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From AJR,   July/August 1998  issue

An Online Tribute to a Fine Reporter   

A Web site honors the late Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Robin Clark.


By Lillian Swanson
"I want it to be passed around," he says, "like one of Robin's stories, or a favorite CD, from friend to friend." Lillian Swanson is the Philadelphia Inquirer's features editor.     

A Web site honors the late Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Robin Clark.

Reporter Robin Clark had a gift for keeping in touch with his friends.

Even as he traveled America's backroads in his '60s VW bus, while on leave from the Philadelphia Inquirer, or as he reported on The Trial of the Century as the paper's West Coast correspondent, he took the time to mail little surprises to his buddies back in the newsroom.

An envelope would arrive containing a tape of some new singer he'd found or a T-shirt from some tacky roadside joint. Or it might be a button with a saying that mirrored his irreverent sense of humor.

He knew how to be a friend, and so it's not surprising that one of his closest pals, Dan Rubin, was unwilling to break the link when Clark died at age 40 in a traffic accident on the Pacific Coast Highway in August 1995.

Rubin, an Inquirer reporter for 10 years, used a mini-fellowship to create a Web site that pays tribute to Clark's other great gift: superb storytelling.

"I was looking for a way to conjure his spirit with a couple of clicks of the mouse," says Rubin. "It's a fine way to start your day, listening to one of Robin's songs or reading some of the best writing to ever grace this place."

The Web site, clark.
phillynews.com , displays a picture of Clark as many remember him, his face creased in a smile, his head cocked to one side, looking as if he is about to crack wise. Dressed in a trademark denim shirt and khaki pants, he leans against a roadmap of his native North Carolina. You can almost hear him asking, in a soft drawl, "Hey, pal. How's it going?"

Rubin selected seven of Clark's best stories, including a commentary on covering O.J. Simpson's criminal trial and an investigative piece on people scamming Philadelphia's disability pension system; audio and video tapes of him playing his own songs; and a scrapbook of tributes.

Clark had an eye for finding and writing about characters that others would pass by. Here is how he opened a 1992 tale of a man who fished for forgotten coins that had rolled into city grates:

"Poor as he is, Albert Reagan doesn't rely on charity.

"He counts on something more dependable: clumsiness.

"Every time you fumble for change in Center City — at the bus stop, the parking meter, the newsstand — Reagan is there in spirit, hoping that coin will slip free and go ping ing into one of those black holes in the sidewalk.

"Reagan is a grate fisherman. Lost coins are his catch."

Rubin says that, in some ways, Clark was writing about himself. "Robin was the urban mariner. Lost stories were his catch. He found a kindred soul in that.

"He had a wonderful eye for the blues, for the foibles, the good, the bad, the ugly. He loved finding it all, letting people tell their stories — showing you things without telling you too much."

?ubin created the Web site in February while on a one-week fellowship at California State University at Hayward. He received the mini-sabbatical in multimedia as part of a program the Inquirer sponsors with a college trade group, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. (In the seven years the paper has participated, about 90 staffers have studied on college campuses across the nation on topics that range from prison reform to creating a sustainable environment.)

"As soon as I got the practical assignment for the Web site, I knew what I was going to do with it," says Rubin. "I was going to create a place for stories, so that we could go and visit Robin. This was a way to take a cold technology and bring someone who is gone as close to you as you can get."

Rubin got plenty of help along the way.

At California State, an instructor stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to help him get the sound just right. Another teacher created a new typeface, a sort of smudged, old pressroom lettering, for Clark's name and the dates that his life spanned.

"Everybody there was taken by the simplicity and good feeling behind the project," says Rubin.

Back in Philly, colleagues at Philadelphia Online allowed him to post the Web site on the paper's electronic home base.

The site also links to The Robin Clark Experience, an annual cash award of $1,250 that allows a student to learn as he did, by traveling, exploring and talking to people. The fellowship is open to journalism students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

?efore joining the Inquirer in 1983, Clark reported for the Charlotte Observer and the San Fran-
cisco Examiner. He left the University of North Carolina nine credits short of graduation to take the job at the Observer.

Rubin says the Web site is just a beginning, and he would like to add more stories. Anyone with a memory to contribute or one of Clark's best stories to share, can e-mail them to dan.rubin@ phillynews.com .