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American Journalism Review
"America: What Went Wrong?"Inquirer Series Hits Nerve In Philadelphia  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 1992

"America: What Went Wrong?"Inquirer Series Hits Nerve In Philadelphia   

By Grant Mahon
Grant Mahon is a reporter for the Reading Eagle/Times newspapers in Pennsylvania.      


A baker in Philadelphia's Port Richmond neighborhood ordered 1,000 copies to hand out to his customers. Another reader wanted 535 copies – one to forward to each member of Congress. And a political science professor at Drexel University may make it required reading for his students.

In an era when newspapers face increasing pressure to present short-and-sweet news for an easily distracted audience, the Philadelphia Inquirer's voluminous series "America: What went wrong?" touched a public nerve.

Just hours after the first installment of the series by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting team of Donald Barlett and James Steele, the Inquirer began getting requests for reprints. The newspaper ultimately distributed free more than 225,000 of them.

The Inquirer's daily circulation, which averages 520,000, jumped by more than 10,000 copies after the initial installment on October 20. Having done little advance promotion, editors concluded the series was selling itself.

Running in nine installments over 24 pages through October 28, the series portrayed, according to the Inquirer, how "millions of Americans have fallen victim to a combination of rulemakers in Washington and deal-makers on Wall Street."

Barlett and Steele focused on what they described as the government "rule book...that a succession of Congresses and presidents have skewed to favor special interests, the powerful and influential, at the expense of everyone else."

Woven throughout were the stories of hardworking people who have been robbed of their security – their jobs, their health-care benefits, their pensions – amid exposés of corporate villains in cahoots with politicians.

Barlett, who has joked with colleagues that he spends years researching and writing epic journalistic pieces that nobody reads, was dumbfounded by the series' appeal. Asked to explain its popularity, he says, "I wouldn't even hazard a guess."

But Managing Editor Steve Lovelady, who edited the project, senses that the stories confirmed existing public uneasiness about America's state of affairs. "There's a feeling abroad in the land that something has gone seriously awry," Lovelady says. "[The series] really touched a chord. People intuitively knew this, but they never saw the data of the thesis laid out and reported like this."

Repackaging investigative series is not new for the Inquirer. It typically publishes tabloid reprints of two to three pieces each year. The biggest reprint before this, a Barlett/Steele collaboration that uncovered a maze of special interest provisions in the 1986 Tax Reform Act, totaled about 45,000 copies.

With demand for "What went wrong?" mounting by the hour, the newspaper hurriedly repackaged the series using the original press plates for a two-section broadsheet release. Special phone lines were set up to tell callers how to get the reprints – readers could pick up copies at the paper office or receive them by mail for the cost of postage – and extra staff brought on to process requests.

But copies were gobbled up more quickly than the Inquirer could produce them. The newspaper will issue the series as a paperback in March.

The public reaction sends an important signal to the industry, says Lovelady. "Newspapers ought to do more of this kind of thing," he says. "The response shows people have a real hunger for the kind of journalism that chronicles profound changes in American culture."

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