Q&A: Matt Apuzzo

 

Matt Apuzzo, national legal affairs correspondent, on living out of a backpack, climbing the ladder, and serendipity

By Ruth Jacobs
 

Journalist Matt Apuzzo ’00 has risen quickly through the ranks, from covering sports for the Echo to covering some of the nation’s biggest stories for the Associated Press. He went to New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina and to Virginia Tech after the April shootings. Apuzzo works out of the Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C., where he covered the Scooter Libby trial, among other political scandals. Colby writer Ruth Jacobs caught up with Apuzzo in Washington for this conversation about his work.

Matt Apuzzo ’00 in Washington, D.C., where he covers national legal news.
Matt Apuzzo ’00 in Washington, D.C., where he covers national legal news.

Do you know what you’re going to run into when you’re on your way to work in the morning?
Sometimes. I’m a legal affairs writer, that’s my job—so you kind of know from a case standpoint what’s brewing. ... Right now we’ve got the [Jack] Abramoff investigation going on, we just had someone plead guilty in that a little while ago. We’ve got an investigation going on Ted Stevens, the senator from Alaska. These are things we’re keeping an ear to the ground on. In that sense you know what’s going to happen.

You’ve covered Katrina, Virginia Tech—some of the biggest stories of recent times. How did that come about?
Somewhere along the line I got a reputation as someone who can live out of a backpack. When I first got to the AP, in 2003, I ended up at the Rhode Island nightclub fire—100 people died. I worked out of my car and lived out of my backpack. ... A year later there was a federal prosecutor in Baltimore who was found dead in a stream in Amish country. They needed somebody who had covered cops and law enforcement and FBI just to help out, so they sent me. ...

When Katrina happened, they said, “Can you go?” and I said, “Oh yeah, sure.” ... I think that there are just reporters who don’t mind smelling bad.

Did covering Katrina catapult you into this job in D.C.?
Not really. It was sort of the right-place, right-time thing. I was in New Bedford [Mass.] covering drug trafficking and heroin networks in New England. The Hartford bureau of the AP was looking for somebody to cover criminal justice, so they moved me there. And then the governor of Connecticut ended up getting under federal investigation, so I ended up doing that story for pretty much two years.

Now, you didn’t study government at Colby.
No, I was a biology major. I’m a pre-med student gone horribly, horribly awry. This is what happens when you get D’s in organic chemistry.

I’m curious about your counterparts in the press area. You seem to be collegial, but is there competition?
Yeah. On your typical court case, the Washington Post isn’t going to rush that to the Web. ... On certain things we’re in competition—scoops, we’re definitely in competition. Tomorrow there’s going to be a Scooter Libby brief and we’re all going to write about it.

So it’s not a race? Basically, you’re going to be the first one to get it out?
Yeah, in this case. During the verdict of the Scooter Libby case, it’s a hundred reporters, so then [the race] is on.

When the sentence came down, I think your story was first.
Probably.

Is that important?
Yeah. ‘First’ is number two on the list behind ‘accurate.’ Gotta have them both.

How do you handle that?
Fast.

Do you get stressed out about it?
Oh, all the time. Incredibly. But I don’t think I could ever go back to a newspaper.

Is it an addiction to speed?
I just think there’s a lot of criticism about reporters. I think AP is largely seen as—close to universally—as an honest broker of news. We don’t have a liberal or conservative bent to us. … I think people in government and people in business—lawyers, judges, clerks, people I need to deal with on a daily basis—understand that I don’t need to make it sexy, I just need to get it right.

Covering trauma is probably one of the hardest things reporters do. How did you approach Virginia Tech?
You go in sensitively, you talk to them about what you want to know, but you understand these are people who lost family members or friends or neighbors. But in this case, I didn’t have to do much of that. ... At Virginia Tech it was strictly the law enforcement side. ... I went into Virginia Tech with a very specific mission, which was criminal investigation. We had state police, ATF, FBI, local cops, campus cops, and not offering a lot of answers. ... I didn’t go to a vigil, I never met a family. I spent a lot of time with cops, I spent a lot of time on my cell phone in my car, I spent a lot of time at courthouses reading search warrants.

You’re relatively young to be where you are.
I don’t know. AP has a lot of young, talented reporters. I’m 28, I’ll be 29 in October.

So you started at the Echo?
It was just something to do. A friend told me my sophomore year, ‘oh you should go.’ ... Then I stumbled—through the Lovejoy Convocation—stumbled into working part time for the [Morning Sentinel] on the sports desk. And the news editor there, Tony Cristan, had me writing some more news stories. ... That was all really good training ground. I learned a lot of good lessons. Even at the school paper—great lessons. I was fortunate to learn them early.

What were some of the lessons?
The biggest thing is, when the news is bad, when bad news happens, people oftentimes irrationally, I believe, do not respond negatively to the news, they respond negatively to the reporters, they respond negatively to the newspapers. That was hard. That was hard for me to figure out, especially on a small campus like Colby. But that same sort of irrational response is going to happen whether you’re covering Colby or whether you’re covering the school committee or you’re covering the war in Iraq.

Throughout your career did you have people who mentored you and worked with you closely?
Yeah, I was lucky. ... The editor in Massachusetts who hired me was a tremendous mentor to me, really brought me along and we had some knock-down—[points to corner of cafeteria] that’s the judge in the Scooter Libby case right there—we had some knock-down drag-out fights. You know, blood on the wall kind of fights. But you know you love him in a sense, the way you love your father. Which is to say most of the time growing up you kind of think maybe you hate him, but only later do you realize. ... I’ve just been fortunate to work for really, really talented people, and when you work for really talented people it makes you look so much better than you are.

What does it take to do what you do?
Reporting is not that hard—that’s the dirty secret. I talk to people, and I listen to what they say, and I write it down. ... I don’t know, I’ve just been lucky. Think about it. I was in New Bedford covering school committee stuff and then I got moved to the cop desk. I didn’t put the mob on the waterfront there. I just kind of stumbled into that. I didn’t put the governor under investigation. ... I’ll talk to anybody. And I think that oftentimes that’s what it takes.

If that comes naturally, the job must be that much more enjoyable.
It’s so much fun. This job is so much fun. You get a front row seat to history. How cool is that? It’s a blast.