If you’ve been searching for Pulitzer-nominated mob reporter George Anastasia’s expert coverage of the Joseph Ligambi trial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, you’re looking in the wrong place. The paper’s 38-year veteran took a buyout in October but has since been scooped up by prominent Philadelphia attorney Jim Beasley Jr. to write about the Philly mob’s courtroom drama for BigTrial.net, the brand new blog that Beasley set up to cover, well, big trials. I asked the 65-year-old Anastasia what all this means for the future of journalism and about the time he was nearly whacked.
Welcome to the world of blogging. How is your process different than it was when you were writing for the Inquirer?
I have more freedom, and I can be more opinionated. If someone says “motherfucker” on the stand, I can write that they said “motherfucker” on the stand. I don’t have to write, “[Expletive deleted]”. But I don’t really make much of a distinction. I am bringing the same set of skills to the table. It’s journalism with an edge. Court reporting with attitude. And there are no editors. I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but I have done this long enough that I can self-edit. The 22-year-old blogger that has never had an editor doesn’t have that concept. I don’t consider this a blog. It’s journalism on a different platform. It’s niche journalism at a high level.
Did you leave the Inquirer specifically to do this?
No. I took the buyout without any knowledge that this was going to happen, and I was already working on Oscar Goodman’s autobiography with him… [Reporter and Jim Beasley Sr. biographer] Ralph Cipriano is a good friend of mine, and he had done blogging for Beasley for the Fumo trial and the priest sex abuse trial, and it went very well. Jim was interested in establishing a more permanent situation, and Ralph asked if I would be interested.
So this is going to go beyond the Ligambi trial?
Yes. Ralph is going to do another priest sex trial in January, and then Kaboni Savage is expected to go to trial in federal court in January, and I might segue from this to that. Beasley is very enthused. He sees this as an opportunity. I don’t understand the business end, but Beasley says there’s a market and a vacuum that we can fill.
A vacuum left by you leaving the paper.
Well, traditional coverage is just not what it used to be. The Inquirer just doesn’t have enough bodies. I am in the courtroom every day of the trial. The Inquirer is dropping in and out when they think something important will happen. But you’ve got to be there in the courtroom. It’s not just about what witnesses are saying. If something happens in the audience, who is there, who is not there — that becomes part of the story. One day, Ligambi made an aside to his wife, “This case is bullshit.” To me, that’s as interesting as anything said on the stand, and so I did a blog about it.
So what’s the money liked compared to your job at the Inquirer?
I’m waiting to get my first paycheck, but it’s really not that much different, and I have complete freedom. If it becomes permanent, we’ll have to figure that out. But it’s almost comparable. And I don’t have to be somewhere every morning. I don’t get called in to do a weekend shift. I don’t get a call from an editor saying, “We don’t have anyone to cover this shooting, so can you cover it?” That’s the real reason I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to do the stuff that I had to do when I started there.
And are you getting good traffic?
I’m trying to figure that out. The overall so far is 11,000 hits. I don’t know what that means. But we got 11,000 hits over ten posts for the mob trial. But Beasley understands the business end. I just understand the journalism end.
This is the Philly mob’s biggest trial since Joey Merlino went down. Is it an exciting trial to cover?
I’ve covered a lot of these, and it is not as dramatic, partly because there are no murders. There’s no hit man turned government informant. This trial is really a picture of the mob in 2012. It’s a shadow of what it used to be. It’s all about greed and money and holding onto power, even though you don’t have as much power as you used to… I guess it’s always been about greed and money, but the money is a lot less today. If you want excitement, you’ve gotta go the 8th floor [of the courthouse]. That’s where they are taking forever to pick the Kaboni Savage jury. Twelve murders, and he’s already been convicted of being a cocaine kingpin. The Ligambi trial is the swan song for the traditional mob, but it doesn’t mean that the underworld is any safer. Kaboni Savage is the real gangster, not Joseph Ligambi.
You’ve been covering the Philly mob for decades. Anyone ever put a hit out on you?
John Stanfa put a hit out on me. I didn’t know it at the time. But he didn’t like the stuff I was writing. This was when he was the boss in the mid-1990s. But the guy who was supposed to come after me, Sergio Battaglia, he became a cooperating witness before he had a chance. He told me, “We were supposed to get some grenades and throw them through the window… it was nothing personal.” I said, “I have a wife and kids — that’s personal.” But you go after a reporter, and you just create more problems.
Which will die first: The Inquirer and Daily News or the Philly mob?
They will both be around, but ten years from now, we won’t recognize either one. There will always be an Inquirer. Maybe not Daily News. Will there be a paper product? Probably. But not what it is now. Whoever can figure that out and make the money from the news, that will be the next Bill Gates. There will always be the Inquirer and the Philly mob, but neither will be the player they were 20 years ago.