Memo to AP staff shows how AP covered Penn State child sex abuse scandal

Nov. 16, 2011
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(In this Nov. 15 note below to The Associated Press staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes explains how relentless reporting set the tone and the pace for the biggest sports story of the year.)

Colleagues,

When at first he didn't succeed, Genaro Armas just kept trying. Ultimately, his tenacity paid off in one of the biggest scoops of the child sex abuse scandal that engulfed Penn State University and its revered football coach, Joe Paterno.

Armas, the AP correspondent in State College, Pa., had worked hard to build sources within the university and its athletic department, and after the big story broke, he worked around the clock for days.

As speculation swirled that Paterno would be forced out amid the growing furor over how he and the school handled sex abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Armas made dozens of phone calls, sent text messages and emails and knocked on doors of university trustees and key figures in the story. At one point, neighbors mistook him for one of Sandusky's sons and, once he identified himself as a reporter, asked him to go away.

No one would say what effect the scandal would have on Paterno, major college football's winningest coach, who prided himself as much on integrity as success.

The break came as Armas was buying bottled water at a convenience store. He got a frantic call from a source he had texted and emailed earlier in the morning, just checking in. Paterno, the source said, was about to announce his retirement, effective at the end of the season, after 46 years.

The source -- a person familiar with the decision -- was unimpeachable, so Armas went with it immediately.

It was a clean beat, not matched until the family released a statement on PR Newswire 37 minutes later. The first APNewsNow caused an explosion on Twitter -- nearly 280 retweets in 20 minutes, including one by Reuters. Not even the players knew. The team wasn't told for almost an hour.

Armas also noted there was no guarantee Paterno would be allowed to finish the season, which proved prescient when the board of trustees voted unanimously hours later to fire him, effective immediately.

The competitive play was overwhelming: 24 of 26 front pages in the daily checks.

That highlighted a week of dominating coverage. While Armas, sports national writer Nancy Armour and columnist Jim Litke did the shoe-leather work, the Pennsylvania staff filed Freedom of Information Act requests and mined grand jury documents and the Sandusky autobiography. In New York, the News Research Center gathered background on The Second Mile, a charity founded by Sandusky in 1977 to help at-risk children.

For relentless reporting that set the tone and the pace for the biggest sports story of the year, Armas wins this week's $500 prize.

Mike Oreskes
Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News


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