They both got their start in Philadelphia on the same day. For Donald Barlett, James Steele was a fellow newcomer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the young kid with the long hair. Steele also knew of Barlett and although he wasn’t in the newsroom that much, sometimes they shared small talk. They were the only two new reporters in the newsroom, a fact that brought suspicious looks from veteran Inquirer staffers and an availability that would soon package them as a team.
Steele was hot on a story about a possible scandal that involved the Federal Housing Administration. The Inquirer’s executive editor wanted to know if the story had legs, so he paired the two new reporters, Barlett and Steele together to investigate. They spent a year documenting fraud and scams, gathering enough documents to warrant their own office.
As the reporting progressed, Barlett and Steele realized they both liked to dig and favored stories that fell under the radar. They wanted to hold powers accountable and right inequities. The chemistry was perfect. Steele was impressed by the way Barlett methodically sifted through information. Barlett admired Steele’s tenacity, the way he always pushed for one more interview, another records check, an additional phone call.
Their first story for the Inquirer sparked changes in the FHA and garnered the pair a George Polk Memorial Award for Metropolitan Reporting and a Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Award for General Reporting. It wasn’t long before the pair got their next assignment, and then another. Almost four decades later the team, now known as the respected investigative duo of Barlett and Steele, has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Magazine Awards. They’ve moved from the Inquirer after 26 years, to Time magazine in 1997 and most recently to Vanity Fair in 2006. Almost always, since that first story in 1971, they’ve done it all together.
“No one ever came by and said, ‘Barlett and Steele you are a team’ and blessed us or something like that,” Steele said. “Don and I discovered early on that if two reporters can get along and share similar interests and they’re not letting their egos interfere, it’s amazing what two people can take on and go after. We realized the tremendous advantage of having two of us.”
It was almost as if they were destined to someday fuse together. They grew up in different parts of the country, Barlett on the East Coast and Steele in the Midwest, but were raised with the same values – no slip shot work, an insistence on accuracy and no mistakes, not even one. And they each thrived on an embedded curiosity, always wondering how things worked and seeking answers. For both, a passion for the craft started young.
Barlett was in second grade when his teacher asked what everyone wanted to be when they grew up. His Pennsylvania classmates gazed in amazement as an 8-year-old Barlett declared he would become a newspaperman. Years later, Steele was in Missouri plugging away at his high school newspaper, the Westport Crier. A teacher sparked his excitement for journalism and it wasn’t long before the future award-winning investigative reporter was covering an internal affairs controversy that involved the principal.
Barlett and Steele had always been solid reporters in their own right, but together, they proved unstoppable. Since the 1970s, Barlett and Steele have tackled big oil companies, impoverished retirement benefits and detailed how $9 billion belonging to the Iraqi people went missing. They pioneered computer-assisted reporting methods to analyze violent crime in Philadelphia. Their list of awards, 50 from 1972 to 2004, consumes half of a Web page, and an investigative business journalism award, sponsored by The Donald W. Reynolds National Center Business Journalism, was named in their honor.
“I don’t feel any different than the person I was before any of that,” Steele said. “I’m still motivated by the curiosity of a story, still love to pull things together. I still feel like I’m doing what I’ve always done.
Barlett too believes a constant sense of wonder is a key ingredient behind the pair’s sucess.
“The whole thing has been so much fun and it is still so much fun. I can’t imagine not doing this,” Barlett said. “We both have the same insatiable curiosity. That’s really what sets apart reporters and people in other fields who remain active. You always have questions and you want to get answers.”
Neither have any plans to stop reporting anytime soon. They are currently working on their next piece, sticking to their method of multiple rewrites. “You don’t just do one draft, you do 10 drafts,” Barlett says. When the pair first started reporting together, they would collect all the information and then begin writing. They have matured. Now they write as they go along in order to spot the holes.
Barlett says he will investigate as long as he’s breathing. Steele agrees. So after this Vanity Fair piece is complete, the pair is onto the next assignment, continuing the precise rhythm that now defines them.