[UPDATED] Sara Ganim: My Pulitzer-winning story was not entirely written by lawyers

— From Onward State’s account of Sara Ganim’s Penn State talk this week

The emails started coming in last night from Romenesko readers who read Onward State’s account of Pulitzer-winning Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim’s talk on Tuesday at Penn State.

One emailer:

I was astonished at this revelation today. The lawyers wrote the entire story? Are you kidding me? I’ve heard of a story being reviewed by lawyers to make sure the paper didn’t get its butt sued off, but the lawyers actually writing it? Does this happen and I just don’t know about it. I’ve been in this business a long time and I’m completely shocked. At the very least it raises some questions about ethics and where authorship begins.

I’ve had editors clean up my share of shitty ledes, but this implies she didn’t write a sentence of the first story that started this whole ordeal. Not a sentence! And as you know, sometimes that’s the hardest part of doing a story.

Another emailer:

Is it typical for lawyers to write a story and then for a journalist to put her/his name on it? I don’t want to slam her. I just want to know if this is typical. I’ve never won a Pulitzer. So maybe it is normal for someone else to take your reporting and do the writing.

Sara Ganim

I sent emails to Ganim and Patriot-News editor Cate Barron; both replied within minutes. “This is obviously not what Sara said or meant Tuesday night,” said Barron. “I’m holed up in meetings today but Sara will get back to you and speak for herself.”

She did, and said the Onward State account of her talk — it was the speech she always gives at college appearances — didn’t accurately reflect her joking tone. She said she tells her audiences — not seriously — that lawyers wrote the story.

“I said it tongue in cheek,” she said in a phone conversation this morning. “It’s not like they wrote the story based on my facts.”

“I’m not sure he was paying that close attention to anything I said,” Ganim said of the Onward State reporter, noting there were other problems with his account of her talk. (Onward State is the Penn State website that prematurely reported Joe Paterno’s death in January. I’ve invited its editor to comment on the Ganim story.)

Here’s how the Centre Daily Times covered the same talk.

* Sara Ganim stresses 5 lessons at conference (onwardstate.com)

UPDATE: Onward State managing editor Kevin Horne (he’s not the author of the post) sends this email:

While I was not at the Ganim event personally, I have since corroborated with four different people who were there. All four verified that Ganim did say, in a serious tone, that lawyers played a big part in the story before it was published. Having oversight from legal counsel is not unusual for a story of that magnitude, and the fact that lawyers were heavily involved in her work is not a point of criticism. According to my four sources, Ganim also said in a less serious tone that lawyers essentially wrote the story for her. All of the quotes our reporter used were accurate.

This is not to take away from the extraordinary work Sara Ganim has done from the onset of this scandal. The national praise and awards she has received is well deserved, and the comment about the lawyers winning the Pulitzer instead of her was clearly a joke that most people understood.

On another note, I find the fact that you would publish this story without first giving me an opportunity to comment alarming. I feel that that goes against the grain of your work, and I was disappointed in that decision. Additionally, to describe Onward State solely as the blog that “prematurely reported Joe Paterno‚Äôs death” is a tremendous slight to the things Onward State has accomplished in its 4 years of existence.

I invited Horne to comment at 10:36 a.m.; I heard from him at 12:05 p.m. I wasn’t going to hold the item while waiting to find out whether he would respond to my email or not.

UPDATE II: You can watch Ganim’s talk here. The remarks in question start at 48:05.