Wendy Ruderman keynoter at awards luncheon

NEWARK‚ NJ‚ June 13‚ 2010 — “My teacher said I was a late bloomer‚ ” said Philadelphia Daily News reporter Wendy S. Ruderman. “That’s code for ‘idiot with promise.’ ”

The self-deprecating observation drew appreciative laughter from the many journalists assembled at the Theatre Square Grill at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (PAC) for the New Jersey Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (NJSPJ)’s annual awards luncheon. The luncheon honored over 100 journalists in some 60 categories.

Of course‚ Ruderman‚ along with her Philadelphia Daily News colleague‚ Barbara Laker‚ had just won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for their 10-month series‚ “ “Tainted Justice‚’’ which exposed corruption in an elite narcotics squad of the Philadelphia Police Department. A self-described Jersey girl‚ Ruderman had grown up in the state. As the luncheon’s keynote speaker‚ she went on to describe her adventures in journalism that‚ as past president Ron Miskoff noted in her introduction‚ could only happen in New Jersey.

Ruderman related how‚ armed with a bachelor’s degree in communication from Western Maryland College‚ she applied for her first job at the Williamstown Plain Dealer‚ a small weekly paper covering Gloucester County. The interview went well‚ she recalled‚ and afterward she discovered she’d been hired as editor.

“I thought: I’m the freakin’ editor! ” she laughed‚ not realizing at the time that the job paid only $13‚000 and required her to put in an 80-hour week. She was the only full-time staff member and ended up working‚ not only as editor‚ but also as a reporter‚ obituary writer‚ critic‚ layout artist‚ and photographer. After covering countless municipal meetings‚ she realized she had yet to “hit the big-time. ”

So‚ she applied and was accepted to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. “How I ever got in is still a mystery to me‚ ” she said modestly‚ remembering that while all the new students arrived with a copy of The New York Times tucked under their arms‚ she had The NY Daily News.

After graduating in 1997‚ Ruderman spent the next five years on press row covering the Statehouse in Trenton for several N.J. newspapers. “It was the time of my life! ” she remembered with fondness. “I lived to beat the [Star-]Ledger. Whenever I saw the light on in their office‚ I called my sources to find out what they were working on. ”

She described how‚ in 2002‚ she sat outside a Camden half-way house‚ waiting for convicted murderer Thomas Trantino to be released. “We didn’t want the Ledger to get the interview before us‚ ” she said. “So we hung out at the Camden facility all night‚ drinking tons of coffee just to stay awake. ”

That morning‚ Trantino rapped on the window of Ruderman’s car just as she was on the phone with her mother. “He gets into my car and he sees littered cups and newspapers all over the floor. ‘Your car is a mess‚’ he said and I replied‚ ‘And you’re a cop killer.’ ”

Ruderman ended up taking Trantino to her own home for the interview where he talked about Asian art with her husband. “My neighborhood was filled with cops! ” she said‚ struck my her own boldness‚ but she got the story.

All of which prepared her to tackle the story of her career when she heard from a police informant gone sour about a squad of narcotic cops who were breaking into mom-and-pop stores and bodegas claiming suspicion of drug sales.

“They’d raid the places‚ smash the video cameras and take whatever they wanted: money‚ candy‚ cell phones. They terrorized the immigrant store owners who were afraid to speak up‚ afraid the police wouldn’t come to their aid if they really needed them. They were being robbed and violated by people who were supposed to protect them. ”

Ruderman said that she and her colleague‚ Barbara Laker‚ dug through mountains of court records and knocked on hundreds of doors. Laker was even slapped by one interview subject‚ a female drug dealer. But in the end‚ thanks to — in Ruderman’s words — “two neurotic and crazy women reporters‚ one overworked editor and one understanding husband‚ ” the “Tainted Justice ” series resulted in several officer suspensions and an FBI probe‚ as well as the review of dozens of criminal cases.

The most important part of the experience‚ said Ruderman‚ was that “the people at the heart of the series trusted us with their stories. ”

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