Talking Shop: Dennis Roddy

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter talks about the recession’s effects in western Pennsylvania

Dennis Roddy knows Pennsylvania. He’s been a general assignment reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since January 1993; before that, he was at the Pittsburgh Press. In all, he’s covered the state for thirty-five years, with a focus on politics, business, and the economy. Recently, he and another reporter for at the paper have been working on “Hard Times,” an occasional series that looks at how the recession is affecting individuals in Pennsylvania.

This interview with Roddy, in which we spoke about how the recession is playing out on his beat and what the national media narrative may be missing, is the first installment in our new, occasional series, in which we’ll speak with reporters who cover the financial crisis on their home turf.

Katia Bachko: Tell me a little bit about this “Hard Times” series.

Dennis R. Roddy: We try to tell the story from a very intimate standpoint, chronicling the lives of people and trying to tell the larger story through a very focused prism. We want to try to explain the economy, its history, and how things are happening to very specific people, but the explanation is, of course, something that’s supposed to explain what’s happening in the rest of the economy, as well.

KB: For readers who may not have seen the series, what are some of the stories that you and Sadie Gurman have done so far?

DR: Sadie has written about a woman who has lost her job in retail and has had to go back to school to try to rebuild her life. I’ve written about a woman whose first marriage ended twenty-five years ago during the great recession that took down the steel industry in Pittsburgh. She rebuilt her life, went into the medical services field—which was though to be a recession-proof industry—really moved well up into the middle class, out of the working class, and then suddenly her job vanished as things are being cut all over the place. At the same time, her husband was working in real estate, and that imploded at the same time.

And, more recently, I went to a town called Emporium in Cameron County, Pennsylvania, which is a small town that gave the world Sylvania. That’s where it started. And Sylvania vanished. The powdered metals industry came in. These are metals that are used for parts in the auto industry. As Detroit started to implode, companies there started laying people off. I interviewed a young couple that were really struggling to get by. These are lengthy stories, usually take up a page. We also have a video component, ten minute installments of a documentary.

When this couple in Emporium find themselves struggling economically, we have to explain the ripple effect that runs from auto to the powdered metals industry all the way down to the fact that bar business is doing well, because there’s nothing to do so you go out and drink.

KB: Can you give us a sense of what’s happening in Pennsylvania?

DR: What’s interesting here is our economy was already scaled down drastically. When the rest of the country had a recession in the 1980s, we had a out-and-out depression. For instance, my hometown was Johnstown, Pennsylvania. For two months running, the employment rate was 25 percent. And it spent most of the eighties well above 10 percent; it was huge.

There’s no describing the effect it had because these mills didn’t simply stop producing. They tore them down. Steel mills in the Monongahela Valley, which was once the source of what Mencken described once as “wealth beyond computation,” shut down. There are no steel mills actually melting steel within the borders of Pittsburgh itself. And there are few mills but they’re very specialized, and they employ far fewer people.

The major industries in Pittsburgh are biomedical and education. The hospitals now are big employers. Because of that mix, when one industry catches a cold, the others don’t get pneumonia, the way it used to be with steel, because twenty-five years ago all things led down from steel.

Steel was the manufacturing base that made possible so many of the other businesses, so when the steel mills closed, the machine shops went out of business. When the machine shops went out of business, the tool suppliers went out of business. When the tool suppliers went out of business, those people lots their jobs, they didn’t shop anymore, they didn’t go out to eat anymore, and school districts suddenly found themselves denuded of pupils. We’ve actually closed high schools in the city of Pittsburgh, because it’s now half the population it once was.

Our depression twenty-five years ago started from here and spread out. Now, it’s nibbling in from the outside on us. It’s still a recession, but it’s not the implosion it was before. We’re not rotting from the center this time.

KB: So it sounds like the newness of the recession that we get from the national narrative isn’t so new in Pennsylvania?

DR: The first person I interviewed had gone through the collapse of steel twenty-years ago. She talked about how it destroyed her marriage and redirected her life. And now, what happened with her a month after I interviewed her? She had landed another job paying just as much in another sector of healthcare administration for the healthcare industry. So, twenty five years ago, you didn’t have steel workers who lost their jobs and later called you up and said, “Hey, I got a job at another steel mill.” They all went out of business. The recession is still affecting lives, but it’s not tearing down any given economic super-structure the way it did twenty-five years ago. I’m at greater risk of being unemployed this time next year than many of the people I’m interviewing.

KB: One thing that we’ve been watching in the national narrative is how the stimulus legislation will affect the folks on the ground. What are you getting from the people you speak with?

DR: At this point, it’s still agencies talking to other agencies. It’s federal agencies talking to city, state, and county departments about where the money is and how to go about getting it. Everyone knows it’s supposed to do something to the economy.

The people I’ve spoken with say they sure hope this stimulus program works, but they’re not sure how it’s supposed to work. Most people understand the concept behind the stimulus, but there’s no bar graph where you can follow the action. There’s not a route map where you can say, “Okay, we’re one third of the way there.”

The people I really hear talk about it are in government and economic development agencies who attend the seminars about how the money is coming from this and that department. I’ve seen forums where people from Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Defense, Small Business Administration, Department of Agriculture, they’ll get up on the stage and talk about the money they have, and what they’re going to be doing with it. If you ask me, OK, what’s this going to do to the unemployment rate in three months? I have no idea. And, mind you, I’ve covered economics before.

I covered the last recession, and back then we were all thrashing about trying to figure out what went wrong, what to do about it, and what other places had done. I went to North Carolina, I went to suburban Philly where tech was growing, I went to Boston. And the lesson that I derived from all of this was, the one thing that we didn’t understand is what it did to individual people. And how that reflected the broader story. So I’m trying to do it completely differently this time.

KB: Is there anything you see missing in the national coverage?

DR: Every time I get to D.C., [the question] I always ask is: What caused the recession? I know it is a simpleton’s question, but the way in which they answer gives me some idea about how well people understand the economy. By their defining the origins of the problem, you can get some sense of where they see the solution lying. Frankly, I’m still trying to decide for myself what caused the recession. Everybody did everything rationally. Everybody responded rationally to the market and to the system, and yet it still imploded.

There’s a real question here about whether this is a flaw in capitalism, or whether this is a flaw in the people who are supposed live in a free market system. What people aren’t asking is: Is the system flawed, and if so, how? And is it a system that can be fixed by regulation, or fixed by deregulation, or is it just inherently a flawed system, but just the one we’re gonna have to deal with?

That’s the only national story that I would either like to write or like to read. Other than that, I want to tell very intimate stories, because that’s really the only way to explain the economy to people is through themselves.

KB: What’s in the pipeline for you?

DR: I would like to take a bit of a look at young people entering the job market. This is a theory that I’m still noodling around with, but I think we see a more defined and more deeply etched line between various classes. I think we’re developing an economic and social caste system in this country, and I think it’s going to be reflected in the many measures in the fate of the kids who graduate from the Ivy League schools, versus the kids who graduate from state schools, versus the kids who graduate from community colleges. Meritocracy gives way to a sort of redefined aristocracy and I’m wondering what this is going to look like, what this is going to reflect. I don’t see too many Yale people sitting out there asking if I have an extra quarter. But, I get the feeling I’m going to see a few kids from branch campuses and no-name colleges finding themselves in that.

I’m also interested in the connection between geographic isolation and economic struggle. Emporium was an excellent example of that. People live there because they want to live there. People often times live in places because that’s where they choose to live. And this sense of place is put at risk, it can be lost.

I learned this myself because I was born and raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. My plan as a young man was to live my life there. To me it was all the city that I needed and it was all the place that I wanted. In 1977, the steel industry started to go. There was really nothing left there for me, and I had to go.

I am curious as to the different ways that this depression will displace people, physically, emotionally, culturally. I see a huge potential for a ripple effect. We’re not going to see people traveling like the Okies in the 1930s, but we’re going to see changes just as significant, and just as important, and, I fear, maybe just as unfortunate.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.