options when things got tense: You could
either blend in with the mob, or you
could go the other way and look like
Roberts found that when the race beat
embraced not only Southern desegregation but Northern urban riots, the dynamics changed. “It could be disorienting.
When you were in the South and needed,
say, a phone to make a call or a place to
write your story, you could ask someone
in the black community. And they would
help you. But in the North, you were fleeing from the black community and into
the white community. Sometimes you
would switch from North to South in the
When Roberts was lured away from
the Times to the Inquirer, he was determined to apply what he had learned about
writing closely observed journalism. Many
of the Inquirer’s most celebrated articles
were long investigative pieces or multi-lay-ered features, such as “a day in the life of
“It was at a very early point in the epidemic,” Roberts said. “The idea was to
show what a devastating effect it was having in the world.” The editors who
brought him the idea, he recalled, “wanted
to track what was going on in AIDS all
over the world, but print it a week later to
have time to accumulate the information
and then write it. I agreed, but with the
stipulation that it be printed in the next
day’s newspaper. Everybody protested that
it couldn’t be done. But if you were going
to do a story around the world, at some
place it was always daylight. Asia was 12
hours ahead of New York, so you really
had 36 hours.”
If this bold, think-outside-the-box
approach was one legacy of Roberts’
tenure at the Inquirer, so were his eccentricity and sense of the absurd. Jim
Naughton, a colleague at the Inquirer, said,
“Gene would have those spasms in which
he would go off in some trancelike state
and was oblivious to his surroundings. But
he was thinking through some issue that
would come to the rest of us two to three
Among the intensely loyal Inquirer
alumni, Naughton is known as the gate-
Jim Purks ’ 59, with
notebook, is pictured
on the cover of The
Race Beat as an
left to right, the Rev.
the Rev. Ralph
Abernathy and the
Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr. in 1966.
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