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Fun with Pipe 

How Robin Stein, a journalistic neophyte, put excitement in her life -- and a dangerous Texas pipe manufacturer on the front page of the New York Times

Wednesday, Feb 5 2003
By one measure at least, America is living a gilded age of journalism. In years past, investigating a story meant contacting the staff librarian at the local newspaper and asking permission to finger through yellowed clippings. Reporters working a story back then might spend days or weeks at the county, state, or federal building, flipping through dried-out lawsuits, deeds of trust, police blotters, OSHA reports, and so on. Next came interviews: on the factory floor, at the Sheriff's Office, in the widow's apartment.

Today technology has streamlined this work. Newspaper archives, public records, and even not-so-public records are now available electronically. And e-mail often obviates personal interviews. The result is bliss: During part of the time I spent investigating this column -- surfing newspaper sites, sending e-mails, making phone calls -- I was able to repeatedly feed and change my 3-week-old daughter. It's a golden age indeed.

Robin Stein, a UC Berkeley political theory doctoral candidate, had not yet been initiated into these modern ways when she audited an investigative reporting seminar at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism in the fall of 2001. She had applied for the journalism master's program and had been rejected. But an instructor who happened to share her interest in German political philosophy allowed Stein to audit his seminar. He then assigned her to follow up on a tip about dangerous conditions in a Texas pipe factory. Ingenuously, like the cub reporter she was, Stein called the newspaper librarian at the Tyler, Texas, Morning Telegraph.

"I'm not a reporter, so I didn't know what to do," Stein says. "I basically called the newspaper in Tyler, Texas, to get the clips. I got the paper's librarian, and I talked with her a little while."

The librarian's brother-in-law happened to be one of several workers nationwide who died from injuries at pipe factories owned by McWane Inc. The librarian suggested Stein speak with her husband, who had seen egregious safety violations firsthand while working as a union representative at the plant.

Suddenly, Stein's naive foray into old-fashioned digging produced pay dirt. After a few weeks of phone calls -- and a growing pile of evidence that the factory's owner had systematically violated safety laws in Texas and elsewhere -- Stein's instructor assigned her a journalism graduate student, James Sandler, as a partner. And after a couple of months, the instructor suggested the students write a pitch memo to the New York Times. The stories from the Tyler librarian's family members turned out to be the investigative starting point for a three-part, 19,000-word series published last month on the Times' front pages. The story described how regulators sat idly by as McWane turned factories throughout the U.S. and Canada into killing and maiming fields. Stein's reporting also helped spawn a one-hour PBS television documentary in the investigative series Frontline, and another similar documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Of course, Stein didn't jump from journalistic neophyte into the big time all on her own. She had a lot of help, most notably from her journalism instructor. Who is, to say the least, no ordinary academic.

The print series on McWane Inc. was ultimately written by Times investigative reporter David Barstow and Times contract reporter Lowell Bergman. The series concluded that McWane, a privately held company based in Birmingham, Ala., is one of the most dangerous employers in America -- an employer that has gone largely unpunished. The investigation involved 18 months of interviews and record searches conducted or directed by Bergman and Barstow.

"Behind a high metal fence lies a workplace that is part Dickens and part Darwin, a dim, dirty, hellishly hot place where men are regularly disfigured by amputations and burns, where turnover is so high that men are recruited from local jails, where some workers urinate in their pants because their bosses refuse to let them step away from the manufacturing line for even minutes," the Times series began. "Since 1995, at least 4,600 injuries have been recorded in McWane foundries, many hundreds of them serious, company documents show. Nine workers ... have been killed."

Bergman is not just another Times freelancer, of course; he's the former 60 Minutes producer portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie The Insider, a dramatization of CBS's cancellation of a segment on tobacco companies' concealment of research into the dangers of smoking. After Bergman quit the TV newsmagazine in protest, he lined up a reporting gig with the Times, and arranged to make documentaries for Frontline, the PBS investigative series.

These roles dovetail nicely with a part-time job: Bergman also teaches the investigative reporting seminar at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism that Stein finagled her way into.

"She and I got into a conversation about Hegel, Marcuse, and 19th-century philosophy. Then she expressed an interest in journalism, and since she had the patience to read that stuff and try to figure it out, I thought she could probably untangle public records, do research, etc. At least it was worth a try," Bergman recalls, adding that Stein and Sandler's contributions to the project proved vital.

"They provided the energy, the enthusiasm, and the unique insights. First, they did much of the initial reporting that turned a lead into a story. Then they pursued the information logically, learning as they progressed, which was energizing to the rest of us. Along the way they also raised basic questions that we often overlook once we get inside an immense body of information."

According to Bergman, the hours and months of reporting for the McWane project consisted mostly of old-fashioned footwork: days spent flying to factory towns where factory workers had to be persuaded to tell their stories; weeks spent in courthouses and at regulatory agencies, reading documents; months chasing down leads that didn't pan out.

"Reporting on the condition of American workers was what launched much of modern in-depth reporting," noted Bergman. "For the last 20 years at least, that kind of reporting has lost favor. ... This was an example, from the beginning, of 'traditional' reporting, and worthy of pursuit for that reason."

Orville Schell, dean of the UC journalism school, praised the series when I spoke with him last week (even though his enthusiasm may have been tempered by the school's rejection of Stein's application). "This, for sheer bulk, probably takes the cake," Schell didn't quite effuse.

Judy Hobson, the staff librarian at the Tyler Morning Telegraph, was more enthusiastic.

"It has really stirred up a hornet's nest," Hobson says of the Times series. "People are coming in saying, 'They did this to me. They did that to me.'"

As for Stein, reviews of the series, and her work in it, are yesterday's news. She literally packed her bags last week, getting ready to move to New York to begin work as a stringer for the Times' city section.

My introduction to newspapering came through childhood tales of my great-great-grandfather, A.L. Holdrege. He bought a portable press and set up newspapers in a handful of Colorado mining towns, leaving each one a year or so later, a step ahead of creditors. His son, my great-grandfather Fred Holdrege, swept floors at an Oklahoma newspaper as a little boy, and as a teenager was therefore put in charge of running the actual writing, editing, printing, and delivering of his father's papers. This all came to an end after Fred had to sell the newspaper in Walden, Colo., to pay A.L.'s overdue grocery bill.

My second exposure to the field came when I nabbed a part-time job as a reporter at the now-defunct Sacramento Union. I recall feeling amazed that I was paid slightly more at this afternoon gig -- paid just to talk to people and then type what they said -- than at my morning job as a bike mechanic, which involved solving vexatious mechanical puzzles.

Several years later, while attending journalism graduate school, I was flabbergasted at the imperious portent that my fellow students ascribed to the writing of the news: Was it a craft, a profession, a calling? Blah, blah, blah. Whatever happened, I thought, to this fun thing that almost anyone could do -- but that some people actually got paid for?

That's why it was so delightful to hear Robin Stein, until recently a journalistic ingenue, describe her experience working on a story that is one of the better pieces of investigative reportage I've seen.

"The whole experience of working on this story was just amazing. I've never done anything before where I woke up in the morning and was excited to go there. I was talking to people about things that are so important in their eyes," Stein said, taking a break from packing belongings for her move to New York. "Someone who grew up in suburban New Jersey doesn't get to talk to factory workers in Alabama that often.

"It's definitely addictive."

With any luck, enthusiastic work by reporters such as Stein and Sandler -- along with patronage by old-fashioned news organizations such as the Times -- will spell an end to journalism's surf 'n' type, early 21st century gilded age. Preparing the way, I'm hoping, for my daughter, or her daughter, to get paid for having fun.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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