In the course of source-building in early 2016, northeastern Pennsylvania correspondent Michael Rubinkam had lunch with a local lawyer. The lawyer mentioned that a member of the U.S. attorney's office had lost a son to heroin but had never spoken publicly about it.
Intrigued, Rubinkam asked the lawyer to approach the then-assistant prosecutor, Bruce Brandler, about an interview. Rubinkam had been looking for fresh ways to write about the scourge of heroin, and saw the prosecutor’s story as a powerful new example of how no family is immune.
But Brandler, he learned, was adamantly against going public with his family’s – and his son’s – story. It was too painful.
"it’s still a mystery why his son, who had everything going for him, turned to heroin"
Later in the year, Brandler was elevated to interim U.S. attorney, and not long afterward announced his office's strategy for battling the heroin epidemic. “I figured the universe was trying to tell me something,” Rubinkam said. So he asked the mutual acquaintance to approach Brandler again. This time, he was more receptive, and agreed to at least hear Rubinkam out.
Rubinkam made his pitch over the phone, promising to deal with the subject sensitively. Brandler took a few days to think about it, then decided he would tell his story to AP. The prosecutor told Rubinkam it’s still a mystery why his son, who had everything going for him, turned to heroin.
The story, accompanied by evocative photos by Philadelphia staff photographer Matt Rourke, won wide and prominent online use by newspapers and other news outlets across the country. Even though it moved on Monday, Jan. 2, a day when many in the U.S. were still on holiday, the link from the @AP tweet of the story was clicked more than 1,500 times and retweeted or liked about 500 times. It also played on the front page of at least nine Pennsylvania papers.
And Rubinkam earned the trust of yet another new source: Brandler thanked Rubinkam for doing what he promised _ handling the story sensitively. For his persistence and care in telling an important story, Rubinkam wins this week’s Best of the State honors.