From Copy Boy to Pulitzer Prize Winner: UMKC Graduate Finds Path to Success

Elizabeth Golden

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Steele, class of 1967, presented the master class “Who Will Be the Watchdog? The Future of Investigative Reporting in America” in conjunction with UMKC’s 80th anniversary.

Steele always knew he wanted to be a journalist. He was born in Hutchison, Kan. and raised in Kansas City, where he started to write for his school newspaper by chance.

“I attended Westport high school,” he said. “And I somehow ended up on the paper. I loved the process of collecting information and putting it together.”

After starting his English degree at UMKC, Steele was hired by the Kansas City Times as a copy boy. The Times was a daily morning newspaper that published from 1867 to 1990 in combination with the Kansas City Evening Star, published each night.

As a copy boy, Steele transferred reporters’ stories to where they would be edited or “pasted” into the layout.

After a short time as a copy boy, he expressed his desire to write.

“Then, if you wanted to write, they started you on obituaries,” he said. “If you did a good job, they would give you bigger stories. There was literally no creativity involved, but it’s amazing how many mistakes can be made in that small of a space. I really learned to verify information.”

He became a cub reporter and was given the chance to cover stories throughout the city. He first covered car accidents and fires, and later covered politics, labor and urban affairs.

“Covering the city issues really taught me how democracy works,” Steele said. “I saw when pressures come to bear and how political viewpoints affect the city.”

Steele spent seven years working for the Kansas City Times, but said he felt unsatisfied because he could never get to the bottom of issues with daily work.

“I was always curious to get to the bottom of public issues,” he said. “When I was out interviewing for a story, I often had mixed answers, but never the time to investigate why.”

In 1970, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer and began his 27-year career as an investigative reporter.

He teamed up with Donald Barlett in 1972, and together they won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Magazine Awards and five George Polk Awards. The duo has also published seven books, one of which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

“Don and I saw what happens [when] two people with similar ideas and ambitions work together,” he said.

In 1975, the duo won  its first Pulitzer for the series “Auditing the Internal Revenue Service,” which exposed the unequal application of federal tax laws.

Steele describes winning the Pulitzer as “exhilarating.”

“There are usually rumors leaking beforehand, so we had a pretty good idea we were a finalist for the national reporting category,” Steele said. “It’s a great feeling to know your work went through so much. It’s a gratifying experience.”

This was also the first Pulitzer for the Inquirer, which went on to win 17 over the next 15 years.

“The paper was in the process of rebuilding itself,” Steele said.

Steele said the Pulitzer did not change his life, as he and Barlett continued to pursue investigative leads and wrote more than a dozen stories before winning their second Pulitzer in 1989.

They spent more than a year investigating the rifle shot provisions in the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

“The series led to Congress rejecting proposals giving special tax breaks to many politically connected individuals and businesses,” Steele said.

In 1997, Steele and Bartlett left the Inquirer for Time Magazine, where they continued investigative reporting and went on to win two National Magazine Awards, being the first journalists to win the highest honor in both newspaper and magazine fields.

In 2006, Steele and Barlett became contributing editors of Vanity Fair, with the promise of writing two stories per year.

In order to succeed as an investigative journalist, Steele said one must be interested in searching through documents, as well as talking to people.

“I really love it all,” Steele said. “Looking through documents may be tedious work, but it helps to gain background information. A lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Steele recently judged a global investigative journalism competition and said he believes the American example is spreading to the rest of the world.

“It’s breathtaking what’s going on in other places,” he said. “Other countries put so much pressure on people, they are still continuing to investigate, but not without risks.”

He said he does not buy into the myth that journalism, particularly investigative journalism, is dying.

“The need [for investigative journalism] is greater than ever,” he said. “People want the information.”

Steele said getting into the field at such a young age definitely helped his career.

“I’m a believer in getting as much experience while young,” he said. “There are a lot of options, so it’s best for young journalists to sample the field.”

Steele also said he believes curiosity is an important characteristic.

“Be curious. I don’t know if it can be taught, but it can definitely be sharpened,” he said.