One morning in the fall of 1972, Gene Roberts shambled up to the twin revolving doors at 400 N. Broad St. to begin his first day as executive editor of The Inquirer. As he pushed through one door, the photo editor - who had just quit - was walking out the other.
" 'You've just made the dumbest mistake of your life,' " Roberts recalls him saying. " 'Welcome to The Inquirer!' "
With that, Roberts - more certain than ever that he had come to the right place at the right time - took the elevator to the fifth floor and began what would become a legendary 18-year reign.
"Somewhere along the line, I decided that if I was ever going to run a newspaper, it would have to be one with lots of problems," Roberts says. "At a successful paper, there's resistance to change. If everything is coming up roses, why plant petunias?"
He had mentioned this someday-ambition to his friend Lee Hills, who had a habit of taking detailed shorthand notes of every conversation. In the summer of 1972, Hills, then chief executive officer of Knight Newspapers Inc., went to see Roberts, who was in Miami running the New York Times' coverage of the presidential conventions.
"He whipped out a notebook," Roberts recalls. "And said, 'On such-and-such a date, you said, "If I were ever to leave the Times, it would be to run a paper that was in trouble." ' Then Hills declaimed, 'I have just such a paper.' "
Under Roberts' deliberate, if often inscrutable, leadership, the paper would rise from the ignominy of the hubris and corruption of its previous decade to become one of the most respected dailies in the country. It would grow to be a veritable Pulitzer Prize machine, powered by a staff of young, ambitious reporters who were encouraged, as never before, to pursue stories in depth, undaunted by corporate threats to pull advertising, and undeterred by officials who were used to hiding and lying.
At the time, the Bulletin was the city's paper of record, admired for its encyclopedic coverage of the region, but stodgy and averse to risk. William K. Marimow, who worked there on the business news staff briefly before jumping to The Inquirer in 1972, recalled, "The editorial page always examined issues from both sides and never reached a conclusion."
Roberts, convinced that only one newspaper could survive in the city, resolved that The Inquirer would prevail. He planned to pummel the competition with news coverage that was intrepid and fair.
The ambition seemed preposterous.
In the 1950s and 1960s, The Inquirer had become a vehicle for owner Walter H. Annenberg's personal whims. He would use its pages to marginalize his enemies and bolster friends. For example, he held a grudge against the owner of the Warriors basketball team, and refused to cover the team's games. He disliked Gaylord Harnwell, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and kept all references to him out of the paper. Annenberg's blacklist also included actresses Imogene Coca and Zsa Zsa Gabor, as well as activist Ralph Nader.
And then there was the still-fresh memory of Harry Karafin. Karafin, an accomplished investigative reporter, had developed a lucrative sideline by digging up dirt for stories and then blackmailing the subjects, getting them to pay him off to not publish what he'd found. In 1968, he was convicted of extortion and died in prison five years later.
Donald L. Barlett, a reporter recruited from the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1970, remembers worrying when Roberts arrived. For years, at several good newspapers, Barlett had been stymied by editors who refused to run his investigative stories.
Most papers at the time, he realized, valued their relationships with government officials and powerful businessmen more than their role as public watchdogs.
The Inquirer had been moving in a hopeful direction after Annenberg sold it to the highly respected Knight newspaper chain. Then along came Eugene L. Roberts Jr., this exile from the Times, a rumpled character with a Southern drawl, who set up his desk in the center of the newsroom. Perpetually equipped with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of iced tea in the other, Roberts had an odd habit of allowing long silences to plop down like a tuckered-out bloodhound in the midst of a conversation.
No one knew quite what to make of him, and that included Barlett and his colleague James B. Steele. The duo had just completed an investigative series about the criminal courts. "It was written, edited, and ready to run," Barlett recalls.
After Roberts read the series, he told the reporters he wanted to hold it until the new year. "He said he wanted to study it," Barlett says. "And I thought, 'Here we go.' "
It turned out, however, that Roberts wanted the extra time to give the stories the attention they deserved. "He wanted more art. He wanted graphics, something that no one had done. He wanted to make it look good," says Barlett. When the stories ran, he said to himself, "The Holy Grail is complete."
The late 1970s was a time of social and political upheaval in Philadelphia, the nation and the world. Frank L. Rizzo was in his last term as mayor. The Vietnam War had just ended. In Iran, Shah Reza Pahlavi, the United States' ally, would be deposed and replaced by the fundamentalist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The civil rights and women's movements had won critical legal battles, but idealism had outpaced reality. The new equality was still testing its coltlike legs, making unsteady progress in homes and at work. The hippies of the 1960s were graduating from college and graduate school, confronting the buzz-killing forces of inflation, high gas prices, and unemployment.
By 1979, The Inquirer's newsroom was an overcrowded nest of reporters, editors and photographers who came in early and worked late, ending their nights in office poker games and, occasionally, in each others' beds.
The staff, mostly young and unmarried, chased down stories chronicling the tectonic shifts in the world at large as they experienced them personally. Competing for coveted space in the Sunday paper, the "hot book," they wrote about trends that everyone was living without realizing the import.
"We were products of all the tumult of '68, '69, '70," Marimow said. "Our generation questioned the Vietnam War. The government's honesty. We had lived through the battles over civil rights, birth control and marijuana ... and none of these issues were settled."
In the 1950s, he said, "the goal of reporters was getting access to public officials and luminaries, getting the exclusive interview." While that may be a component of excellent journalism, he said, the new journalists aspired to be more analytic, incisive and perceptive than "stenographic."
Marimow and his colleagues set up shop on metal desks, under dropped ceilings of acoustical tiles. Over the clattering of wire-service machines and typewriters, they shared tips and ideas and sources. Urged by editors to write with emotion and beauty as well as scrupulous accuracy, they wrote stories in full, complex detail.
Arlene Notoro Morgan, one of only a half-dozen women on the staff when she was hired in 1969, watched the transformation as she helped create it.
At one point, Roberts assigned her to the news desk, where pages are laid out. The job then required frequent trips to the composing room, a solidly male redoubt. Morgan, who came from sturdy South Philadelphia Italian stock, helped redesign the paper, eliminating the "girlie-girl" pictures and modernizing the look. It was only years later, at a meeting where Roberts was giving a talk, that she learned how much of an impression she'd made.
"He said that I was the first woman to go in and work with the composers on the pages. I was reading type backwards," Morgan says. "It was like a show. Guys from circulation and advertising would come down to just watch me. They couldn't believe that a girl could use that language."
By the late 1970s, the paper was beginning to reach its stride.
For four years running, it won the Pulitzer Prize. The first went to Barlett and Steele for a series on the IRS. The second to Tony Auth for his political cartoons. The third to Acel Moore and Wendell Rawls Jr. for their investigation of conditions at Farview State Hospital. And the fourth - the gold medal for public service - to Marimow, Jonathan Neumann, and the staff, for a series on police abuse.
While Moore, an African American, would remain among the most respected members of the staff, it would be decades before the paper received any semblance of racial equality. Roberts had been hearing from his own four daughters, as well as his colleagues, that the paper needed a more diverse staff.
But there were few women, and even fewer African Americans, with the minimum four or five years' experience that The Inquirer had come to require, Roberts said.
Given the restless and provocative nature of most journalists, the staff always had complaints. But the place exuded a seriousness of purpose, leavened by humor, that made it one of the happiest and most productive newsrooms anywhere.
Roberts and one of his top editors, James M. Naughton, pulled serial stunts, each more brazen than the last. They found a large portrait of John Wayne on black velvet and passed it around again and again as a gift to commemorate seminal moments. They brought into the office a camel, a goat, many frogs, the Phillies' Larry Bowa, who jumped out of a birthday cake, and - still in permanent residence - a vending machine with a chicken that lays plastic eggs.
Meanwhile, managing editor Gene Foreman, a masterful wordsmith and the King Solomon of journalistic ethics, set high standards for the staff. His attention to detail - down to the placement of commas - and unflappable managerial style helped steady the newsroom as it gained momentum.
As 1979 unfolded, The Inquirer published stories that have remarkable resonance 30 years later. On New Year's Day, two elderly women were found stabbed to death in Germantown after being robbed. SEPTA fares were going up by a nickel. It was announced that the city's budget cuts would force the reduction of library staffs by 15 percent. The nation was bracing for an economic downturn.
Over the next few months, the paper would report that Traffic Court Judge Louis Vignola had been convicted of receiving $32,000 in bribes. Unemployment rose to 5.9 percent. The city reached an agreement with the municipal employees' union to slash overtime pay and avoid layoffs.
It would cover the Phillies' addition of new player, Pete Rose, to the team that would go on to win the 1980 World Series. And it would chronicle the Eagles' increasing success, which would end in a loss in Super Bowl XV.
Filling pages between the news, advertisements featured Lee Iacocca shilling for Chrysler's X cars, touting a fuel efficiency of 26 miles per gallon. David Boldt, the editor of Inquirer Magazine, introduced a cover story about Margaret Thatcher, telling readers essentially: Now don't tell us we aren't paying enough attention to women.
As enlightened as the editors may have been, other attitudes were slower to change. In April, the paper ran a small wire story on Page A2. San Francisco Supervisor Dan White had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the fatal shootings of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, another member of the Board of Supervisors.
"Milk," the reporter wrote, "was an avowed homosexual."
On March 28, Roberts was home with the flu when he got word that there had been a nuclear accident near Harrisburg.
"At this point, they didn't need me," he said of the staff. "Over the years, we had gotten increasingly better at getting the big story. You didn't have to tell anybody how to respond."
The following morning, the paper ran a front page photograph of three conical towers on an industrial island beneath the banner headline "Power Plant Leaks Radiation."
(At the bottom of the page, it reported that Ira Einhorn had been charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Holly Maddux.)
The close brush with a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island would become one of the biggest stories in the nation, and The Inquirer's deep, wide and relentless coverage would mark a turning point in the paper's history.
Reporters were dispatched to Harrisburg, where they got a short-wave radio and discovered a band dedicated to communication between government officials and the TMI leadership. Taking shifts to monitor the dispatches 24/7, they overheard one official brag that he had outwitted Inquirer reporters by lying about the situation's severity - then they published his words.
They wrote not only about daily developments in the crisis, but also explained how a nuclear reactor works, with clear illustrations. They wrote about how The China Syndrome, then playing in theaters, differed from the reality of TMI. They wrote about nuclear regulations, nuclear waste, how the clergy reacted, what the Amish thought. On Sunday, the paper published a moment-by-moment account of how the accident had occurred and the events that followed.
The following year, no one was surprised that the coverage had won the paper another Pulitzer.
"More than 100 people, maybe 150, were vital parts of that coverage," Roberts says. "After Three Mile Island, there was just no question in the staff's mind that The Inquirer was an excellent paper and they were an excellent staff."
Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or email@example.com.