Rich Lord Interview Transcript

Rich Lord is a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This interview was completed on September 27, 2018.

JK: I guess it would be helpful if you gave the audience a brief description of your background and the beat that you cover.

RL: I’ve been doing journalism in Pittsburgh for about 22 years and I am currently the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Investigative Reporter and Investigative Editor. I lead teams that do longer term projects, here at the Post Gazette. We started looking at the opioid problem, the Post Gazette’s been looking at the opioid problem since 2011 pretty intensively. But in about late 2015, we decided to ramp up our coverage a lot more and we dedicated a team to looking at how doctors participated in the roots of the opioid epidemic, and to look at how different states are responding to over-prescribing which is what primed the pump for the heroin problem that we have now, and the fentanyl problem. So in late 2015, I started dedicating most of my time to covering opioids and really ran through June of this year covering opioids with the bulk of my time in team projects. So, I wouldn’t be t the only reporter, I would be working with multiple reporters, visual artists, and an editor. Donna Eyring has been my editor on the opioid effort and then, I haven’t covered it so much in the past couple months since there have been a few other topics. But I spent, really, more than two and a half years working on the opioid effort.

 

JK: Around how long has it been during the time when you guys started ramping up and starting to cover the opioid crisis more in-depth, like for what length of time.

RL: You know, we upgraded in two phases. In 2011, we realized what was going on. I mean heck, some of us have realized it earlier. I live on a street, one of the more opioid troubled neighborhoods in the city, where people started to arguing about who ate last pill in 2004. In 2005, I started seeing pills all around me on my block. We weren’t blind to that as a newspaper, and we were covering that problem—particularly a pill problem during that period from the early 2000s to 2011. More as a news story when daily news presented itself, then in 2011 did a faces of the heroin epidemic project which really raised the awareness of how heroin was in the rise in our region. That was one ramping up, and in 2015 we approached it as a sustained project of our investigative team. So that was yet another ramp up. And right now we are kind of trying to figure out where to go next with our coverage.

 

JK: I’ve noticed that in some of your coverage there was someone who described what was happening as a ‘social contagion’ where the opioid crisis seems to be a symptom of larger social problems that were happening in those neighborhoods. I guess it’s interesting to think of it in that way, because its not like these were neighborhoods that were already affluent and that the opioid crisis just came in. There were pre-existing problems that made it more susceptible to the opioid crisis when it arrived. Is that an accurate characterization?

RL: Yeah, I think the social contagion language came from Ralph Tarter from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy who has studied this for probably 40 years, who has studied addiction and has done longitudinal studies. When we kind of embedded ourselves in the most overdose-plagued neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, that seemed to kind of ring true. These were areas that had been—before the 1970s, people who worked in the mills would make some money and move away from the mills into these neighborhoods up the hill from the mills. They became relatively affluent, but working class neighborhoods. But, when the mills closed, their kids could not follow that generational march into the mills that characterized Pittsburgh for over a century. Some of them kind of drifted, you know. There was a sense that in these neighborhoods, there was reduced opportunity and purposelessness. Meanwhile you had changes in public housing which caused folks in public housing complexes to be dispersed throughout neighborhoods, which changed the drug markets dramatically. You also had the 2008 mortgage meltdown, of course, which created a whole bunch of cheap properties in these neighborhoods. They were snapped up by some unscrupulous landlords who did not really care who they were renting to, or what was going on in their properties, or about maintaining their properties, or paying their taxes. So these neighborhoods were just hit by a bunch of things at once. And then you throw the flood of pills, that of course, beset the country throughout the 2000s and you just had a recipe for addiction that spread from user to user. We would hear stories of many folks who started with a prescription, but also many other stories of folks who had been introduced to opioids in pill form or heroin by a friend who had been in similar circumstances, or faced similar prospects with a similar sense of hopelessness if not, purposelessness. So yeah, that social contagion language definitely rang true—wasn’t my term but it reflected what I was seeing.

JK: What was the toughest article you had to write in the course of your writing?

RL: In terms of emotionally tough? Or just plain, logistically most tough?

JK: Either one.

RL: Certainly the most emotionally toughest, I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It was a follow-up story. We did a story called “Riding OD Road” which looked at the opioid problem along a road called Brownsville Road in a Pittsburgh’s southern neighborhood. And as a part of that, we got to know a guy named Gary Fisher. Gary was a very eloquent voice, when I first saw Gary, we was sitting on a curb recovering, after having been hit with Naloxone four times by police and given CPR by a police commander who had seen him on the road. And Gary recovered from that, and I ended up meeting him the next day after that near death experience. And I got to know him over the course of 4 interviews, four formal long conversations, but also a lot of phone conversations, and texts too. Gary told us that was his 14th non-fatal overdose. We pulled all his paperwork, and every public filing related to Gary and I can tell you that that was not an exaggeration. Gary was the first person that was in super-duper fragile recovery, who agreed to go on record with us, which was a big deal for us because we needed people to go on record with us to make this real to our readers, and to make our accounts credible. And then, we published Gary’s story on November 2nd— or at least that’s when it went online. We didn’t hear a lot from Gary afterward, we were a little worried, we had a hard time reaching him, we didn’t know whether he was upset at the story or not. And four weeks after the story was published, I got a text saying, “Hey, Gary Fisher, age 29, has died according to the medical examiner’s press releases”. And every day, they release a list of the deceased who the medical examiner has gone to investigate, there was Gary’s name and he had indeed, fatally overdosed on Nov. 30th. This was a really difficult piece of news for our team. We had really come to believe that just by showing up in people’s lives, and caring as we do and we did, and asking question and talking about recovery that we might serve as a catalyst to help inch toward recovery. But, Gary’s death put that in perspective. Yeah, it was nice that we showed up and that we cared and we were respectful and that we asked a lot of questions. But a bunch of curious journalists showing up was not a counterweight to addiction. It didn’t save Gary. Other people who we got to know pretty well, some have bumped in and out of recovery since then and others have done poorly and have been incarcerated. Gary’s the only one we really got to know, that fatally overdosed after we got to know them. So yeah, emotionally toughest. But they were all tough logistically just because you have to find ways to identify people with heroin problems through public filings, police complaints, nonfatal overdose reports, etcetera. If you find them, you can knock on their doors, but in order to get them to share their stories in a way that is meaningful to the public, it takes a relationship building process that often takes months. Most newspapers don’t allow you to spend months building a relationship on spec, not knowing if it will result in a story, but ours did.

JK: Was there anything that you came across in the course of your reporting, that changed your perspective on the Opioid Crisis?

RL: Oh yeah, my perspective on opioid users dramatically changed. I grew up reading and interested in heroin addiction from an early age, reading stories and books about it. I came up with a view that being a heroin user would be relatively simple. You think of train-spotting or something like that, you think that these folks just wake up and from the moment they get up all they’re thinking about is how to get their drugs, and that’s kind of the public perception. Almost like, a zombie-like quest for a high, or for a release. But what we found out from people like Gary, or like Dana, and Glenn is that these folks lead extremely complex lives and are oftentimes, not entirely in the throes of addiction. They’re oftentimes bouncing between use and various stages of recovery. They're often struggling with insurance issues, transportation issues, childcare issues. Most of the time, they’re either working, trying to find work, or scraping money in a variety of ways—legal and not legal. They just lead incredibly complicated lives. And also, a lot of them are really smart and I think the public perception is otherwise, but we met folks who had years of heroin use under their belts and were in very a fragile recovery state and could speak about brain chemistry in ways that I don’t think many neurologists could. Their understanding of what was happening in their minds was so deep. They had studied what was occurring, and it was astounding sometimes how smart these folks were.

JK: I know one of your articles looks at a woman who did really well in school, got straight As, but then ultimately became addicted and the impact on her family. That’s the article that can help subvert stereotypes about the types of people who do get addicted.

RL: Absolutely. The Danielle Walker story described a number of people’s different paths and the way it played out in three different families. But right, Danielle came from a good family, but this family with two attentive parents— both of whom had careers and a super nice house in the suburb that I grew up in (South Park). There was no indication about trauma—you hear so much about trauma and addiction. Well, we did not find that. Yet, she was sucked into this thing as much as we know about. That story, was kind of remarkable because we had the good fortune of being able to be there when Danielle’s mother questioned the man who was present for Danielle’s fatal overdose and who moved Danielle’s body following that overdose, which was just a remarkable, searing encounter. You could not leave that encounter, or watch that video without feeling for both sides. Obviously for the mother who lost her daughter, and was just radioactive with grief for weeks and months after that. Also the man who moved the body, so that he could have a chance to reunite with his own daughter, so he thought, whose life was going to be shadowed by that act from here on out.

JK: Do you feel that the opioid crisis is slowly improving in your area, or are there still significant challenges ahead?

RL: The experts are telling us, that although you can’t say too much until the toxicology reports come in on the year, that the fatal overdose numbers are down in our region. And have been trending down, gradually since early 2017. Of course, this is a metric that is easily tracked. We don’t know whether this is caused by more Naloxone being available and therefore, being saved following an overdose, or whether it is related to changing mixtures of heroin and fentanyl which are safer than the mixtures that were flying around here in 2016 and early 2017, or whether there could be another reason for the reduction in death. Maybe it's a reduction in use overall. I don’t get the sense that use is down, as much as overdoses are down if indeed, use is down. I think there is a perception that word has gotten out, and certainly the flow of prescription narcotics has been reduced in our area. Both of the major insurers have reported double digit decreases in reimbursements for opioids. I think that there was a period when you would see young people introducing each other to heroin, and heroin being hip in a Lou Reed kind of way? I have two late teenagers, who to my knowledge, haven’t seen heroin or prescription opioids in their social circles. So, maybe we’re seeing the beginning of an end. But we still have a lot of use out there.

JK: What was the single most memorable experience you had while covering the opioid crisis, whether it was something you observed, or something that you heard someone say that stuck with you?

RL: Well, I think I alluded to one of them that’s really seared into my memory. The encounter between Donna Walker and Vinny Zeitlman, I could provide a little background on it. Donna had lost her daughter, Danielle, to an overdose in December of 2017 and Vinny was the person who (in his apartment) Danielle overdosed. Vinny eventually admitted to ??? Danielle’s body out, rather than calling 911. Vinny moved Danielle’s body into a little pathway near his house and then had someone else call 911 when she was long, cold and dead. And we were there when Donna met Vinny and interrogated Vinny about his decision to not call 911, and instead to move Danielle’s body. Vinny explained that he lost custody of his daughter because he had overdosed a number of months before, and he had feared that if police and medics showed up to address an overdose in his apartment, that would cause him to lose custody and he would never get access to his daughter again. So had moved Donna’s daughter, in a misguided effort to improve his case with his own daughter, which is just a shocking kind of moment to just see them go back and forth about that set of circumstances. I’d put that up there—I mean there were a lot of things we learned and a lot of people we met that are really memorable, but the raw emotion of that moment was unforgettable.

 

JK: I know that in the media, on the TV, there are sound bites that focus on statistics like overdose deaths and the economic cost of the crisis. I was struck by your coverage and the level of detail that it goes into, and how it really tries to get into the minds of the people you are interviewing and look at things from their perspective. It almost read like a novel and I was curious about if you started with that in mind— to go into that level of detail, or was that something that just came in over time as you began to interview more people in a more in-depth way.

RL: I think that when we embedded ourselves in the most affected neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, which really started in July of 2017, we intended to treat those neighborhoods themselves as characters. But I don’t think we knew we would be able to develop the kinds of relationships that we did, in that set of stories, or in the later stories this year (like the Danielle story). You know, it’s hard as a reporter to call the mother of someone who fatally overdosed a couple of days before and do a 35 minute phone conversation with the person and try to write a story. It’s just emotionally hard to do that and it doesn’t get the job done because it does not capture the user as a full person. It doesn’t allow the reader to experience that user’s life, in a way that brings home their humanity, it does not convince the reader this could happen to their own children, their own brothers and sisters, their parents or themselves. I think that’s what we, pretty quickly, set out to do after we got into that project. We wanted people to realize that this isn’t somebody else, this is us. There’s no other way to do that than to show up. Nobody takes you seriously as a reporter, or as a person, until you show up for about the third time and in some cases we had to show up a dozen times before we got the depth of understanding that we wanted to get. And we were really lucky because our paper supported us doing it that way.

JK: Given everything that you’ve seen in your reporting, if somebody gave you a magic wand that allowed you to change any policy in order to more effectively alleviate the opioid crisis, which policy would you zero in on?

RL: Well, I think that’s a hard thing to say. Part of me wants to say I would want to reduce the barriers to buprenorphine and the medically assisted treatments because in some other countries and other places they are so much more accessible than in ours. I know people who have been successful in maintaining in their recovery and being extremely responsible and helpful citizens for a decade or more while using buprenorphine. I don’t know if buprenorphine is the answer for everybody though, so I’m very sensitive to the side of the recovery community that ??? lifetime use of buprenorphine is not the answer because it doesn’t address the underlying pathologies of addiction. But, I’d also say that if I could wave a wand and eliminate the indifference in some sectors of our city to this issue, then that might be better than changing policy. We have, for instance, a overdose response team theoretically in place in Pittsburgh which is supposed to go ??? people who have recently experienced non-fatal overdoses within a week of that event and try to gently leverage them into treatment or at least address problems in their lives and get them towards treatment. And that has gone nowhere, essentially, because public safety personnel have not taken the steps necessary to implement that team. When they show up for the overdose, they are not doing what they are supposed to do to activate that team. I’d love to change that. The post-overdose response approach has worked in places like Cincinnati, I’d love to see it work here. It wouldn’t require waving and changing policy, it would require waving a wand to execute the policy.

JK: In general, do you feel that the Pittsburgh city leadership are in-tune with what is happening with the opioid crisis in Pittsburgh? Like they’re connected to it or do you feel that there is a gap in awareness?

RL: The city and county leadership are aware and in-tune, but the follow through is not always as one might hope it would be. They’re not dismissive of this problem, but they are at times lacking in follow through like how I mentioned with that post-overdose response team. They might, at times, do something that sounds absolutely great and you check back in six months and nothing has happened. There are dedicated people in the middle ranks, both in the city and in the county. We also have a wildly segmented system of government here, in which we have 130 municipalities in one county and so, dedication to this issue is like a checkerboard. Heck it’s worse, there’s only 64 spaces on a checkerboard. Dedication to addressing this issue just varies widely among our municipalities.

JK: In addition to your reporting, what resources would you recommend to members of the public who would like to know more about the opioid crisis?

RL: This is an easy tick, but the book Dreamland was amazing. It just captured how this played out in the lives and in the economy of small town and small city America. That would be my big recommendation. I haven’t honestly watched too many of the documentaries. I know a lot have been done on this subject just because I’ve spent too much time working in the streets, and I just don’t wanna watch anymore, you know. But yes, Dreamland was a fantastic resource.

 

JK: I think that’s all the questions I have. Were there any additional thoughts or ideas you would like to share?

RL: No, I think you did a good job of getting the best part out of me. I’m happy to help more if you need me!

JK: Alright, thank you! I’ll continue to be in touch. I really appreciate your coverage. You know, there’s a saying that goes, “Good journalism makes the important interesting.” And I think your coverage, just the way it’s been written really grips the reader and immerses the reader into that world, and what the people are experiencing. I appreciate that very much and the insights you provided in this interview as well.

RL: Thank you very much, obviously I came to care about the issue and the people about whom  we were reporting and we really just wanted to do it justice.