Sara Ganim was standing in her pink socks in the office of the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News when she heard the news Monday. The 24-year-old crime reporter, who beat the nation’s sports journalists to the scoop of the year, the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, had become one of the youngest-ever recipients of a Pulitzer Prize. It was the first ever for the 157-year-old Patriot-News.
The honor was the result of countless 60-hour weeks of the kind of shoe-leather journalism that has many admirers but few practitioners. The enterprising Ganim, who keeps a police scanner on her bedside table, will be called a wunderkind, tenacious, the first of a new generation of newshounds with grit and gumption.
What she is, though, is a reporter, and says she’s been one since age 15. After a year at college, she began contributing to the Sun-Sentinel in her hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she attended Archbishop McCarthy High School. Crime is her daily fare, and it’s usually not the kind of work that gains much attention. Much of the time, her stories could have happened almost anywhere. One potboiler Ganim report chronicles the theft of a $150 piece of kitchenware and consists of two sentences, the second of which is, “The woman told police the friend is refusing to return the slow-cooker.”
Ganim’s career in crime reporting began when, as a staff writer at Penn State University’s student newspaper, she picked up news budget crumbs. She had promised her father that she would graduate in three years, and so, during one summer of classes, she was hanging around at the Daily Collegian. “In the middle of the summer no one wanted to go to the daily briefing at the police station,” Ganim told The Daily Beast. Except for her.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Ganim said of her love for the crime beat, which demands late hours, tough interviews, and unending hunts through court documents. “It can be very technical and harsh. But I think when you get into it and do it correctly, it’s a very rewarding beat.”
For her dedication to running down every lead, turning every page, it may be most correct to compare Ganim to fellow Florida blood-and-guts scribe Edna Buchanan. And the pink socks aren’t to unnerve interview subjects. They’re a running joke and good-luck charm that started when Ganim, who likes to go barefoot in the office, was given a colorful pair after the Sandusky story broke.
The trail to Sandusky, a case that held the nation’s attention for months and rocked Penn State, was two years long, and Ganim first picked it up while working at the Centre Daily Times, a State College paper with a weekday circulation of about 24,000. She took a part-time position on the paper’s night-crime desk and held onto it for 18 months while still a student, waking up nights to check the scanner and make sure she wasn’t missing anything.
While speaking with a source in 2009 for a Centre Daily Times story she says can’t remember now, Ganim wound up the interview by asking if there was anything else she should know about. “Well, actually a boy just came forward to the police and alleged sex crimes against Jerry Sandusky,” the source replied.
Vaguely familiar with the name, Ganim scrawled it on a sticky note on her computer monitor, thinking to herself that she’d Google it the next day. She wound up combing through online message boards where Penn State fans and alumni shared rumors no one wanted to believe about the retired assistant coach’s relationship with young boys. She went door to door, asking people if they’d heard anything about Sandusky, seeking interviews, looking to nail down the hard facts.
By March 2011 she’d gathered enough information to piece together a front-page story reporting that Sandusky was the subject of a grand-jury investigation. Such proceedings are secret in Pennsylvania, and Ganim relied on anonymous quotations from five people close to the case who told her that the investigation had been proceeding for about a year and a half.
While the grand jury she reported on first only became public in November 2011, Ganim followed up with investigations into Penn State and Sandusky charity Second Mile’s handling of the allegations against the former coach, and stories about the alleged victims. The larger narrative unfolded interview by interview, article by article. And then, on Nov. 9, Ganim’s alma mater erupted in student riots after the university fired both the university president and Nittany Lions coach and patriarch Joe Paterno. She stood in eerie silence on Paterno’s front lawn as the cries of an angry mob drifted from the school.
“Even within that world, which I was definitely a part of, it was just something that wasn’t ever going to happen, that he was going to get fired,” Ganim said. “We definitely didn’t see it coming. We were focused on following the facts.”
The trial of Sandusky, who has been charged with molesting 10 boys over a period of 15 years, is scheduled to begin in June.