Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Q&A with James Kates


By Emily Lepkowski

March 16, 2016

September marks the Centennial Anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. The Royal Purple sat down with Dr. James Kates to discuss the history of the Pulitzer, personal experiences and journalism.

Royal Purple: How did you get the opportunity to edit a Pulitzer winning piece?

James Kates: I had known this particular reporter for a long time, Dave Umhoefer. They asked me if I wanted to work with Dave and I said, “heck yes, I go back with Dave a long time.” We had done, at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a lot of reporting on the Milwaukee County pension system. Going way back, there had been scandals revolving around the pension system. What the story involved was there was a legal loop hole at the time. Dave spent about six months with stacks of computer printouts and drives of data essentially confirming all of this. It was really a matter of “let’s clean this up” or “let’s double check this fact.” Stories like that will have them lawyered so they bring in lawyers to read everything, and to my knowledge, no one questioned any of the factual stuff in Dave’s reporting. Which is quite something. It won the Pulitzer for local reporting because it covered an issue of great importance, locally.

RP: Do pieces get selected to be considered for a Pulitzer or can anyone submit them?

JK: It’s interesting. A lot of people will run around who will say ‘I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. To be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t really mean much. All it means is your boss thought well enough of you to enter your work into the Pulitzer Prize contest and pay the $50 dollar entry fee. The people who are nominated as finalists are selected by trustees of the Pulitzer Prize at Columbia University in New York. If you are a finalist, that’s a big deal.

RP: How long did it take you to edit and finalize the piece?

JK: I worked off and on full and part time for the Milwaukee Journal then the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In terms of editing all the stories and putting everything together, there was probably a good forty hours of work in there. But it’s nothing compared to what Dave did. He worked on this pretty much full time for about six months.

RP: Did you sit down at the end for editing or was it back and forth?

JK: There was a little bit of back and forth. Dave also worked with an assigning editor. There were many assigning editors who worked with people on packages of this sort. These are people who are very good at identifying and nurturing projects for the long term. They’re kind of like book editors in that sense. They’re the people who identify the germ of the idea and work with the reporter.

RP: Is copywriting something you specialize in?

JK: Oh yes, absolutely. Copy editing is a very specialized endeavor. I was born to be a copy editor, not a reporter. When I was in journalism school, the emphasis was in reporting. Everyone was supposed to be a reporter. I became a reporter and I found I wasn’t all that good at it. I was a decent reporter, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t have the interpersonal skills to be a really  good reporter. There’s a certain set of skills kind of like being a politician, in the good sense, a person who can assemble coalitions of people and get things done. I had an internship in the summer of 1983 at the Buffalo Evening News in Buffalo, New York. They put me on the copyediting desk and I knew from then on that’s what I wanted to do. I thrived on the quest for order and getting things right.

RP: Where did you attend journalism school?

JK: Michigan State, as an undergrad. I always knew eventually I wanted to do something academic. I started out thinking I wanted to be a political reporter, which is now, about the last thing I ever want to do (laughs). I thought okay I need to re-group here. I remember going and interviewing at the Philadelphia Inquirer and seeing a whole wall full of these Pulitzer citations. I thought I really want to be part of this. I was for four years. I really wanted to work at the top of the journalism business. I’ve always been a small fish in a big pond kind of person. I don’t want to run the enterprise I just want to be part of it. When people ask me I always tell them I spent my whole life either in a newsroom or a classroom.

RP: Were you aware of Dave’s Pulitzer win?

JK: It was funny. My former boss at the time, Kathy, I got a call from her. There was a message on the machine and she said, “Hello Kates family, I just thought you might like to know that Dave’s series won the Pulitzer Prize.” I was like, that’s really cool. So that’s how I found out.

RP: How does it feel to be associated with a prestigious award?

JK: What was neat was that the old Milwaukee Journal won one of the first Pulitzer Prizes. This was during WWI when Milwaukee had a very large German-American population. There was a lot of paranoia about German allegiance. What they did was they hired a guy who was fluent in German. The Journal ran all these pieces about look what they’re saying about the Kaiser. They ended up winning the Pulitzer for it. So that was kind of cool. So, the Journal had this history going way back to the beginning of the Pulitzer’s. It’s funny, if you win the Pulitzer Prize it stays with you forever. Even though it doesn’t make you rich, it doesn’t necessarily make you famous, but it will always stick with you.

RP: Would you say you are a perfectionist in your editing style?

JK: There were days when I would come home and say to my wife I don’t work for a newspaper, I work for an error factory. It was like a massive tidal wave of errors coming to me and I had to try to stop it. It bothers me that I knew I couldn’t catch them all. I was a perfectionist that never achieved perfection. No one ever does at the pace a newspaper is written, it’s not possible.


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Founded 1901
Q&A with James Kates