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From AJR,   April/May 2008  issue

'Hell on Heels'   

Online Exclusive � Toni Locy awaits a court decision that could have monumental consequences for her and her profession. But shaking in her shoes in the face of danger has never really been her style.


By Kevin Rector
     

Clarification appended

During a newspaper career that spanned two-and-a-half decades, Toni Locy says, she was never afraid on the job.

Not when she was writing about the mob in Philadelphia, not when she was defending not-so-flattering police stories to not-so-flattered police officers in Boston, not when she was portraying the president of the United States as an intern-canoodling liar in Washington, D.C.

"I was a little uncomfortable at times, but never scared, although I was in a couple sticky situations," says Locy, the former USA Today reporter recently found in contempt of court by a federal judge for refusing to name confidential sources. "I extracted myself quickly. I didn't do anything stupid, which is probably why I was OK."

An old-school reporter who has worked at numerous publications � among them the Philadelphia Daily News, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and USA Today � Locy, 48, has helped report important news over the years. She shook the leadership of Boston's police force in the early '90s after writing in the Globe about its inability to solve serious crime, and was part of the Washington Post team that covered the Monica Lewinsky story. She reported on 9/11 and its aftermath and the Bush administration's practices at Guantanamo. She has covered the courts throughout her career.


Toni Locy

Unfortunately for her, it's her own court battle that has thrust her into the news � a battle she hasn't been afraid to fight.

In February, a federal judge ruled Locy would have to pay up to $5,000 a day out of her own pocket until she identified unnamed sources in stories she wrote for USA Today in 2003 about Steven J. Hatfill, a former Army scientist who is suing the federal government for naming him a "person of interest," but never charging him, in connection with the post-9/11 anthrax attacks. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals on March 11 granted Locy a stay on the fines until her appeal of the contempt charge is heard, the case continues, and she may still face a steep financial penalty.

Newsworthy in its own right, her story has also caught attention for being what many call a compelling example for why the U.S. Senate should approve a federal shield law for journalists, which has been pending there since October. The House has passed similar legislation. The measure would protect journalists from being coerced into giving up confidential sources, and would retroactively protect Locy as well. Media organizations around the country have rallied behind her in support.

For Locy, now a professor at West Virginia University, her current situation is a reminder of her days as a reporter, when people weren't always happy with how she wrote a story or with how she responded to their complaints.

"People's instincts are to shoot the messenger," she says. "It's not uncommon for people to lash out at the person who's delivering the bad news."

For former editors and colleagues, Locy's stoic stance and stalwart refusal to name her sources isn't surprising. Throughout her career, Locy has never backed down from people railing against her.

"She's one of those reporters who loves getting in people's faces. It's one of the things that make her a great reporter," says Walter Robinson, Locy's editor at the Boston Globe. "There's no question she won't ask, there's no one she won't confront or whose face she won't get in to get an answer to a question."

"She certainly wasn't a shrinking violet," says Michael Days, a fellow reporter of Locy's at the Philadelphia Daily News and now the paper's editor. "She's extremely strong. She's very much a fighter."

Despite the prospect of facing financial ruin � something many observers fear is in Locy's future if the fines aren't overturned � Locy still conveys a thick skin and a certain tenacity. She was in the business too long, she says, to cower. She learned early in her career how to handle adversity without backing down.

"As a young reporter you were taught to be sassy and to talk back and to raise hell, and I did," Locy says. "I was taught to question authority everywhere, even in the newsroom."

Says Robinson: "If a reporter lies down for an editor, you worry about how tough she is on the reporting end. [Locy is] a handful, but the best reporters are, and they're worth it, and she certainly was."

"This probably isn't politically correct, but she's a tough broad with a heart of gold," says Days.

Locy began her journalism career at the Pittsburgh Press after graduating from the West Virginia University's School of Journalism in 1981. She worked general assignment at night. Around that time, the city's steel industry began to collapse, and Locy suddenly found herself "writing stories about five, six, seven thousand people getting fired at one time" early in her career.

The experience was profound, she says. "This part of the country has never been the same because of what happened to the steel industry. It was an economic and cultural change for the southwest part of Pennsylvania," which is where Locy grew up. "It was incredible to be writing about the transformation of an entire region and industry."

After the Press, Locy went to the Daily News in 1986, where she says she joined one of the most eclectic staffs she's ever been a part of. The freewheeling atmosphere of newsrooms like that one, Locy says, was one of her favorite aspects of the news business.

"It used to be that there were as many characters in newsrooms as there are in life," she says. "You had oddballs and interesting people, so it was never dull."

Asked if she was one of those characters, she said: "Probably."

Days' response to the same question: "Absolutely."

The Daily News' conference room has a "wall of distinguished characters" who at one time worked for the paper, says Days, and Locy's picture is up there. She was known around the newsroom for being extremely tough but also for being extremely well pulled together, he says.

"Journalists aren't the most well-dressed group on the planet, but she always was," Days says. "We called her 'Heels' because she always wore stiletto heels, even on the toughest of stories."

(It seems the nickname followed her: Robinson says Locy was called "Hell on Heels" in the Globe newsroom. Beverley Lumpkin, a former ABC News reporter who covered federal courts in Washington, D.C., alongside Locy in the mid- to late-'90s, remembers her amazement at Locy's ability to traverse the granite halls of the courthouse all day long in high heels.)

Fashion aside, though, it was Locy's style as a reporter � and her presence in the newsroom � that people most remember. "In any room full of 100-watt bulbs, she's 150 watts," says Robinson. "Great presence, great personality. She sort of made up in her own way for the fact that the newsroom no longer had clattering typewriters."

According to Lumpkin, who had covered federal courts in Washington for eight years when Locy came onto the beat for the Washington Post in 1994, Locy was a reporter who immediately left a mark.

"When you're a reporter you can tell when somebody else knows what's going on, you can tell when someone's read the entire brief instead of the summary or when somebody's been talking to people you know � or worse, someone you don't know. So it doesn't take long for reporters to size each other up and decide who's the potential competition," Lumpkin says.

Locy was clearly competition, Lumpkin says.

"She's a straight-shooter, thorough and doesn't take chances," said Joan Biskupic, a fellow courts reporter who first met Locy at the Washington Post in the mid-'90s and later worked alongside her at USA Today, in an e-mail interview. "Overall, she was very good with documents, a thorough reader. She wasn't looking for shortcuts. She has a natural sense of fairness and automatically gave both sides of any dispute a fair shake."

"Toni was all over the courthouse. It was totally her turf," says Lumpkin. "She knew every judge and every clerk and she always knew what was going on."

Locy says she was just doing her job � and having fun: "When you cover a good trial, there's nothing else like it. It's so much fun," she says.

But aside from having fun, Locy was also networking. As she moved from the Post to U.S. News & World Report in 1999 and then to USA Today in 2000, she continued to make connections with high-ranking government officials, many of whom spoke to her confidentially. Such connections were necessary for her beat, and they helped her become a top reporter.

"Inferentially, I think [sources around the courthouse] held her in pretty high regard, just for the fact that she would get stuff out of them � stuff no one else could get," says Lumpkin.

Then 9/11 happened.

"I just remember we were working at least six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day or more, and we went from trying to figure out who the hijackers were right into the anthrax attacks, and I think we went through the rest of that year and into 2002 before any of us thought to catch our breath," Locy says. "The stakes were so high for everyone � for the FBI, for government, for journalism. We were chasing every little snippet of information."

It was during that whirlwind time that Locy wrote the two stories involving Hatfill � the stories that drew her court subpoena and stories that do not stick out in her mind at all, she says.

"I wrote thousands of stories in my career and these two were routine � painfully routine. They were not scoops, they were not on the front page, and as a result they don't stand out in my memory at all," Locy says. "Everywhere I worked I usually was one of the most productive members of the staff, so I cranked it out. I did. So I apologize that I can't remember every single line in every single story I wrote, but I wrote a lot of stories."

Locy says she can't remember which FBI or Justice Department source told her about Hatfill because she regularly spoke to more than a dozen such sources about anthrax and other terrorism issues, often confidentially. She refuses to name all of them because of something one of them may have told her, she says.

As she moved on in her career, leaving USA Today and going to the Associated Press in 2005, Locy continued to write a lot of stories. But after two decades as a reporter, she started itching to put down her notepad. She never wanted to be "an old lady reporter," she says, and the business had changed for her.

She had wanted to be a reporter since she was 8 years old in 1968, watching Walter Cronkite announce the news and seeing student protests of Vietnam. "I grew up at a time [when] there was so much political turbulence, and I wanted to be a reporter," she says. "I was struck by everything that was going on in the country at the time, even though I was a little kid."

Some 40-odd years later though, she found herself in a different situation. "You start out as a kid and you think, 'Am I ever going to get this?' And then you wake up one day and you say, 'I actually do know what I'm doing, and nobody wants to hear it, so it's time to move on and do something else.'

"I promised myself that when journalism stopped being fun I would get out, and it stopped being fun," Locy says. "I wanted to do something different while I was still young enough to do something different and enjoy it."

Locy says she has always had a great appreciation for the law � an irony that she doesn't miss, saying "I love the law, which is interesting because I'm caught up in this legal mess" � and in thinking about getting out of journalism, she was immediately drawn to the prospect of legal studies. She'd also thought about teaching, but needed a master's degree to do so.

In 2006, she plotted her next move. She left the AP to attend the University of Pittsburgh's School of Law, where she earned a master's degree in constitutional and criminal law in 2007. Although legal studies are notoriously arduous, Locy said her time at the law school was relaxing compared to her years as a reporter.

"It was nice to be able to sit back and read and think about cases," she says, adding that it was sometimes a "weird experience" because she had covered and reported on many of the cases that she and her law school peers were studying.

After finishing her master's degree, Locy started as a professor at West Virginia University, her alma mater, where she currently serves as the Schott Chair of Journalism. It was a transition that Locy accredits to perfect timing: "For once in my life the planets lined up."

In her new role, Locy teaches media law and public affairs reporting. She says she still reverts back to her days as a reporter to provide real-life examples of things that occur to journalists in the field.

"Something will pop into my head, I'll remember something and I'll try to use that as an example so I can bring it alive for them," Locy says. "I don't want to just stand up there and be a professor who tells war stories, but I'm trying to make it relevant to what I'm teaching them, so I use stories I've written or situations I've been in as a reporter to illustrate the point I'm trying to make."

Her current plight is one of those illustrative experiences. Locy says she has brought it up with her students as an example of what can happen to a reporter in the court system, and they are worried for her. At the same time, though, Locy says she is worried for them, the future journalists of the world. She worries her case will stand as a precedent for future reporters.

"I've told my students, 'If you really do want to be a reporter, and if you want to cover courts and law enforcement and the kinds of things I did, you need to have a long, serious talk with yourself about whether you are willing to work in the environment that we live in right now,'" Locy says. "'It is very, very difficult right now to be that kind of reporter, and you have to make a decision whether you really want to do that kind of reporting and to take the risks personally that you apparently have to take now.'"

Rector is an AJR editorial assistant.

Clarification: This profile should have stated more clearly Locy's reasons for refusing to name confidential sources she spoke to about Steven Hatfill, named a "person of interest" by the government in the post-9/11 anthrax attacks but never charged. Locy says she refuses to name all of her anthrax sources because of something one or more of them may have told her about Hatfill.