cafeteria.

After months of bullying, Tamika didn’t feel there was anyone she could trust, so she fled the building and went home. There, Tamika poured her heart out in a poem and drew a picture of a face flooded with tears. I’ll never forget sitting on the couch beside Tamika in her home when she told me and a colleague about the cafeteria attack, where students wedged their hands under her shirt, tried to fondle her breasts, the assault so scarring, so traumatizing that she thought of killing herself.

She told us: “It made me feel like: End it all right there.”

Because of stories like that, we knew we had to keep going.

And as we worked, our newspaper—as well as many other newspapers around us—were facing extraordinary challenges.

There was another round of layoffS, another round of tearful goodbyes to colleagues who shared our passion and dreams.

The paper went up for sale again—and we didn’t know what that was going to mean for us.

Even our iconic headquarters were sold to generate revenue.

Yes, we were even losing our home.

But we kept going, and the school district, along with city and state officials, finally took action.

The district created a special committee on safety. The state appointed a safe schools advocate to help victims of violence in the Philadelphia schools. Students like Tamika and her family now have someone to turn to. The district changed the way it reports violent incidents and began disclosing more information on its website.

Our work was validated, long before April 16, the day of the Pulitzer announcement.

Somewhere during my career, I think it was during my years at the Morning Call, I started to think about reaching that rare pinnacle of success most journalists dream of. My colleague Dylan Purcell—who conducted all of our data analysis for the project—did the math. Only 0.001 print journalists win a Pulitzer in any given year.

It was mid-March when rumors started spreading that our project was a finalist for the Pulitzer in public service, considered the most prestigious award in journalism. We heard, as finalists, we were up against the behemoth of journalism—the New York Times—and the Miami Herald. It seemed almost inconceivable that we could actually win.

On Monday morning, April 16, the day of the announcement, my colleague Jeff Gammage called me at home. He said our editor had asked our colleague John Sullivan—another reporter on the project who had since left the paper and city—to fly to Philadelphia as soon as possible.

Then, it hit me.

Oh my God, they think we won.

We might actually win.

As I stood in my apartment, I thought of my days here at IUP, riding my powder blue Schwinn to those interviews.

I thought of Amber.

I thought of Tamika.

I thought of those dark, quiet mornings as a high school kid with a bad SAT score and very big dreams.

Six hours later, the entire newsroom gathered around my desk.

Every iPhone and camera in the place were trained on me and the rest of the team.

At 3:05 p.m., it became official. We won the Pulitzer. The Super Bowl of journalism.

I’ll never forget that moment. It changed me.

It was the moment the world became ever so smaller and my arms ever so longer.

It was at that moment that I truly learned that anything—any dream—is within reach.

For all of us in the 1600 club.

And today, I invite each and every one of you to join me, whether you’re going off to work at a newspaper or a public relations firm, or looking to achieve some personal goal.

Thank you.

And again congratulations to all of you on achieving the first of many, many dreams to come.

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