Most of what I learned about journalism came from observing a true crime reporter named Michael Sangiacomo.
I was just hired by the Pottstown Mercury, a small newspaper some 25 miles outside of Philadelphia (and the home of Mrs. Smith’s Pies), when Sang (Pronounced Sange, as in “Angie) took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.
Never, never reveal your source, he said. And always attribute your source whenever you can.
Sound like gibberish? A contradiction in terms? Let me explain. A source of information would dry up if he or she thought their name, provided you “off the record,” would appear in print. Or if they fed you news strictly for “background information.” One is self-explanatory, while the other, for “background” purposes, permits a reporter to provide information unattributed yet reliable, because a reporter’s well-known source is providing a necessary context to understand something. Usually, something controversial, borderline illegal, or both. A good reporter would go to jail before giving up such a source.
Revealing a name could lead to a firing or worse, depending on any strong-armed connections. (I got driven off the road once when uncovering inside information about a homicide outside Phoenixville, PA. Never had anyone pull a gun on me, but almost got run over after writing one story. And that involved a minister of a church being defrocked!)
Most people enjoy seeing their names in the paper, particularly, if they’re in authority and you get your facts right in the first place. That’s straight from the Sangiacomo playbook. Feature stories always cheered up people, he’d add. The more names you could drop, the more readers there’d be. The more people who would clip out a newspaper story and put it on a bulletin board or in a scrap book for long-term viewing.
That would include tragedies. Simply to show history of sorts in the making, like a fire to a favorite store, or the closing of movie theater falling prey to the multi-screen complexes at a new mall.
Some cops would be offended if you didn’t mention their name making an arrest. That included at least one detective, of whom, incidentally, Sang and I both considered not the best on the force. The quiet, reserved publicity-shy investigator always turned out to know more than anyone else but didn’t need everyone — including the public — to know that he knew it.
Sang knew how to groom a source. He’d put himself out to gain trust, something law enforcement folk find rare in the Press, and when they did, they’d treasure it. Sangiacomo would get calls the major papers would not, and be privy to the inside dope when a national news story would come our way.
Like a hostage-taking incident at Graterford State Prison, near Collegeville, Montgomery County, when a few correctional officers were overtaken and held by inmates one day. News agencies feeding information world-wide could not compete with Sangiacomo’s reporting. His name and that of our 30,000 circulation newspaper would be quoted frequently even though no one ever copyrighted any story. The attribution was done as a professional courtesy to a trusted colleague.
And, Sang would be generous with others. I got several state awards for reporting “piggy-back” on some of his stories, following up on articles that demaded attention day after day, like that of a murder mystery of a local businessman, which was leaked to us, the newspaper reporters, to help in the investigation.
The stories would never have seen the light of day, if it were not for the trust and belief one had in a fellow like Sangiacomo. Thanks, my good buddy. Copy you again sometime at your other newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio.