Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist returns to campus

Gammage talks with students

For Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and James Madison University alumnus Jeff Gammage, everything has changed and nothing has changed over a 30-year career in journalism that has witnessed the rise of cable television news, the Internet, social media and blogs. 

“Technology has changed everything. It may put newspapers out of business or we may evolve into something else,” said Gammage, a 1982 graduate who returned to campus this week to give a guest lecture on the state of journalism and to advise students in the School of Media Arts and Design. “But a good story is a good story. The building blocks are the same. Whether it’s print or online, content is still king and the best story gets read.”

Gammage knows a thing or two about good stories. Among his many professional accolades, he was part of a team of reporters who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their seven-part series on the culture of violence in Philadelphia public schools.

For his part in the Inquirer’s yearlong investigation, “Assault on Learning,” Gammage was embedded at South Philadelphia High School, an institution rife with racial tensions that came to a head in 2009 when a group of Asian-American students were brutally attacked near campus. In the wake of the incident and a subsequent change in leadership, the school was willing to risk having a newspaper reporter walk the halls, and Gammage’s editors saw value in releasing him for the long-term assignment. “I knew this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I might never get unfettered time like this again.”

Gammage immersed himself in the experience, attending school functions and getting to know administrators, teachers and students. The biggest hurdle, he said, was earning their trust. “This was a failing school, a violent place. On any given day, some disaster could occur right there in front of me that was going to give the school district a black eye. A lot of people were nervous just to have me around, but the more I was there the more I just became a part of the furniture.”

Newsrooms at large metropolitan newspapers can be full of egos, but Gammage has always been comfortable working on a team. “I don’t know if people who can work collaboratively tend to attend JMU, or if JMU turns out people who can work collaboratively,” he said. “Either way, when I graduated I was comfortable working in a group to accomplish a singular goal. Of course not everyone plays well with others, and newsrooms in particular can be full of sharp elbows. On the Pulitzer project, we on the team depended on each other for different things at different times — not least the ability to turn to a trusted colleague for ideas, guidance or a sympathetic ear to listen and offer feedback on the day’s reporting.”

The winning series is proof, Gammage said, that enterprise journalism is still relevant in an age of text messages and tweets. “So much happened after that series came out. Everybody in the Philadelphia schools was focused on safety. There were concrete changes that were made, not only safety measures but also the culture and the mindset. Children there are safer today. That’s important to me. That’s why we, as journalists, got into this business.”

For all the tools available to reporters today, sometimes there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned shoe leather, he said. “When I was starting out in this business, there was no Internet, no cell phones, no email or text messages.” Interviewing a source in person may require extra effort, but it gives you a better sense of that person, which in turn makes for better reporting, he said. Gammage embraces technology — “I love Twitter,” he admits  — but avoids watching television news coverage, which he calls “too shallow” for his tastes.

During his visit to campus, Gammage returned to one of his old haunts, The Breeze, where he was a staff writer and later news editor, to assist with production on Sunday. He said he couldn’t help but notice some of the younger writers struggling with their stories. “I looked at them and I saw myself at that age. Someone else had to teach me how to do that, to do better. That same instruction was going on 30 years ago, and it’s still going on today. That was really encouraging to me.”

On Monday, Gammage shared his insights and expertise with two groups of SMAD students and fielded questions on conducting interviews and cultivating sources as well as on the writing of his 2007 memoir on adoption, “China Ghosts: My Daughter’s Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood.”

Gammage credits the journalism program at JMU and the dedication and encouragement of his professors with preparing him for the rigors of the profession. “When I got out into the real world, I was ready to do what I had to do,” he said. “I looked around and saw that I could do it as well as everyone around me, and a lot of times I could do it better. And that was because of the education I got here.”

“He was one of our few students who was very focused on hard news, and he was not at all afraid to ask powerful people tough questions,” recalled Dave Wendelken, associate professor of media arts and design and a former faculty adviser to The Breeze. During Gammage’s senior year in 1982, JMU’s student newspaper was one of only four college papers in the nation to win the Associated Collegiate Press’ distinguished Pacemaker Award.

JMU has produced many high-profile journalists over the years, including Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Bob Leverone, who was the keynote speaker at SMAD’s spring banquet in April. Wendelken said Gammage’s work should serve as inspiration for current students “to think that that caliber of award could be won by someone who was once a news editor at the school paper.” 

Gammage receives Carrier distinguished alumni award

The James Madison University Alumni Association has honored Jeff Gammage (’82) with the 2012 Ronald E. Carrier Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.

The award, named for JMU’s fourth president, recognizes alumni who have demonstrated significant achievements of enduring value to society. Created in 1977, it is given on an annual basis to an individual for exemplary accomplishments, both personal and professional, in any field or endeavor.

Gammage, part of a team of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters who were awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their expose on violence in Philadelphia public schools, was honored for his accurate reporting in an era of 24-hour news coverage. According to the association, Gammage is “living proof that legwork is a powerful asset when used for the public good.”

“Jeff's significant accomplishments in his field and his record of outstanding public service represent the best of JMU's mission to prepare its students to be educated and enlightened citizens who lead productive and meaningful lives,” said association president Jamie Jones Miller (’99).

Gammage credits his professors and advisors at JMU for putting him on the path to success. “If it hadn’t been for their mentorship and teaching, I know I wouldn’t have been at Columbia [University] this past spring [as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize], and I wouldn’t be here now with this alumni award,” he said. “I feel like it’s their award as much as it is mine.”

“The Alumni Association is proud to recognize alumni like Jeff Gammage who are not only taking their Madison Experience out into their communities and excelling, but are also returning to JMU as alumni volunteers to enrich the lives of others,” Miller said. “This connection between students and alumni is part of what makes the Madison Experience so unique, and I know we'll see more opportunities in the future through President Alger's focus on intergenerational connections.”

Gammage will be presented with the award during Homecoming Weekend at JMU, Oct. 26-28.

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Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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