Tenacious alumna digs, drives coverage of Sandusky scandal
In early 2009, less than a year after her college graduation, Sara Ganim sat at her desk at the Centre Daily Times conducting a late-night phone interview.
As usual, the 21-year-old police reporter was cultivating someone who might have information she could use in her news stories. “I was really obsessed with creating source relationships,” Ganim said later. “My goal was to have eyes and ears in the whole county.”
As she typically ended conversations with sources, Ganim asked one last question: “What else should I know?” Often, the question produced only a bit of college-town gossip. In this case, however, it led to a breakthrough.
“Jerry Sandusky,” the source said, “has been accused of molesting little boys during sleepovers at his house.”
Ganim quickly Googled Sandusky’s name. Despite being a 2008 Penn State graduate, she had no idea who Sandusky really was. The first item that appeared in her search was about The Second Mile, Sandusky’s nonprofit organization for underprivileged children. Reading on, she found that Sandusky wasn’t just any football coach, but the defensive coordinator who helped build Penn State’s reputation as “Linebacker U,” coaching there from 1969 to 1999.
On a sticky note, she wrote the name “Jerry Sandusky.”
After the telephone interview, Ganim went back to her apartment and slept, as she always did, with a police scanner by her bedside.
In the following weeks, while covering cops and courts for the CDT, she continued to think about the Sandusky tip. Whenever she had any free time, she tried to pursue the story, making phone calls and asking around on nights and weekends. But it led nowhere. What’s more, the original source—whom Ganim won’t name—called six weeks later to say that the rumors weren’t true.
She asked herself, “Why a call after six weeks?”
Ganim was motivated to push forward with the story, first at the CDT and some two years later in her new job as a reporter for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg. Her persistence would ultimately break the news of one of the biggest and most painful scandals in college history.
In the whirlwind that followed, Ganim not only continued her daily reporting of the Sandusky scandal for the Patriot-News, but also appeared on national television as a CNN contributor and as a guest commentator on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” She has traveled around the nation and abroad, picking up awards and talking about reporting and writing with seasoned journalists and journalism students.
“I naively thought I’d be a little less busy after the Sandusky trial,” she said with a laugh.
‘Something doesn’t add up’
Ganim kept Sandusky’s name in the back of her mind after first hearing it, and so she grabbed the opportunity to cover a Second Mile fundraiser six months later. There, she noticed something: Sandusky, the organization’s most visible face, wasn’t to be found. She had expected him to be milling around, schmoozing with prospective donors. She asked two different Second Mile people about his absence and, surprisingly, got two different answers. One said that Sandusky was sick; another said he wanted to spend time with his family. Ganim realized that Second Mile staffers hadn’t been told how to field questions about a missing Sandusky.
“In my mind, I said, ‘Something doesn’t add up here,’ ” she reflected.
Ganim would learn that Sandusky’s clearance for working with children had been revoked because of a grand jury investigation, effectively ending his ties to The Second Mile.
Now Ganim had something to investigate.
“Move the story forward.” Those four words became law for Ganim, other reporters and editors at the Patriot-News as the Sandusky sex abuse case unfolded.
It became the astounding story of a fired head football coach and a university president who resigned, three university administrators who were indicted and what many contend are among the harshest sanctions ever levied by the NCAA.
Ganim said the scandal meant accepting Happy Valley as far from idyllic.
“You have to accept that this place isn’t perfect,” she said. “Something bad did happen, and people have to take responsibility for it.”
On March 31, 2011, two months after Ganim was hired, the Patriot-News published her first story naming Sandusky as the subject of a secret state grand jury investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general. Ganim had found that the grand jury was investigating whether Sandusky might have indecently assaulted a Clinton County boy, later dubbed “Victim 1” in the former coach’s grand jury presentment. The boy had contacted state authorities at age 15 in 2009. That victim has since identified himself as Aaron Fisher of Lock Haven.
Until 2011, Sandusky enjoyed an impeccable reputation in State College and around the state, not only as a successful coach but also as a leader in work with underprivileged children.
Ganim had pursued the story since 2009 by knocking on doors, lingering at the attorney general’s downtown Harrisburg office and discounting sources who intentionally deceived her. She confirmed tips little by little, collaborating closely with Patriot-News editors and lawyers. With five sources who were aware of the grand jury’s secret deliberations, Ganim confirmed that the grand jury was investigating Sandusky’s possible inappropriate contact with two young men.
“We let her loose because we trusted her, but it required so much deep background,” said one of her Patriot-News editors, Cate Barron. “We had to have it sourced well.” Barron served as the Patriot-News’s executive editor before taking over as editor in May.
On March 29, Ganim said, the editors decided that first story was good to publish. Still, they waited one more day to contemplate further. Finally, the story, along with related stories, was published in the editions of March 31.
Despite the potential ethical pitfalls of reporting on an ongoing investigation, Patriot-News managing editor Mike Feeley stressed that Ganim’s reporting made him and others positive that multiple victims of Sandusky were out there.
On the very day the biggest story of her young career hit the streets, Ganim had a class to teach. As an adjunct journalism instructor, she traveled an hour and a half from Harrisburg to Penn State’s University Park campus every Tuesday and Thursday to teach an introductory reporting class, in a program from which she had graduated only three years before. She didn’t mention the story. Only a guest speaker, the news manager at a local TV news station, made a few comments in passing about it.
After class came relief for Ganim. Jerry Sandusky released a statement late in the afternoon. It proclaimed his innocence, but it confirmed that he was being investigated.
Ganim knew then that coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz had already testified before a grand jury, but Penn State officials were silent. University president Graham Spanier and the Penn State Board of Trustees said they knew nothing about the investigation.
While Ganim’s friends in journalism congratulated her on her reporting, some Penn State fans came to characterize the March 31 article as sensationalism, meant to sell news- papers at a fragile time for the print industry. Without all of the facts and with no charges filed, why report on the investigation of a venerated figure? One commenter posted to the Harrisburg newspaper’s website: “The indignation I feel toward the Patriot-News is beyond description. Guilty or innocent, they have smeared the man’s reputation forever.”
Two months ago, at a speaking engagement at Penn State where she addressed more than 400 journalism students and people from the community, Ganim said she does her best to block out the criticism.
“I get both sides of it,” she said. “You killed your university, or you’re too easy. I get the same thing with Joe Paterno. I get the same thing with Jerry Sandusky.”
Ganim and her editors take satisfaction that of the eight victims detailed in Sandusky’s Nov. 4, 2011, grand jury presentment, six came forward after her first story was published.
Growing up a journalist
Sara Ganim was born in Detroit on Sept. 9, 1987, to Bruce and Fran Ganim, their first child. She grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with five-years-younger sister Rebecca. From the start, Sara was the mischievous extrovert, Rebecca remembers.
Sara was the one who came up with the idea to fill the family’s bathtub until it overflowed when her parents weren’t around, the one who used a barbecue skewer to poke a hole in the wall between her sister’s room and her own.
When Sara was 15, her mother saw an advertisement inviting high school students to write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Next Generation program. The program’s young writers, photographers and artists generated content for a Sun-Sentinel special newspaper distributed weekly to area high schools. Sara said her mother probably thought the program represented an opportunity to get her older daughter out of the house.
In October 2002, Sara published her first piece about a young girl with cancer in her hip with a less-than-hopeful chance of survival after a surgery. (The girl survived.)
Ganim went on to become one of the section’s top editors and began freelancing for the Sun-Sentinel’s daily editions. Jennifer Jhon, the Next Generation program’s coordinator, remembers her intense devotion to her work.
“She would take the stories that no one else could take,” Jhon said.
In an upbringing deeply rooted in religion, Ganim attended high school at Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy Catholic High School in Southwest Ranches, Fla., “hating every minute” for its rigid rules, she said. She found a creative outlet by rejuvenating the school’s newspaper as its editor in chief, though she lamented having to put up with student work that wasn’t up to her own standards.
As high school neared its end in 2005, journalism became more than a hobby; it became a calling.
Ganim’s path out of Florida to Pennsylvania is part of family lore, retold every year around Christmas trees and dinner tables.
After she applied to schools like New York University and George Washington University, her merely average grades resulted in only one acceptance: the University of Central Florida, her mother’s alma mater.
On Thanksgiving vacation with extended family in 2004, a stubborn Sara Ganim began to pitch a fit. She was not going to Central Florida, which she dubbed “high school part 2,” despite her parents’ already having put down a housing deposit.
“I loved Florida and I obviously loved my family, but I just wanted to get away,” Ganim said.
Flipping through a Princeton Review college guide, she stumbled across Penn State. When an aunt began to advocate for the school, it drew quick rebuttal from Bruce Ganim.
“I am not paying all this money to go to a state school in another state,” Bruce Ganim yelled.
His daughter screamed back, fighting him point-for-point after her interest had been piqued by Penn State’s nationally recognized student newspaper, The Daily Collegian.
It made little sense to Ganim’s father for her to attend school 1,200 miles away, when public universities in Florida are financed partially through the state lottery. Disregarding her father’s comments, Ganim headed to the computer and filled out an application for Penn State.
Her father gives in
She was accepted—but at Penn State Harrisburg, not the main campus at University Park. Sara persuaded her father, who attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, to take her to see the school, making the trip as an excuse to visit old college friends in Philadelphia.
“If you want to visit, fine, we’ll visit,” he said.
The family first headed to University Park in April 2005, planning to visit the Harrisburg campus the day after.
They never made it to Harrisburg.
“I fell in love,” she said. “I was just totally in love.” She knew what a real newsroom looked like from her experience at the Sun-Sentinel, and when she entered the downtown State College office of the Collegian, she recognized one. It was complete with ringing telephones, overworked staff members and real news stories. It was nothing like the student newspaper at Archbishop McCarthy.
She had brought some of her best newspaper clips to show to faculty members. The College of Communications’ assistant dean for academic services, Jamey Perry, showed Ganim around campus and detected promise in her work. As the budding student toured the Collegian, Perry took the clips to the college’s dean, Douglas Anderson. Anderson recognized her byline; he had seen it in the Sun-Sentinel while visiting Florida on business.
“We both said, ‘Wow,’ ” Perry said. “We didn’t want to lose this good student; we didn’t want to lose her to Harrisburg.”
With Anderson’s blessing, Perry said there was a good chance she would be offered admission to University Park to pursue a degree in journalism if she would start in the summer. To her father’s chagrin, she was hooked.
But Bruce Ganim made it clear that, to save thousands of dollars in tuition money, Sara would have to graduate in three years instead of four.
Soon after move-in day at Penn State, Ganim joined the Collegian’s candidate program, designed to turn green recruits into reporters. She immediately caught the attention of the newspaper’s editors for her intensity and diligence, writing about 20 stories during a six-week summer session in 2005.
“It’s better to be busy than bored, right? I tend to get in trouble when I’m bored,” Ganim said with a smile.
She quickly rose to the Collegian’s police, fire and courts beat, one of the newspaper’s most prestigious assignments, after producing an article about graffiti at a nearby mall. That story “got the adrenaline going,” Ganim said. She was demonstrating a lasting passion for finding the human thread in the news.
She worked long hours during the day to develop solid sources and scoop the competition, including the Centre Daily Times, while managing to maintain a relatively normal student life. Ganim went to Penn State football games and, to the detriment of her grades, partied hard at night.
Perry still keeps a misshapen bluish gray “Penn State University” bowl in his office that Ganim shoddily made for one of her art classes. The memento is a running joke between the two, and it is evidence of her insistence that most of her classes outside of her major were pointless.
In December 2006, Ganim’s diligence in developing sources paid off. Bob Heisse, editor of the CDT, took notice of the young reporter and let Ganim know about a part-time opening on the 2-to-10 p.m. shift of the newspaper’s police, fire and courts beat.
Pete Bosak, the newspaper’s full-time police reporter, recommended Ganim. After meeting her at the State College Police Department, he was impressed that she “always had questions.”
“You could tell she lived and breathed journalism,” said Bosak, now a public relations professional in North Carolina. “She absolutely loved it; that jumped right out at me.”
The CDT offer came at the right time. Ganim wanted to pursue the 2007 spring semester on the cops beat at the Collegian once more, but the student newspaper’s leaders wanted her to become an editor.
She didn’t want to graduate from college with two-year-old articles to show to prospective employers. So she quit the Collegian for the CDT. Her departure created a rift between herself and her former colleagues at the Collegian, one that was not helped by Ganim’s intensely competitive nature.
‘The scanner was always on ...’
Ganim balanced her classes with a CDT work week of just under 40 hours a week. Soon, she was producing 45-second news segments for local radio station 3WZ in the mornings. Interested in expanding her skills, she also produced videos after taking a multimedia class.
Ganim’s passion for her job was infectious, said Lauren Boyer, a friend and former co-worker at both the Collegian and CDT.
Whenever she came to visit Ganim at her home, “the scanner was always on,” said Boyer, now a business reporter at the York Daily Record.
Bosak remembered how Ganim helped him cover a homicide trial. After the verdict, he asked her to get comment from jurors, a task that is often difficult for seasoned beat reporters. Ganim took Bosak’s request as a challenge, getting quotes from several jurors.
Beginning as a paid reporter, however, Ganim was far from perfect, Heisse said. Errors slipped in. Ganim remembers wanting to “go out and burn every Centre Daily Times” after allowing a mistake to go into print.
“But, some great stories came out of it,” said Heisse, now the executive editor at the State-Journal Register in Springfield, Ill.
The long hours at work took a toll on her grades. Ganim graduated in May 2008 with a 2.99 GPA, a number she isn’t proud of. But when Bosak left the CDT, Ganim was offered his full-time position. Instead of 40 hours a week, Ganim would work as many as 70.
Teresa Bonner, the CDT’s former city editor, remembers ordering Ganim to take a day off after a six consecutive days at work. But on Ganim’s way home, the stubborn reporter happened to pull behind a state police forensic unit van on the way to a homicide crime scene. Naturally, she stuck with the van.
When Ganim got hints about the Sandusky case, she got as far as making contact with Fisher, known as “Victim 1,” but could never find the time to pursue any other definitive leads. It was difficult to free her up, given more pressing breaking news, Heisse said.
“It would’ve been better to give her a couple months to do it, but that wasn’t going to happen at a smaller newspaper,” Heisse said. “We were never close to publishing anything because sources never wanted to go on the record.”
During her tenure at the CDT, Ganim developed a friendship with Pete Shellem, a celebrated investigative reporter at the Patriot-News, phoning him for advice daily after they worked on a story. Shellem, who died in 2009, spoke highly of Ganim’s reporting. That eventually led to the young reporter’s next opportunity.
“His recommendation meant a great deal to us,” said David Newhouse, Patriot-News editor at the time.
When a crime-reporting job at the Patriot-News opened at the end of 2010, Ganim got it. She accepted, she said, mostly to learn about how much the paper knew about the Sandusky investigation. Ganim said she was comfortable where she was in State College, effectively at the scene of the alleged crime. From an interview with Barron and assistant managing editor Feeley, Ganim deduced that the newspaper knew about a different Sandusky victim than she did. That was a pivotal moment. One person’s accusations could mean an ulterior motive, but two separate accusations indicated something deeper, Ganim said.
She unexpectedly also came away “in love” with the Patriot-News’ work environment, convinced she would have more time to work on the investigative projects that she had passion for.
After four years with the CDT, Heisse, who himself had worked about two decades at the Patriot-News, said he understood Ganim’s decision. He still has pictures from Ganim’s going-away party, complete with a cake that bade farewell to “Hurricane Sara.”
When she moved to Harrisburg, she immediately pleaded with her editors for more time to work on the Sandusky story. They agreed, with Ganim’s tenacity and Shellem’s recommendation in mind, Newhouse said.
“I made a list of every possible person I thought could possibly know about this,” Ganim said. “Some of them were dead ends. Some of them couldn’t talk. Some of them yelled at me. Some of them gave me new names of people to talk to.”
In 2011, her first article about the grand jury investigation into Sandusky was published in the CDT as well as the Patriot-News, part of a mutual agreement between the two newspapers. That was something Ganim wanted, feeling that she owed a debt of gratitude to her first employer.
That summer, the Sandusky story went on the backburner as massive flooding struck Pennsylvania. She worked on the Sandusky case at nights and on weekends through the summer and fall, building relationships with victims and their families. The day of the grand jury presentment’s release was drawing near, but it was a question of when.
Waiting for that day, Ganim visited the Sandusky house once to ask the coach questions, she said. Dottie Sandusky, his wife, approached the front door but retreated into the house when she saw who was there. Ganim placed a letter at the base of the door and left.
On Nov. 4, 2011, Ganim caught the attorney general’s early online posting about Sandusky’s indictment—only because she compulsively checked the website every day. The next day, Sandusky turned himself into authorities on 40 counts of child sex abuse dating to the mid-1990s.
From that point, Ganim never took a day off until after Sandusky’s trial ended on June 22, 2012, where the former coach was found guilty of 45 out of 48 charges of child sex abuse against him.
At 4 a.m. on some days she would wake up to contribute early-morning case analysis for CNN. She used the downtown State College home of her sister Rebecca, now a Penn State student herself, as unofficial Patriot-News headquarters.
She would chase down leads with help from her bosses who, she said, helped “focus the story.” On Nov. 7, 2011, she filed her story about the arraignment of Schultz and Curley in the 45 minutes before deadline.
On Nov. 9, the night Paterno was fired and Spanier resigned, she stood on the legendary former head coach’s lawn in disbelief. Reflecting later on Paterno’s death on Jan. 22, 2012, Ganim said it was surreal.
Newhouse and his team of editors did their best to emphasize the credo “move the story forward” – to advance the paper’s coverage over what was being produced by a press pool that now exceeded 200 reporters. Ganim exclusively interviewed the mothers of two victims, exhaustively analyzed Mike McQueary’s shower testimony, and wrote a five-part series about how much officials in The Second Mile knew.
At 3 p.m. on Monday, April 16, 2012, the board for the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor, would announce its winners.
Known for going shoe-less around the office, Sara Ganim was wearing a pair of lucky pink socks that day. As the clock ticked toward 3, she stood surrounded by colleagues and vacant cubicles at the Patriot-News’ Mechanicsburg office.
The rookie crime beat reporter, along with the staff of the Patriot-News, had been nominated in the category of local reporting.
Ganim had already earned the 2011 Scripps Howard Award for Community Journalism, the George K. Polk Award and Sidney Award, among others. Newsweek had named her one of the “150 Fearless Women in the World.”
As she waited, Ganim remembered later, she was a nervous wreck.
“It was a day after the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, so I spent the whole weekend on the couch watching the Titanic go under over and over again,” Ganim said.
Ganim’s competition included the team that she thought would win: A.M. Sheehan and Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling of the Advertiser Democrat of Norway, Maine. These reporters had triggered a state investigation after exposing deplorable conditions in a small rural community’s federally subsidized housing. Ganim had been impressed by how their work changed state laws seemingly overnight. The Patriot-News brass, including Newhouse and Barron, already knew that Ganim and her newspaper would win the Pulitzer, and the champagne was waiting.
Newhouse teased his staff by reading newsfeeds on his cell phone to an anxious room, including Ganim, mentioning other winners like the Associated Press and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Finally, he announced that Ganim and the Patriot-News had won. According to the judges, Ganim was chosen for “courageously revealing and adeptly covering the explosive Penn State sex scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.”
After embracing her editors and holding back tears, Ganim commended the Patriot-News.
“The most rewarding thing through this whole process has been people telling me that this story and our coverage has changed their minds about local reporting,” Ganim said.
Her victory remains notable for her age. Only a few people have won while in their early 20s.
Since her win, Ganim has traveled thousands of miles for speaking engagements. In late May, she spoke to Russian journalists in Moscow. Since then, she has spoken in San Jose, Fort Lauderdale, New York, Denver and Tulsa. For Thanksgiving, she vacationed in Hong Kong.
After fielding numerous job offers, Ganim announced that she had accepted a position as a CNN correspondent on Nov. 13, a little more than a year after the Sandusky indictment. Based in Atlanta, she’ll be a bit closer to home in Florida.
Her sister, Rebecca, said despite the newfound industry spotlight, Sara hasn’t changed—still funny, tenacious and caring, still shopping, reading and going out with friends. If anything, Sara calls her time away from work “uneventful.”
At CNN, she’ll continue to work on the Sandusky story she first broke, among other things.
“We’re going to be talking about this case for two-three-four-five years,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a definitive truth right now, but we’re getting there.”