2016 Lifetime Award Honoree

Paul Ingrassia

Ingrassia's career path looks quaint in the era of blogs and social media. He began with a gig at a college paper, progressed to a job on a newspaper in a small city where he was able to tackle big subjects on a small platform, and finally worked his way to a national newspaper, The Wall Street Journal. 

Ingrassia was not, and is not, a revolutionary by nature. But he saw the importance of revolutions going on around him, and throughout his career sought to illuminate the forces - and the people - driving upheaval. In 1969, the University of Illinois football team had a perfect season - no wins, and 10 losses. It was an ignominious first for a school where football mattered. Ingrassia interviewed some of the seniors on the team, who - once granted anonymity - unloaded in detail what had gone wrong and how they felt about playing for such a losing side. "They have a story to tell - a starkly human story. It is a story of hopes dashed, of turbulent events, of joy, of pain, of bitterness, and disgust," Ingrassia wrote. His instinct that losers also have stories to tell would serve him well later, when the losers in question were the top of executives of the world's largest auto maker. The University of Illinois campus was rocked by sometimes violent anti-war protests during Ingrassia's junior and senior years. Ingrassia, then the paper's editor, confronted police who raided the Daily Illini's offices, demanding film the paper's photographers had shot of the demonstrations. Some of those shots showed a protestor who had jumped the city's police chief and was pummeling him. Ingrassia was unsure what to do with the pictures, fearing the protestor would be identified and arrested for his act. "We just ran the photo," Ingrassia said. "The kid was arrested. It's what you do." By the time Ingrassia graduated from the University of Illinois in 1972, what had started as a means-to-an-end interest in reporting had become a deeper commitment. By 1976, he had landed a job in the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal. In 1985, he was assigned to take over the Journal's bureau in Detroit.

It wasn't immediately obvious, but he had landed in the middle of another revolution - and a turning point in his life. When Ingrassia arrived in Detroit, the conventional view of the U.S. auto industry's story was this: Detroit's Big Three were booming in the Reagan recovery. The Japanese auto makers? Merely an annoyance. U.S. government import quotas and the return of cheap gasoline would see them off. Ingrassia embraced Detroit, making friends among the automotive executives, lawyers and suppliers. He did not, however, embrace the auto industry's group think. Most memorably, in April 1992, General Motors issued a press release announcing that the company's president, Lloyd Reuss, would be replaced. There were other changes at the top, though the company's then- CEO was left in place, and GM declared he had the full support of the company's board. In the days following the announcement, Ingrassia sought out the losers in the shakeup and pursued his hunch that what had happened at GM was nothing less than a coup by the company's outside directors. He persuaded some of the stunned insiders to talk - as he had done with the traumatized members of the Illinois football team years before. This was the era of the imperial CEO. It was unheard of for outside directors at a Fortune 50 company to confront a chief executive, let alone take control of the company. That article, and others about GM's 1992 crisis, led Ingrassia to a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting that he and I shared in 1993, and a Gerald Loeb Award the same year. It also led to Ingrassia's first book deal, and the first of three books about the auto industry he would write in the following years. In 1994, Ingrassia moved into a senior role at the Dow Jones News Service - the "ticker" that was then a revenue engine for the company that owned The Wall Street Journal. He was responsible for hundreds of reporters across a myriad of beats. But he still found time to weigh in on stories, land interviews and attend the Detroit Auto Show.   After leaving Dow Jones in 2007, Ingrassia's plan was to downshift and work on a fun book about American cars that captured the spirit of their times. That plan went to hell along with the auto industry in 2008, and Ingrassia saw that the book he had to write was one that dissected the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler into federally funded bankruptcies. 

That book, "Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster," was published in January 2010 and became the first book to chronicle the story behind the auto bailout. (The fun book, "Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars," had to wait until 2012.) 

Ingrassia's effort to escape daily headlines veered off course again in 2011 when he was recruited to join Reuters as managing editor overseeing a worldwide organization of 2,500 journalists covering everything from famine, flood and war to soybean prices and interest rates. Reuters presented a different scale and a different culture from Dow Jones, but Ingrassia did not change his methods. "Paul didn't know how to open a spreadsheet. But he did know how to talk about news," said Richard Mably, the Reuters editor in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "Staff were surprised to find an editor was actually reading their stories - seemingly every day and at any time of day. And sending them notes when they wrote good ones." Ingrassia instituted a daily global call that, for the first time, gave Reuters editors in Asia, Europe and the Americas a regular forum to talk with each other about the news of the day. He was a reporter first, and when he saw a memorable story, he'd just go ahead and write it. Attending a dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after the annexation of Crimea, Ingrassia drew inspiration from the menu. "You can't say Vladimir Putin lacks a pointed sense of humor. The entrée at the Russian president's dinner for news agency editors on Saturday night was 'Crimean flounder.' No kidding," Ingrassia wrote as the lead to his story about the meal. Ingrassia's position at the time did not require him to write anything. He wrote because he enjoyed it and to show journalists who worked for him that "news" is not just the spinach of communiqués and formal policy. It is also the stuff that makes you laugh. Now officially retired, Ingrassia is considering another book project and working with car collector Miles Collier to develop a multimedia publishing operation at an automotive think tank and museum near Naples, Florida. The Revs Institute has an extensive library of automotive literature, a digital archive of classic car photographs and a museum of over 100 vehicles, including Duesenbergs, Bugattis and a Trabant, parked next to a Volkswagen Beetle. Yet again, Ingrassia has found the perfect vehicle for his talents. 

Gerald Loeb Awards 2017