Behind the Headlines: John Pulliam
By Karen S. Lynch
Nov. 14, 2007
Sitting in a conference room inside The Register-Mail, I pulled a digital recorder from my briefcase and started recording what promised to be an interesting interview. A list of prepared questions sat on top a notepad in case the brain neurons that collect information should short circuit. I was unusually nervous, about to interview a man I wished to emulate.
The south wall of the dual-purpose room, punctuated by a row of glass windows, overlooks the newspaper presses. The room reverberated with high-pitched whining noises and buzzers. The two-story presses were pulling giant rolls of paper over metal rollers to marry paper to soy ink impressions, spitting out a folded newspaper. The process is fascinating to watch. Trying to project my dysphonic voice over the distracting drone of noise was a challenge.
The interview with newspaper journalist, John Pulliam began as a journalism class assignment. The first e-mail interview with Pulliam intrigued my interest in some of the stories he had to tell. The following week, I made a request for a “real” interview outside of class.
To my knowledge, a feature interview between two journalists from different newspapers in the same community is a rare opportunity. To my surprise, we received the approval of both our respective editors for the unusual interview. This article breaks several “rules” of traditional journalism, written in first person as a narrative comparison between two journalists—one a journalism student, the other a seasoned and respected journalist.
As a broadcast graduate, Pulliam began his career at a Galesburg radio station. Beginning in journalism at age 34, Pulliam said he originally took an interest in journalism in high school. “I always felt like journalism was a way to make a difference in the world. Putting a spotlight on problems and hoping I could write stories that would make governmental bodies address those problems. I love to write but always looked at it as a way to help people.” That seems to be Pulliam’s style although, he joked in the early years he didn’t know he had a style. “I can’t become an aggressive, in-your-face type of reporter. That’s not the type of person I am.”
Pulliam worked as a correspondent for the Peoria Journal Star about four and one-half years before joining the journalistic team of The Register-Mail in 1992, covering the police and court beat for two years. He became a city editor in 1994. Due to some health issues, Pulliam requested a change to senior reporter in 2003, before recently assuming his current position as business editor.
For Pulliam, rapport appears to come easy. When asked about a memorable interview, Pulliam said, “From a personal and professional standpoint, the connection I made with the brother and sister of Josh Steele of North Henderson, killed in Kuwait, was important to me.”
A statement issued by Josh’s father, an attorney in Alpha, gave some basic information about Capt. Joshua E. Steele. The family wished to grieve privately by issuing basic information on Steele.
“I was told no one from the family would talk to the media. Knowing the family would be screening its calls, I left a message. This was completely sincere. It was more about expressing my sadness for them about Josh’s death than a request for an interview. I did make that request but I honestly felt there was no chance I would be granted an interview. In this case, I was okay with that.”
Pulliam offered the family an opportunity to talk about Josh, “To let people who did not know him, a chance to know Josh as more than a statistic.” Pulliam said he honestly did not expect them to call him back. Steele’s brother, Stephen and sister, Gina did return the call and offered to talk about their brother, sharing some fond memories. “They told me I was the only media member who left a message that was respectful and sincere, which is why they talked to me.”
Pulliam said covering four military funerals is one of the hardest things he has ever had to do. Covering the funerals of Kyle Wehrly, Gary Rovinski, Daniel Miller, and Joshua Steele all deeply affected Pulliam. He said approaching the families is difficult but it is just as difficult to speak with people or friends who knew them. “We try to put a real face on the person to not only let people know what they are like but it is also kind of a tribute.”
Marcy Gorsline, mother of Caleb Lufkin, came to the newspaper to talk to Pulliam, Gorsline thanked Pulliam for his support while her son, Caleb was under treatment at Walter Reed Hospital for injuries he received in Iraq and to thank the newspaper for their coverage. “That one hit me so hard because it never occurred to me he wouldn’t make it. In fact I wrote to him that I was really looking forward to meeting him when he returned home.”
Pulliam and I each shared our difficult experiences covering the impact of the wars in our area. Images I captured with my camera burned forever into my brain were moving moments. Seeing proud Americans stand quietly along the roadsides, holding flags and signs, often lit only by candles for the late night processions of our local fallen heroes.
When family friend Caleb Lufkin died, attending the following funerals became more difficult. Writing about my eyewitness experience was difficult, something an experienced journalist avoids because it is hard to maintain objectivity. That story was as unique as this one. As an editor, Pulliam would tell me to “stay out of the story.” That is difficult when you are part of that story, explaining how one journalist came to interview another Despite trying to maintain journalistic objectivity, few people are aware how involved a journalist can become with the people they cover in a news story.
One of Pulliam’s most memorable interviews was one he did with Galesburg High School teacher and metal sculpture artist, Jimmy Crown, who was very ill with cancer. Pulliam said Crown had an intercom on his door because he was spending much of his time in bed.
“That day, not only did he talk to me but he got up and took me out to show me his studio. From an emotional standpoint, I think that is something I will never forget. Realizing what he was going through to even talk to me, let alone show me some of the work he had done.”
Another interview Pulliam fondly remembered, in his own words, “From a standpoint of, wow, am I ever glad I got to talk to this person!” was Harrison Schmitt, reported to be the last person to walk on the moon. Schmitt spoke with Pulliam at the old Holiday Inn on North Henderson Street during an Admiral Retirees Club annual dinner event.
Pulliam said he was heading out to dinner with his wife when he received a phone call from his editor telling him if he could arrive within 30 minutes, he could interview Schmitt. “To talk to someone who had walked on the face of the moon in person was quite an interesting experience. To ask him what that was like and to know he was giving me first-hand answers, knowing he had actually been there. That was interesting.”
A tough interview for Pulliam was one with Carmen Vienna, Wittek CEO. When Pulliam arrived at the hose clamp manufacturing facility, he found Vienna in one of her infamous fur coats, sitting in her dark office. A single window gave Pulliam just enough light to do an interview.
“Illinois Power had cut off their power and the receptionist was wearing mittens. At that point, everyone knew the wheels had come off. Trying to get answers from her as to what had happened and how the company had reached that point, as well as the condition of the interview – It was memorable!”
Establishing rapport is not always easy, according to Pulliam. “Both company and union officials are tough to talk to when a strike is under way. Sometimes you establish the rapport you need, sometimes you don’t. Politicians suspected of some sort of malfeasance are also tough.”
Pulliam is strong on ethics, saying he always protects his sources. “If the next person I call asks me who told me the information, I’m never going to burn my source.” While admitting he does little investigative reporting, Pulliam has a natural talent for getting the facts in his own unique manner. Pulliam said there are different ways to obtain information. “I have a job to do but I have to stay true to the kind of person I am.”
Pulliam shared his journalism definition, “A journalist is a person who writes a journal of what is going on. They are the story, not me. I try to let them have their say. An editorial is the place for the opinion of the writer.”
In four short sentences, John Pulliam summed up several chapters from my journalism textbook. More importantly, Pulliam made me think about how I look at a story I am writing. I was unable to stay out of the story of John Pulliam – his experiences are too intriguing. We found we had a lot in common, both in our attitudes towards journalism but also discovered we had some personal connections. I was surprised to learn Pulliam married one of my best friends from Knoxville High School.
To be quite honest, I wish I could compare my style of writing to Pulliam’s, but then I have always set my goals very high. This story is one I can honestly say, “Wow, am I ever glad I got to speak to this person!”