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.