This week we talked with digital enterprise reporter for the Virginain-Pilot Gordon Rago. Rago also happens to be the newspaper reporter to first confirm the authenticity of the now infamous photo that appeared in Gov. Northam’s 1984 yearbook from the Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Rago walks us through the day he was sent to EVMS’s library, having parents who both worked as newspaper reporters, what’s kept him wanting to stay in the newsroom and more.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m Gordon Rago and I’m a digital enterprise reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. I work on a team in our newsroom called the DART Squad. The coolest-sounding team name in the building, in my opinion. It stands for Digital Action in Real Time. I came to the Pilot in April of last year from the York (Pa.) Daily Record where I was a night cops reporter for three years and a GA reporter for another year. I got my start in journalism in north Idaho where I worked for a newspaper called the Shoshone News-Press. At the Pilot, I write about a little bit of everything with a mini-focus on the Port of Virginia and the maritime industry.
What was your Friday, Feb. 1 looking like before all the news broke? Was it a regular day in the office?
My Friday was starting off normal — it’s the only day of the week I work the night shift. When I got in at 2 p.m., I was assigned to write a short brief about construction on the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.
Right when I finished that, an editor walks over to my desk asking if I wanted to go over to the EVMS library to check out a yearbook. I was out the newsroom doors in the next 10 minutes.
What did you think when you were told what you were going to go look for at EVMS? Did it sound surreal at first?
It did sound surreal. All the questions were swirling: was there any chance this photo was real? Could I actually find a yearbook from the 1980s? If we didn’t find it, and couldn’t verify the authenticity of it, do we write something debunking the original article? I had also never been to this library before so all this was new for me.
You’re driving to EVMS’s library. What’s going through your head?
It’s a three-minute drive from our office. Basically, I’m just focused on thinking about finding the yearbook. I had no idea what I would find in it, if I would find the photo in there at all. But when I got my hands on it, the photo was there. Page 105.
What did you think when you first flipped to page 105 and found the photo?
I hustled back and made a copy, took a picture of it and sent it to my editor. I also called my editor right after I saw it and told him it was legit. Our statehouse reporter, Marie Albiges, then put together a story and reached out to Northam’s team for comment. I then stuck around to look at the yearbook some more and make copies of a few other pages.
Did you feel like you got to be on the front row of a significant moment in Virginia history?
Absolutely. There are of course questions that remained to be answered. The governor says it’s not him in the photo. Plus, allegations against his would-be successor Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax have now surfaced. It seems like this will play out over time. Work by lawmakers has gone on as usual. But it is a big moment of course. I think this shows the important role local journalism can play in a story that can grab national attention.
Was journalism something you always wanted to do, or did you come to it in a different way?
Both my parents were reporters, so I always remember being around newspapers growing up. But it wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I truly decided to start a career in journalism. I always loved writing. It just took my first journalism job to figure out that this is what I wanted to do.
“I love working in a newsroom. There’s no other place like it. It’s a place where intense discussions are had. You can, and should, openly disagree with your bosses. You can think creatively and are pushed each day by deadlines and copy-hungry editors to finish a story.”
That’s rare both parents are former newspaper reporters. Do they follow your stories and give you their thoughts or anything like that?
They both used to be reporters. They met at a newspaper in New York, but no longer work in the industry. And, yes, they certainly follow along with my work and are great to talk to about career stuff. Very supportive. My dad went into the publishing business after a long career in journalism – he worked at the New York Times for many years as an editor. My mom is now a poet and teaches classes at a local museum. They’ve been so helpful in my career along with many great editors I’ve had along the way.
What has kept you wanting to work in the industry?
I love working in a newsroom. There’s no other place like it. It’s a place where intense discussions are had. You can, and should, openly disagree with your bosses. You can think creatively and are pushed each day by deadlines and copy-hungry editors to finish a story. There’s the stress but also the rush of a good story.
Where does the Northam yearbook photo rank? Have you had any other similar instances in your career?
Can’t say I’ve had similar instances such as this, no. I have many stories I consider super important to me, including going back to when I worked at the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania. Not all those are breaking news stories. I care about each story I write no matter the circumstances surrounding them. Stories like this can be conversation starters as well as act to hold public officials accountable. Our job is to present the facts and keep moving on and keep digging.