Fishbowl 5: Ex-Enquirer Editor Details Time at Tabloid

Then and Now: At left, Ross when she worked for the Enquirer.

Shelley Ross remembers her days globetrotting as a freelancer and then editor for The National Enquirer with the glamour of a longtime Hollywood movie star. She was 22 when she began a four-year stint at the paper that initially paid her $300 a story to contribute to the supermarket tabloid. Decades later, that tabloid is up for a Pulitzer. I chatted with her by phone to ask what it was like to work for a paper not often trusted. And what’s her take – does her former employer deserve such a dignified award or what?

1. How did you get hired at The National Enquirer? I was living in South Florida and had an internship at the Miami Herald and I was a feature writer for the Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel. I had done an interview with Guy Lombardo. he was a funny guy. I heard from an editor asking me if I was willing to sell them my story. So of course, thinking that would be a firing offense I went to my editor and asked her and she said, ‘How do you think most of us live? We don’t live on our Sun Sentinel salaries.’ I found out most people were freelancing for the Enquirer. They offered me 300 dollars, which was nearly double my salary, $170 per week. …Then I got a phone call. Did I want to work there and travel around the world?

2. What were some of the stories you worked on? Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter lived in a haunted house when they were first married. When they were in Palm Beach on campaign I set up an interview with Rosalynn and she looked and me and said, ‘Oh yes, I knew that house was haunted since I was five years old and walking past it.’ I took a breath and asked who was it haunted by. She said Yankee Civil War soldiers. I had to talk to the current owners and occupants. The enquirer lawyers were frightened that saying a house was haunted would hurt the property. They [the owners] were all aware of the legends. They let us come in and take pictures.

3.Did you feel that you and your colleagues were doing legitimate reporting? I worked with some of the best reporters I ever worked with. I traveled around the world and found lots of stories and was trained by a man who was sort of the closest thing you could get to a William Randolph Hearst. [Ross was trained by the late Generoso Pope, Jr., who created the Enquirer.]

4. Other unusual stories you worked on? Jimmy Carter was elected President and I went to Plains, Georgia and did a story on the cat that was going to the White House. Everyone had the same [first three digits] of their telephone numbers. People would say, ‘Oh you should talk to so and so’ and would give you just the last digits of their phone number. Somebody gave me Lillian’s number, Carter’s mother. I called and asked if she had any pictures of the cat. She said, ‘I’ll leave the back door open and they’ll be on the table’.

5. What do you think of the potential of the Enquirer winning the Pulitzer? It actually just dawned on me yesterday in a conversation what the world would be like on Monday if the National Enquirer does indeed get a Pulitzer Prize. I feel very sentimental. I have been in mainstream media for 25 years plus.I’m not sure. Besides being amused by it, it really would be a different world to wake up in.

…On a personal level, yes ,because I know some of the people. The Enquirer has some of the best rewrite teams that you’ll find anywhere who could polish a story like no one else could, people who could write a tabloid story to its legal potential.

…On a professional level, over the years, not everything they print is true. But over the years they’ve had their share of Janet Cooks and Jason Blairs, but it didn’t disqualify the Post or the Times [from winning Pulitzers].

Editor’s note: Ross worked for ABC from 1989 to 2006 as executive producer of GMA and Prime Time Live. Ross splits her time between Connecticut and New York. She’s just finishing up a PBS special that raising money and awareness for combat veterans. Read more about her time at the Enquirer in a recent Editor & Publisher story she wrote here.

Read more on Ross’s thoughts about the Enquirer’s questionable reputation after the jump…

The Enquirer’s Reputation:

Some of the reputation is well-earned. I will say a lot of the things, the romances. Some of them were real. I used to know how to read the Enquirer even years after I left. I could tell if a celebrity romance was real. A lot of times a romance is built around the picture. It would often be done in cooperation with a celebrity’s publicist.