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Donald Barlett and Bobby Jean McLaughlin talked for several hours in Charlestown, West Virginia last year. McLaughlin told Barlett about losing her job, losing her pension and losing her faith in America. And when Don Barlett had finished listening to her, he wrote it all down and brought it home. And he and his partner James Steele did the same thing over and over again with hundreds of people just like McLaughlin from around the country. "It was really sad, really depressing," Barlett said last week. "A sense of bewilderment ran through these people. They didn't really understand what happened." Eventually, McLaughlin's story made its way into the pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer, joining reams of stories and statistics about a "lost middle class," to create one of the biggest series the Inquirer has ever printed -- "America: What went wrong?" · Sitting in their cluttered-to-the-point-of-utter-chaos office in the Inquirer building on Broad Street and Spring Garden Avenue, Barlett and Steele seem unaffected by their repeated journalistic success. They are calm, soft-spoken men who, without their prize-winning words on newspaper pages around the country, would blend into the ranks of other reporters at Philadelphia's newspaper of record. Steele is a tall, young-ish 48 year old, with a sure voice and a friendly, welcoming manner. He initiates the conversation, while Barlett, a stocky, balding 55 year old is more reserved, content to be in the background until he has something significant to say. Both men avoid talking about their personal lives, becoming silent when talk turns to their non-professional world. And they are uncomfortable when the spotlight is focused on them -- a fact the pair has to live with in these days immediately following the release of the high-profile series. "It's backwards," Barlett said. "We prefer to be on the other side of all this." Barlett and Steele are well-respected by both editors -- who come to them for input on business-related editorials -- and other reporters -- who go to them as the definitive sources on many money matters. "Ask Barlett and Steele," one business reporter jokingly suggested to a struggling comrade in the news room. "Oh no, forget it. They take two years to research a story." And Barlett and Steele maintain that they are just like other Inquirer journalists, a part of the reporters' team in the Spartan newsroom. They talk about "chatting about stories" with other reporters, sharing ideas and giving pointers to those who need it. · In their nine-part series, "America: What went wrong?", Barlett and Steele uncovered deeply buried stories and statistics about "the decline of the American middle class" throughout the last decade. They examined the intricate wheelings and dealings of the corporate world, explaining them in the context of a failing economy, a growing unemployment rate and a rash of overpaid, hot-headed executives. Barlett and Steele's unconventional use of the second person -- addressing "you" -- made readers feel as if the stories were their own life histories. For example, in the installment about tax breaks for big business, they describe a large-scale tax deduction as a "wand . . . available only to a select few" -- "You, for example, can't have one. What's more, you pay for the wands that do get passed around." · Barlett and Steele compose their prize-winning pieces from a small fourth-floor office in the Inquirer building, surrounded by bushels of paper, overflowing boxes and sagging bookshelves -- material they have collected over the past 10 years and which they will never throw away. Barlett, in fact, gasps in horror at the mere suggestion that the team discard research from 1971 to clear space for future endeavors. The walls, at least the ones not filled by bookshelves, are bare, giving away nothing about the two reporters, showing no traces of the various awards -- not even the two Pulitzer Prizes -- they have garnered over the years, leaving no sign even of their wives and children. And the two reporters share more than just an office and a byline. According to Barlett, their writing styles are almost identical, "very straight forward, no flashy writing," making it impossible to distinguish which reporter wrote which piece of the latest series. And Barlett and Steele share an insatiable curiosity that carries them along through years of intense research and often overwhelming data. "One thing that's important to remember is that as journalists, we're inherently curious," Barlett said. "We get paid to be curious, and you can't beat that." Barlett and Steele have been partners for 20 years, and as any two people who have spent up to 18 hours a day together for weeks at a time, the reporting team thinks alike. They act alike. They even speak alike. Inquirer Assistant Managing Editor Lois Wark thinks they "think with one brain." But when their stories are finished, Barlett and Steele each go their separate ways. They have a strictly professional relationship and never socialize outside of work. "It was never any conscious decision," Steele said. "It's just a very fortunate thing, only because we see so much of each other as it is." The writers' family lives are separate as well. In fact, Shirley Barlett, Don Barlett's wife of 34 years, has never even met Jim or Nancy Steele. She said the families just never got around to getting together, noting that time apart is probably good for the workaholic men. · Barlett and Steele, who joined The Philadelphia Inquirer on the same day in 1970, formed their prize-winning team in 1971 to investigate abuses by the Federal Housing Administration in Philadelphia. The story turned into an expose on the corruptness of the city's judicial system that changed the way Philadelphia's criminal courts do business. The reporters' impromptu union worked, and Barlett and Steele went on to expose abuses in the American oil industry, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Congress. Besides winning various awards, Barlett and Steele have been a force in the political forum of the last decade, and their conclusions have often been cited during heated debates about the state of this nation's economy. The latest series, which may garner the team another Pulitzer, has caused a nationwide uproar about the way America works. Literally hundreds of letters, phone calls and reprint requests arrive at the newspaper office daily, the largest response rate of any Inquirer series to date. Parts of the lengthy series have also been reprinted in newspapers around the country, including most of the 35 Knight-Ridder newspapers -- the company that owns the Inquirer -- such as ITALICS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!The Miami Herald, The Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. · In the past, these kinds of long, in-depth series have been the source of The Inquirer's many Pulitzer Prizes, and in turn, the source of much of the paper's prestige. This fact, coupled with the high profile of both the series and its authors, has led some critics to fault The Inquirer for aiming the series not just at the readers, but also at the Pulitzer Prize board. Pulitzer Prizes are the most prestigious honors for journalists in this country. They are awarded once a year in 14 different categories, including national reporting, explanatory writing and public service writing. A 19-person committee at Columbia University chooses the winners, often deciding among over 1000 entries. Inquirer reporters have received the awards about 20 times in as many years. But Inquirer reporters and editors, as well as others in the field, disregard this criticism, insisting that it is unfounded and they do not work that way. "That's muddleheaded and doomed," said Inquirer Executive Editor Jim Naughton. "If somebody writes a story to win a Pulitzer, it's almost invariably doomed because they're not writing for the right people." Bill Dedman, a former ITALICS!!!!!!!!Washington Post staff writer and a Pulitzer Prize juror said he thinks the series could very well win the award, but insisted that "no one would spend two years on such a tedious project . . . if their motivation was to win an award." "I believe this series could win a Pulitzer, but I have a firmer belief that you just can't predict [award winners]," Dedman said. "And I have an even firmer belief that they did not write the series for that purpose." Barlett and Steele themselves rarely mention their two previous Pulitzers, and Barlett said that their best series ever, one about nuclear waste, only garnered the pair one minor award, "the least number of prizes of any stories" the team has written. Instead, the reporters tend to judge stories by what changes they bring about. "The series wasn't written for a prize," Steele said. "What we really like to see is the response. People say we've answered a lot of questions they had about what went on in the '80s . . . and that's what's really important, not what awards we win."

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