No Small Pulitzers
By Vivian Farmer
Music is heard and words are read. Communicating the sound of music through a written review is a daunting task, but Lloyd Schwartz created ways to write about classical music that expressed what he felt.
“The soul of my reviews has to do with connecting the music I’m hearing to the world,” Schwartz said.
The description for his 1994 Pulitzer Prize reads: “For his skillful and resonant classical music criticism.”
Schwartz says he thinks what is meant by resonant is that, “I brought into my reviews references of life that people could relate to.”
He did not set out to become a classical music critic, and he’ll tell you his reviewing style stems from a lack of training. The Boston Herald needed a temporary critic in the early 1970s while its main critic covered a European tour of classical music. A friend referred Schwartz to the newspaper.
“I was just a music lover, concertgoer and record collector,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz was not a trained journalist or musician but was working toward a doctoral degree in English at Harvard. The Boston Herald’s main critic liked Schwartz’s work and offered him a part-time job.
When Schwartz wrote reviews for the Boston Herald, he would rush back to the newsroom after a performance ended, type his review on a typewriter and walk the finished piece over to the copy editor’s desk.
“It was just kind of delicious,” he said. “I got to play reporter.”
It was not at the Boston Herald that Schwartz won his Pulitzer, however. His criticism flourished when he started work at the Boston Phoenix. After Schwartz was let go during a bout of layoffs at the Boston Herald, he filled an opening at the alt-weekly. It was a unique working opportunity.
He had unlimited writing space and was expected to write just 26 pieces a year, giving him a week or more to write each review. The opportunity was so fantastic that Schwartz began to have doubts.
“How long could I get away with this?” Schwartz said.
And then he started winning awards. The American Society of Composers and Authors and Publishers awarded him the Deems Taylor Award three times for his
reviews. Then, in 1987, Schwartz began doing classical music reviews for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. He still reviews for Fresh Air today.
Schwartz received offers to work for larger publications, but he stuck with the Boston Phoenix. Working there “was a profound experience,” he said.
But even with his awards, years of experience and positive work environment at the Phoenix, it seemed unlikely that Schwartz would win a Pulitzer Prize.
“There was a real resistance to giving an award to a weekly versus a daily,” Schwartz said.
The Boston Phoenix folded in March 2013 and Northeastern University acquired the newspaper’s archives in September 2015. Schwartz’s Pulitzer-winning work is currently part of Northeastern University’s Snell Library’s archives and special collections.
Even though Schwartz’s Pulitzer-winning work is difficult to find, his distinct style can be heard in his classical music critics on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Schwartz tries to make his reviews “a conversation with the reader.” He relies on metaphors and description to connect with the reader. Schwartz’s November 1989 review in the Phoenix exemplifies his use of descriptive language. Schwartz vividly describes the sound of the Montreal Symphony and its conductor, Charles Dutoit. Schwartz wrote that the violins “shimmer” but can also have “a creepy-crawly edge.” The wind instruments “squawk in character when they have to,” and the brasses “can scale down to a whisper.”
Schwartz looks to be moved by a performance but that does not always happen.
“I love classical music,” he said. “I think people don’t like classical music because they’re bored by it and they think it’s because there’s something wrong with the music, not the performance.”
Some performances bore him and others miss the mark entirely. One such performance was the Boston Lyric’s 1993 production of the opera "I Puritani." The director of the opera put the soprano in a straitjacket for one scene. The straitjacket made it difficult for the singer to breathe and sing, Schwartz said.
Schwartz advises writers to slow down and listen to every word they choose.
“If I’m a good writer, what makes me a good writer is that I hear what I’m writing,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz hears everything he reads which he said sometimes drives him nuts because he is a very slow reader. But Schwartz said too many writers, especially newspaper writers, are not listening to themselves.
Courtesy of Lloyd Schwartz.
After hell and high water: The Grand Forks flood of 1997
By Jacob Scholl
When North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald editor Mike Jacobs got the call from the Pulitzer Prizes in 1998 notifying him that his newspaper had won the gold medal for Public Service Journalism, he wasn’t sure how to put his feelings into words.
“The simple word is joy,” Jacobs said. “It’s not the first word I thought of. Rather it was the word the publisher (Mike Maidenberg) provided to describe his feelings and I thought, ‘Yes that’s exactly the right word.’”
However, joy is not the word Jacobs would use to describe the situation that Grand Forks faced close to a year before that put the Herald in the situation to win the prize. The city is located on the eastern border of the state, and the Red River cuts the metro area in half.
“We started preparing for the flood relatively early,” he said. “It had been a very wet fall and we had a lot of snowfall, so we had a pretty good idea that this was going to be a fairly significant flood. What we didn’t realize of course was that it was going to completely inundate the town.”
Jacobs said his neighborhood, named Riverside because of its proximity to the Red River, was evacuated just as the sun was starting to rise on April 18, 1997. Following a call from another editor, Jim Durkin, telling him to get to the newsroom, Jacobs drove downtown to meet with law enforcement, while his wife left for Thompson, North Dakota, 15 miles south to seek refuge with friends who lived there. Little did they know that both of the Jacobs’ cars narrowly escaped the rising waters.
Photographer Eric Hylden recalled how he and Jacobs had seen flood damage just days before in Wahpeton, North Dakota, about 130 miles south of town. They knew the water was headed north toward Grand Forks.
“We just saw all that snow and water and everything that was going to come our way,” Hylden said. “I think everyone knew it was going to be a flood, but I don’t think we knew (the river) would get as high as it did.”
Hylden evacuated his home in the dead of night, sending his wife and 7-month-old daughter off to their family farm outside of town on April 18. Hylden stayed behind for a few hours, arriving at the farm on the morning of April 19. He called photo editor John Stenos to see how things were in town, and Stenos informed him the water had reached downtown.
Later that day, Hylden turned on the news to see his newsroom engulfed in flames. Both the newsroom and press facility were completely destroyed. He came back to Grand Forks on the morning of April 21 and met with the rest of the staff on the western rim of the University of North Dakota campus, an area west of downtown that was still fairly dry. Jacobs told Hylden to get downtown in any way that he could.
Hylden jumped into an inflatable boat with two reporters from WCCO, the local CBS affiliate station. They started on the south end of town and worked their way north toward downtown.
“It was so strange, because the water was three or four feet up these houses,” he said. “You could hear alarms going off, there was still power in these houses.”
They also came across a street where the power lines were down and in the water.
“We hightailed it out of there and kept going downtown.”
The smell of downtown was terrible. Fuel oil was in the water and smoke from the smoldering buildings was in the air. The heart of downtown left the reporters stunned, but they kept going.
Meanwhile, Jacobs had met with Maidenberg on the porch of his friends’ house in Thompson on the morning of April 19. They both agreed that the paper had to be printed, no matter the circumstances. A few hours before the waters hit town, Jacobs and Durkin took every newspaper they could off the presses, loaded them in a van and drove away. It was the last night the paper was printed in the building.
With the presses gone, the Herald staff was able to print at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, roughly 300 miles away. The Herald newsroom, however, kept moving. The staff first occupied part of the University of North Dakota campus but was forced to move after the city water supply failed and left the bathrooms useless. They then moved to an elementary school in Manvel, North Dakota, a town 12 miles north. The staff spent the next six weeks in the cramped school building, where they were able to send the proofs electronically to St. Paul.
After the papers were printed, staff flew with the copies into the Grand Forks and Crookston, Minnesota, airports so they could give out newspapers on both sides of the river. Jacobs said the Herald’s circulation at the time of the flood was normally around 30,000.
“For around two weeks we printed 100,000 copies a day and we literally gave them away in areas in Minnesota and North Dakota, because people from Grand Forks had been evacuated to all over the place,” Jacobs said.
One of the elements that contributed to the Herald’s Pulitzer win was a page they called the “Granny Finder.” It allowed people to call in and give updates on their location, which made them easier to find for friends and family. For 42 days in a row, the Herald also ran a recipe for bleach, which people used to disinfect and salvage the belongings they wanted to save, like furniture and utensils. The “rally” section of the paper was introduced as an ideas page that people used as a source of inspiration and hope in the pressing time.
As the waters began to subside and residents started to come back, Jacobs walked around town every day to talk with people. He wanted to know what they were thinking, and he used these conversations to write his editorials. The work paid off as Jacobs was honored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors when he won the Distinguished Writing Award for editorial writing in 1998.
“I’m proud of that, but it was the newspaper that won the Pulitzer,” Jacobs said. “It was all of us, every single one.”
Winning the Pulitzer brought Jacobs back to his days at the University of North Dakota. When he was a freshman in 1965, he heard Mel Ruder from the Hungry Horse News in Columbia Falls, Montana, talk to his class. Ruder had just won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting after a flood had devastated the town. He was a graduate of the same program Jacobs was beginning.
“When I was just coming into the business, this larger-than-life heroic figure showed up and talked about winning the Pulitzer Prize,” Jacobs said. “I thought, ‘you know, that would be good,’ so that’s what I think about.”
Jacobs retired from the Herald in April 2014 after working for the paper for 35 years. In the years after the flood, the Herald has had to reduce staff to about 60 percent of its size in 1997, according to Jacobs.
His first piece advice to young journalists is simple: Read good journalism.
“Be curious. The business is all about asking questions. I really think that’s what leads to success in journalism,” Jacobs later said.
His first piece advice to young journalists is simple: Read good journalism.
“Be curious. The business is all about asking questions. I really think that’s what leads to success in journalism,” Jacobs later said.
Hylden still works as a photographer for the Herald and has done so for the past 30 years. He still believes that a strong work ethic was the defining factor in both the paper’s success during the flood and the community’s response to rebuilding its town. He believes this type of drive is also crucial for any young journalist entering the field.
“It’s kind of a North Dakota thing,” he said while describing the newspaper’s staff and the town of Grand Forks. “We all rolled up our sleeves and got to work. We just knew what needed to be done.”
A neighborhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, is flooded after the city's dikes were overtaken by water. Courtesy of Eric Hylden.
Editor Mike Jacobs is doused with champagne after learning of the Grand Forks Herald's 1998 Pulitzer Prize win for Public Service. Courtesy of Eric Hylden.
Editorials are the backbone of the community
By Liying Qian
Bernard Stein won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his editorials on various campaign issues affecting the Bronx, New York, community a year before. Twenty years earlier, in 1978, he took over the editorship of The Riverdale Press, a weekly founded by his father David Stein in 1950, and became a co-publisher two years later when his parents retired. Learning by doing, Stein found a latent passion in journalism, especially editorial writing.
“What is fundamental to what community news is that people ceased to feel that they were alone,” Stein said. “The role of news is to bring people together and help them make decisions that affect their lives.”
The following has been edited for style and clarity.
Q: What made you decide to take over the editorship at The Riverdale Press?
A: I was raised to take over The Riverdale Press. My father’s dream was to expand it and have a group of papers. When I got to college, I decided I wanted to be a professor teaching English literature. … My dad never gave up his dream to have me come back to be a journalist. Ultimately, in 1978, I did.
I changed my mind because, first of all, the job I held (as the principal editor of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library) was supposed to be done by somebody with a Ph.D. The funding for the edition was all from the federal government. There was an ever-present danger that they would cut off the funding. If they cut off the funding, I wouldn’t be able to get a similar job because I didn’t have the right credentials. That was a push.
And my dad had had several heart attacks. My brother, at that time, produced special sections for the press. He urged me to come back, because he didn’t want to do it alone. If I didn’t come back, it was time to sell the paper. Even though I said I didn’t want to do this work, when the time came to sit down and listen to the negotiation over selling the paper, I felt bad about it. I came back and sat down at the editor’s chair. I had no idea what I was doing. I learned as I went.
How did you get into editorial writing?
I had been away for 14 years, so I was kind of groping my way. … In terms specifically of editorials, I would take a shot from time to time. We went to a convention at the New York Press Association, which is the trade association for weekly newspapers in New York. Mario Garcia, who taught at Syracuse at that time and later joined the faculty at Poynter, critiqued our papers. When he came to The Riverdale Press, he said the strongest thing in the newspaper was the editorials. I was very surprised. That was something that really got me started as somebody who wanted to shine and all of a sudden, I thought maybe I could.
What did you learn from your editorial writing?
I gradually have come to feel that I know what I’m doing. I had something to be proud of, and I really understood what my role was and what the role of the paper was.
What makes good editorials?
Reporting is fundamental to editorial writing. Reporting is using your eyes, using your ears and using interview skills. Sometimes reporting means reading rather than necessarily talking to a lot of people. … Reporting is cumulative.
Which part of your editorial do you think really caught the jurors’ attention?
They are serious subjects. They were written with a certain amount of passion. I think that’s what the judges responded to.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of working at a small publication?
We don’t have as many resources as large publications would have. On the other hand, (we have) fewer constraints. Much more autonomy for the editor. Of course, large publications with many resources can do things that smaller papers can’t. At the same time, we did major investigative reporting. We stayed with the daily papers on some of the biggest stories that affect or came out of Riverdale. There are limitations, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that you can’t accomplish an awful lot of things with a smaller staff. You know your community intimately, and you’ve just got to care. Every story was carefully edited. ... All of those things I think produce a dedicated staff and top-notch journalism.
Around 2008, you started teaching journalism at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and created The Hunts Point Express. How did that happen?
I, for a very long time, have had this idea to create non-profit newspapers to serve poor communities that wouldn’t be served by commercial papers, because people there don’t have enough disposable income to attract advertisers. I realized this might be a chance to try it out. When I went to the interview at Hunter College, I presented this idea to found a community newspaper. They embraced the idea. We created The Hunts Point Express, a non-profit that serves the poorest neighborhood in south Bronx in 2006. It just celebrated its 10th anniversary. I am very proud of it.
What led to your work being entered in the Pulitzer competition?
In 1986, The Riverdale Press exposed political corruption in the governance of the Northwest Bronx public schools, a scoop that got some of the dailies investigating other city neighborhoods. Over the next few years, the drumbeat of exposés led to an overhaul of the system. I entered our school coverage for the Pulitzer as a way of showing the staff how proud I was of them, but never expected that a little weekly would seriously be considered. The newsroom and my brother said, "As long as we're doing this, let's enter your editorials as well." That portfolio of 10 editorials was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1987. So we entered the next year and became finalists as well.
Now convinced that the Pulitzer folks wouldn't automatically discard an entry from a weekly, I continued to enter my work. In 1989, the New York press corps expected me to win and was surprised when I didn't. All this led to me continuing entering. The rest is history.
Pulitzer Day at the Riverdale Press office, with Stein’s brother Richard, right, and his mother, Celia Stein. Courtesy of Susan Markisz.
Bernard Stein's father, David Stein. Courtesy of Bernard Stein.
Bernard Stein reads a copy of the Riverdale Press. Photo by Mekea Hurwitz/The Riverdale Press.
Alcoholism: A disease, not a character failing
By Liying Qian
Eric Newhouse won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his yearlong explanatory reporting that examined alcohol abuse and the problems it created in the Great Falls, Montana, community. In the late 1990s, massive lawsuits against tobacco companies inspired him to look into alcohol, something that can also cause addiction and take a toll on users' lives. In one story a month, Newhouse explored the origins, consequences and costs of alcoholism through human stories.
“We made a point that (alcohol abuse) is a disease, not a moral character failing,” he said.
The following has been edited for style and clarity.
Q: What was Great Falls Tribune like when you first joined it?
A: When I joined the Great Falls Tribune in 1988, our reference library really consisted of a couple of 20-year-old encyclopedias. The internet was not a factor at that point, so we were severely limited. By the time that I began researching the alcohol series that I ultimately spent so much time on, we had the internet, we had access to government reports, we had emails. I could really compete with anybody in the country. Plus the Tribune was well known in Montana and widely respected. I had people always willing to talk with me. I had no researchers. I had one photographer who served on a part-time basis. I had one graphic artist who was assigned to me on a part-time basis. And I had an editor who edited my copy while he wasn’t doing something else.
How did you come across the story idea about alcoholism and turn it into a yearlong project?
About 1997, I was watching all of the news reports about law firms that were suing the big tobacco companies, claiming that they deliberately made tobacco that was addictive. As I looked at those stories, I kept thinking why the legal professionals were providing those stories for us. Why haven’t journalists been reporting this? Then one morning about 3 or 4 a.m. I woke up and thought to myself, “You know, same thing with alcohol. It’s a huge unrecognized force.” So the next day, I started researching; I researched for about a month and took it to an editors’ meeting … and presented a project to them on alcohol abuse. They brought in many topics that I hadn’t really considered (and that) would make this project totally unworkable. I was discouraged. The next day, our executive editor walked down the hall and sat down at my desk. He said, “I’ve been wondering what would happen if we took a series of stories, a single story a month for a calendar year. Is there enough material?” I said, “Absolutely.”
I got on the computer to type out a list of different things that I wanted to do. First was the prevalence of alcoholism. Second, look at alcoholism as a disease. Then look at childhood drinking. Look at the high school binge drinking. Look at college drinking. Then look at the alcoholism in the adult world. The legal system, the current situation, joblessness and medical. … All of the ramifications from alcohol abuse.
A single story a month grew into a single package a month. The subject grew more intense. … It created a problem for our desk. Editing and providing space for that amount of material became an insurmountable burden. The copy desk went to the editor, saying that we need to cut back the project. But the editor and I both thought this was our project. We wouldn’t cut it back.
Did you come across any ethical dilemmas in your reporting? How did you deal with them?
When I went to an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, the woman who invited me introduced me only by name. I said I was reporting for the Great Falls Tribune, I was doing a series of stories on alcoholism, I really wanted to understand their input and I thanked them for letting me join them. Then I sat down, brought my notebook out and started to take notes. That went on for about an hour and a half. The meeting concluded and people started to leave the room. A group of women came to me, asking me what I intended to do with the notebook. I said I wanted to write a story about the meeting. They said that the tradition is that what was said in the room stayed in the room. The leader of the group said, “The reason that we are troubled by your story is that we said things in this room that would victimize other people who had already been victimized by the disease. If you are willing to let us tell you many of the same stories and some other good ones but in a way that doesn’t hurt people around us, we would be happy to talk to you about these things.” I thought that was a fair thing to do, but I didn’t realize how important that was until other people I was interviewing told me they would have had nothing to do with me if I had ignored the needs of their friends. … I understood that with one snap decision, listening to my heart and doing what I believe to be right, I really saved the entire series.
How did the community react to this series?
The community was incredibly supportive. The people who were featured in the story felt honored, in part because we made a point that this is a disease, not a moral character failing.
What do you think caused the Pulitzer judges to pick your work?
A couple of weeks after we won the Pulitzer, John Walter, the managing editor of the Atlantic-Journal Constitution, called me up and asked me if I would come down to Atlanta and be a keynote speaker at a national writers’ workshop. I told him that life was way too busy. He called me again. I said the same thing. The third time he
called, he said: “Listen, I was one of the jurors who were judging the explanatory category of the Pulitzer this year. If you come to Atlanta, I will tell you why you won.” I couldn’t resist that, so I went down. After my speech, we had a cup of coffee. He said, “Three things really impressed the judges. First was the quality of the stories you told. They were so dramatic. The second was that you insisted on using full names. The only time you didn’t was when you were dealing with juveniles. You always used pictures of people you were writing about. The third was that this was such an audacious project. It was a yearlong series. You promised your readers upfront and you would deliver one story a month throughout a calendar year.”
What do you think makes a good explanatory story?
First is that you have to have statistical material that is extraordinarily well researched. You need to know exactly what you are talking about and know it so well that you can explain it in ways that are intelligible to readers who may not have a terribly good education. You need to be able to interview experts and get them to talk in a way that is understandable to the readers. Another thing that is critically important is to find people whose stories flesh out statistics.
What was the nomination process like?
While I was writing the stories, I never thought about prizes. I was working so hard that all I thought was staying ahead of the curve and producing copy for the next month. When that was all over, I was exhausted by it. I went to our editor and asked what we do now. He said, “Well, we need to enter a couple of contests.” I thought that was a good idea. I also thought, “ I have never worked so hard in my life, and I never want to work this hard again. If I’m ever going to enter the Pulitzers, this is my opportunity.” I went home and spread out all the material. I created an entry all on my own. And I never told my colleagues. Because when I lost, I didn’t want them to be laughing at me for being presumptuous. As a result, when we won the prize, nobody could believe that we had won it.
How did the prize affect your journalistic career and the publication?
After I won the Pulitzer, my editor was more willing to let me take on big stories I thought were critically important. I did a series of stories about increasing mental health problems among teenagers, and how the suicide rate among teens had increased four-fold within a 20- or 25-year period. Also in 2000, I began to write about veterans coming from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and the care (they) needed. Today, I’m writing my third book, which will be called “Phases of Recovery from PTSD and TBI.” I also wrote for Psychology Today. I’m sure had I not won the Pulitzer, Psychology Today wouldn’t be promoting me as an expert and encouraging me to write about the emotional trauma suffered by soldiers and veterans.
Eric Newhouse receives the Pulitzer Prize from Columbia University President George Rupp. Courtesy of Columbia University.
Eric Newhouse celebrates his Pulitzer Prize. Courtesy of Great Falls Tribune.
The voice guiding a community through divisive times
By Liying Qian
David Moats won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for writing a series of editorials defending legalization of same-sex marriage in Vermont. His was the first journalism Pulitzer awarded to a journalist in Vermont.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in English. From 1969 to 1972, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan. He joined the Rutland Herald as a reporter in 1982 and began working on the editorial page in 1992. Over the years, he has been actively involved in civil rights issues such as same-sex marriage. After the Vermont Supreme Court ruled for same-sex marriage in 1999, the state was consumed by heated, divisive debates. Moats followed the political upheaval with his writing and became an influential voice in the community’s response.
“It was a very inflammatory topic,” Moats said. “The editorials achieved a tone of restraint and respect, which was needed in Vermont. ... You can see the editorials had a constructive effect on the conversation.”
The following has been edited for style and clarity.
Q: How did you get into journalism?
A: I majored in English in college. I always thought that writing would be something I might do. After I came back from Afghanistan, I moved to Vermont from California with the idea that I could get a job at a small town newspaper here, because you need to start somewhere. First I worked for a couple of weekly papers. Then I got a job at the Herald as an editor in 1992. As for working for small publications, it’s more of a lifestyle choice. At that time, (the Rutland Herald) had a circulation of 22,000. It has fallen quite a lot. Now it’s maybe 12,000. … The editorial page opened in 1992. I became the editorial page editor, which meant writing an editorial everyday and handling letters to the editors and columns and so on.
How and why did you get into editorial writing?
I was always drawn to editorial writing. When I pick up a newspaper, I will read the news but then I would want to know what (the editorial writers) think about it. Editorials help me make sense of the news.
It was just to respond to the news of the day as an individual who can bring some critical thinking and human voice, with maybe a unique perspective or a sense of humor at times, and create a civic dialogue within the community. I didn’t have an agenda in terms of political position or cause or this or that.
How did you start a series of editorials focusing on gay rights?
The issue of gay marriage has been percolating in Vermont for a number of years … as far back as 1992. And issues that involve gay rights have been hugely controversial in Vermont.
The court case (Baker v. Vermont) was working its way through the process. I knew that once the Vermont Supreme Court ruled on the same-sex marriage case, it would be huge. So when they finally did rule — the ruling was for same-sex marriage and was released on Dec. 20, 1999 — it was kind of a moment of truth. The issue consumed the state of Vermont for months in a very emotional and bitter way. Very emotional and divisive.
As a journalist, whatever your role is, I think you want to make a difference. You want to be an active participant in a civic conversation. This was an opportunity to do that. To make my voice heard and help steer the state through this controversy. Once that all happened, I followed the issue from time to time when it was in the news. But the high point was that year and that battle.
Did you face a learning curve when writing the editorials about gay rights?
While writing editorials, I was mainly in my office. I would read the news and try to write something to push the process forward. Support people who need support. Explain the complications.
My learning curve really occurred a couple of years later. After I won the Pulitzer, I was able to get a book proposal. I wrote my book. In doing the research for the book (“Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage”), I went around and talked to all the people who were part of the story. I had known them before, but I was getting a lot of personal details from all the people who were involved. That was when I learned what went on, what people had gone through, in a very human way.
Editorials only touched the surface of the issue as it was unfolding politically. The book was able to flesh out the human story behind it.
Did you encounter any pushback from readers or colleagues?
We got a lot of letters. I didn’t get a lot of personal pushback. I did, once in a while, get a comment from someone who appreciated the editorials. I remember encountering one of the activists who was pro-civil unions. She told me that, “You know, sometimes your editorial is the best thing that happens in my day.” That was encouraging, because you never know what effect your work has.
I think the newspaper itself had its struggles. As salesmen would try to go out and sell the newspapers to the local businesses, people would give them grief about it. Even within the newsroom, I was told there were people who said to the editor, “Do you think David is maybe going a little too far?” But none of that was communicated to me. They protected me from that. So I could just write what needed to be written. I’m grateful they did not subject me to that pressure.
What do you think made your editorials stand out to the Pulitzer judges?
This issue was kind of made-to-order for prizes in the sense that it took up a very controversial and divisive issue just as it was breaking and just as it was coming to the attention of the state. The court ruled and required the Legislature to act (on a same-sex marriage bill). The court’s ruling came down on Dec. 20, 1999, and the Legislature came in the first week of January. For the next four months, the Legislature wrestled with this.
And the story had its arc. I could follow it from the beginning to the end. Each step of the way, no one knew how it would turn out. My editorials were there sort of pushing it forward. You can see the editorials had a constructive effect on the conversation. They weren’t just random.
Another thing is that it was a very inflammatory topic. The editorials achieved a tone of restraint and respect, which was needed in Vermont. I think the judges valued that. People of Vermont valued that.
How did the prize affect your journalistic career?
It raised my profile as a journalist. After that, I began doing commentary on Vermont’s public radio. I went around and gave speeches. And then someone who won a Pulitzer back in the 1950s, said, “You know, you ought to write a book.” He had a friend who had an agent. Through that connection, I was able to find a literary agent and put together a book proposal. So I wrote a book. The book is one of my proudest achievements professionally. The prize allowed me to do that.
Being a small paper, the impact of prize was quite huge. When this came out, I had an acquaintance who said that when she heard this on the radio while driving around, she broke into tears. She was so gratified. The issue had been so divisive. The prize seemed a vindication. It seemed that someone had recognized the issue, and we had done something worthwhile.
What are the pros and cons of working at a small publication?
Small publications’ focuses are more local. Our paper focuses on the state. But as far as me, I am the only editorial writer. It’s different than in a big publication where they have a staff of six or seven editorial writers. They divide up their specialties. I was sort of just a generalist and able to talk about anything. Since I write six editorials a week, I need to be ready to leap on to anything I find I can be creative about. I also have a lot of freedom. The publisher trusts me to be responsible. I value that.
David Moats receives news about his Pulitzer Prize win in April 2001. Courtesy of The Rutland Herald.
By Sean Roberts
Clay Bennett drew for passion, not prizes
Christian Science Monitor | Boston, Massachusetts
Clay Bennett said it was hard to come up with a selection of his editorial cartoons to submit to the Pulitzer Board in 2002 because he had such a limited sample to choose from. The horror of Sept. 11 so dominated the news coverage in 2001 that he pretty much had to throw out the first eight months of cartoons he drew that year. Nothing mattered as much anymore. Terrorism, war and Islamophobia were the issues of the day.
Every year, thousands of journalists submit work in the hopes of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Every year, thousands are disappointed. But Bennett was recognized five years in a row, from 1999 to 2003, by the Pulitzer Board — in 2002 as a winner, and as a finalist the other four years. His work earned a finalist ranking again in 2008 and 2013.
According to Bennett, editorial cartooning is a way to express professional journalistic opinion in a medium that is more digestible for visual learners. But as a cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor, which had a daily circulation of about 65,000 in the early 2000s, he never imagined himself competing for a Pulitzer. In fact he jokes that he had a lot of respect for the prize — until he was awarded one himself.
Some journalists come into cartooning after starting in more traditional reporting or editing roles. But Bennett took a more direct route.
As a boy, he loved graphic novels and drawing cartoons. Starting as young as 4 or 5, he experimented with drawing in the styles of comic books, comic strips and MAD Magazine. He said his efforts started as an interest in art, but as he grew, newspapers were taking on big investigative projects. He was a teenager when The Washington Post exposed the Watergate break-in and traced the cover-up all the way to President Richard M. Nixon.
“It made journalists look really cool!” Bennett said.
That coincided with Bennett’s own development of political interest and voice. His childhood passion for drawing and comic book art shifted into political cartooning, which Bennett saw as more than just cartooning, but as a way to influence society in a profession that had an aura of excitement.
He described himself as lucky because he ran into very few early obstacles to pursuing his interest in political cartooning as a lifelong career. He drew cartoons for his high school newspaper in Huntsville, Alabama. Then, at the University of Alabama, he started his own newspaper. After graduating in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in art and a minor in history, Bennett was hired at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He began in the art department, making maps and charts; political cartoons were the realm of the editorial department.
Six months later, he jumped to the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Times. Although he was also in its art department, he was able to do some cartooning. Then six months later, he was hired as an editorial cartoonist for the St. Petersburg Times.
At just 23, Bennett landed the “most coveted position at the time,” he said.
The dream job lasted 12 years, until October 1994, when Bennett was let go from the St. Petersburg Times. It was the first time in his adult life that he he had been without a job in that field.
“I was hanging onto my career by my fingernails,” he said.
Despite a steady job search, it took three years for Bennett to get back into the bustle of a newsroom. He was desperate when he applied to The Christian Science Monitor in early 1997. It took them 10 months to respond to him and then, within a day of Christmas, Bennett received a contract in the mail.
“It was the best Christmas present ever,” Bennett said.
The Monitor was delivered to subscribers by mail, so morning deadlines came very early. As a cartoonist, Bennett had to submit his work for each issue by 11:30 a.m. the day before. And because cartoonists are generalists, he had to stay informed on all the pressing issues of the day.
Bennett reads widely and from at least three newspapers a day: The Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times where he is currently employed, The Washington Post and The New York Times. There is other research that, as a self-described nerd, he does for fun. The subjects range from politics to the environment to agriculture to civil rights and anything else that provokes him. He sleeps on a few initial ideas, then wakes up ready to draw.
“I usually draw about what pisses me off the most … what bothers me the most the next day,” he said. Once he zeroes in on a topic, he works through what he wants to say about it.
“When I draw a cartoon I want everyone to know exactly where I stand on the issue,” he said.
Bennett said he doesn’t think he’s the best, the funniest or the smartest cartoonist working in the news business. To make up for that, he said he strives to be the hardest working, avoid ambiguity and produce work he’s proud of.
For the first eight months of 2001, Bennett had been going through his usual process: Get up, get mad, get creative and get paid. On the morning of Sept. 11 he was working from his home studio, finishing his cartoon for the next day. The television morning news flickered in the background. It was a little after 9 a.m. ET when Bennett heard the news anchor say something about a plane; one had hit one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. At the time, Bennett said, he didn’t really think much of it: “Buildings are tall. Sometimes planes hit them. … It wasn’t unheard of.” So, he carried on with the next day’s cartoon.
Then the second tower was hit.
“That’s when I knew it was terrorists,” he said.
Bennett said he tore up what he was working on and frantically tried to create something new for the next day’s issue.
“It must not have been very good, otherwise I would have re-used it,” Bennett said, trying to recall the original cartoon.
He said journalists don’t have time to grieve in the moment, no matter how horrific the news. He compared first-responder journalism to firefighting: When a building is burning down, a firefighter doesn’t stand and watch and worry, but breaks into action. In the face of breaking news, journalists have to do the same. It’s not their job, Bennett said, to be involved. Rather, it’s their job to get the facts and story out to the people who are involved.
Bennett described his Sept. 11 cartoons as having a “different” style, or even a lack of style — something he believed caught the attention of the Pulitzer jury and Pulitzer Board.
“If you look at my work from back then ... it’s different,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
While he said his work has been influenced by Latin and European cartoonists, he said he isn’t derivative and isn’t able to mimic the work of other artists. And in the months following Sept. 11, he said his goal was to reflect how sometimes, in the wake of great tragedy, the government chipped away at “the very things that make this country great.”
For example, in one cartoon, he drew basic American rights being cut out of a piece of paper as they fell to demands for security.
Another cartoon featured a house, labeled “American privacy,” being dismantled. He compared this to the feelings Americans had after World War II. “The country needs to, like, chill. That is not going to do us any good.”
Bennett said it can be harder for small publications with small staffs and limited funds to do the kind of work that wins awards such as the Pulitzer, especially for high-cost journalism such as investigative, international or national reporting. But when natural disasters strike, he said, who better to get the story than those that are in the area? And on a daily basis, the best thing a local newspaper can do is to shake up the local political establishment.
“You can’t pick a better profession than journalism,” he said. “It seems dull, it seems mundane. But God dammit, we’re fighting a good fight!”
“I was more worried about how we would react to what had happened,” Bennett said. Image courtesy of Clay Bennett.
Bennett said he looked at his work in a very specific way: “Basically, a desperate attempt to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day and not feel disappointed.” He was always trying to influence the community in a way that would do the most public good. Courtesy of Clay Bennett.
Download a script of the audio
A former governor, a reporter and a 30-year secret
By Kelsi Anderson
The following has been edited for style and clarity.
Q: What challenges did you face working on this story from a small publication?
A: I think at the time we had four staff news reporters, so we were a tiny fraction of the size of The Oregonian. We still are. To the credit of the editor of the paper, he recognized immediately when I told him about a legal document a tipster had sent that this was potentially a very big story. And he basically said, “Drop everything else.” My recollection is I was working weekends and evenings. I didn’t work on anything else. We knew that another paper in town, The Portland Tribune, had some level of knowledge of the story. In fact, the person who gave Sen. Vicki Walker those conservatorship pages was a columnist for The Portland Tribune. He had tried to get the story and had not been able to.
So the whole time I was chasing the story, I knew the Tribune was ahead of me. I could see that they had requested some of the same records that I had, and I knew that The Oregonian had vastly superior resources and some extremely good reporters who had been around since Goldschmidt was mayor. So I was afraid on both counts that I was going to get beaten.
What was the process of winning the Pulitzer?
We didn’t have any expectation that we would win because, you know, weeklies don’t win. As the time for the Pulitzer came closer, I didn’t think much about it. I think somebody might have said I might be a finalist, but I didn’t really think much of it, because we’re not in that world. If you’re The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The L.A. Times or something you would be part of that process every year. But we’re not.
So I wasn’t thinking much about it. And I was up in a conference in Seattle a week or so before the awards were given, and somebody from the New York Times or something said, “Hey, we think you’re going to win this.” And then I began to take it seriously. But I still didn’t think it would happen, and I was pretty shocked that it did.
What do you think stood out about your work that made it Pulitzer-worthy?
If I look at that story and say, “What’s different here?” it was that it was very difficult to get it done. Portland is a Democratic town run by people who were friendly to Goldschmidt, who were put in power by Goldschmidt. (Willamette Week’s) publisher has many personal connections to Goldschmidt. … There were just a lot of reasons that this story might never have come to light. So I think the difficulty was high. And the impact was enormous. I mean, the guy went from being the king to being a pariah. So I think both of those matter a lot — the degree of difficulty and impact.
And it’s hard to imagine that the small size of the paper didn’t factor in our favor, because if you have the resources of a big daily, you’re expected to do big stories. But if you’re a three- or four-person newsroom, you’re not. But that’s all speculation, I obviously wasn’t in the room when they decided.
Do you think winning Pulitzers is harder for smaller publications?
Most of us don’t have any money, so going after stories where you have legal liability is risky. You don’t have (adequate) staff to send a reporter off on a three-, four-, 10-month mission that might end in a dry hole. I think there’s a lot of reasons why alt-weeklies don’t often win, and those won’t change.
How did your Pulitzer influence your career and future journalistic work?
It certainly has brought people to me with tips. I’ve been lucky to do big stories since then that had big impacts in Oregon. I think part of the reason that I can do those stories is that when people have information that they think is difficult and important for the public to know about, they might call me because they know of me. So I think it raised my profile in a way that’s been very good for my career. I think it raised expectations for every story that I write.
But some weeks I write stories that aren’t very important. They may just be incremental or turn-of-the-screw type stories. So I’ll regularly hear, “Hey, I thought you were a Pulitzer Prize-winner. Why are you writing this mediocre copy?”
So it raised expectations in ways that are good and also sometimes a little tough.
It also, in a funny way, kept me at Willamette Week. I was thinking about leaving the paper that year, and in fact I had all but decided to leave. I had an egotistical concern that I was doing good work but the platform of an alt-weekly meant that it was not going to be recognized or have the impact it deserved.
So going through that process showed me two things. I felt the extraordinarily powerful benefit of local ownership by people who are committed to their community and investigative journalism, to the story and the benefit to the public; I don’t think I can stress that enough. I also realized that I didn’t have to go to a big daily to have the kind of impact and get the kind of recognition I was hoping for.
With hindsight, is there anything you wish you had handled differently while reporting this story?
There was a big learning curve. I learned the importance of getting every document and reading every word of every document. And that has come up for me in other stories where I’m competing with other reporters, and I realize that they’ve requested this document but obviously didn’t read it. That seems so simple, but it’s really important.
Another lesson is that if it’s a key interview, you’ve gotta be there in person. (Jaquiss initially called a source on the phone and the source refused to talk.) I spent the rest of that story on people’s doorsteps or going to their office unannounced, because I learned the value of just showing up and asking people questions they’re not expecting.
What advice would you give to new or aspiring journalists, or to small newsrooms that aspire to produce Pulitzer-worthy journalism?
One of the obvious takeaways from our experience is that you don’t need a lot of resources to do big stories. That’s really important to underline.
Another big takeaway is that … this story seemed highly unlikely because Goldschmidt had been so heavily covered for 30 years. So the lesson is to have your mind open to the possibility that the world may not be as it’s presented. So be skeptical and then be persistent in seeking the answers that will prove or disprove the tip you’ve been given.
The rumors had been swirling for years: Neil Goldschmidt, a former governor of Oregon and mayor of Portland, and a towering figure in Democratic political circles, kept a shadowy sexual secret. Then Nigel Jaquiss, a reporter for Willamette Week, a small Portland-based alt-weekly, was tipped off to a legal document involving Goldschmidt. He pursued the lead for months, eventually uncovering what no other publication had been able to. Jaquiss’ story, published in May 2004, exposed Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a teenage girl 30 years before — and was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting.
Jaquiss has been a reporter at Willamette Week since 1998. Prior to his current position, he worked for 11 years as an oil trader before deciding life was too short to not be doing something he enjoyed. He spoke to the No Small Pulitzers project about what it’s like to win a Pulitzer Prize, the lessons he learned along the way and the benefits and challenges of working at a small newspaper.
A Q&A with Nigel Jaquiss
By Kelsi Anderson
Market street in Pass Christian, Mississippi on Wednesday September 14, 2005. Photo courtesy of Josh Norman.
Covering Hurricane Katrina
By Anne Marie Hankins
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, leaving vast destruction in its wake. Arguably the worst natural disaster to ever occur in the U.S., Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damage and displaced thousands of people from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. No one knows exactly how many people the storm killed, but most estimates put the fatality count at about 2,000. Katrina also left many tens of thousands more suffering from a lack of sufficient shelter, water, health care and food during the days and weeks that followed.
Most of the nation’s attention centered on New Orleans, watching in horror as the levees failed and one of America’s urban jewels was laid to waste. But a bit to the east along the coast, The Sun Herald, a small paper in Biloxi, Mississippi, found itself in the middle of the storm. Throughout the hurricane and the days following, members of The Sun Herald's staff kept the newsroom running and provided information during a time when, for some, information was lifesaving.
In 2006, the staff of The Sun Herald, along with The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, was awarded the Pulitzer for public service journalism for its reporting on the storm.
Joshua Norman, a reporter at The Sun Herald, started working at the paper three months before Katrina and stayed in the newsroom through the storm. He was one of four journalists who stayed to ride out the storm, along with a couple of administrators and a few members of the maintenance staff. They were asked to sign a form not holding the parent company of the paper, which at the time was Knight Ridder, accountable if something happened to them.
The building that housed The Sun Herald was built after Hurricane Camille in 1969 to withstand an event like Katrina. Norman and the others slept under their desks for a few hours, but the hurricane made its presence felt.
“There were a couple of things they hadn’t thought about, like the fact that there was a bunch of satellite dishes on the roof that in hurricanes flop around like twigs,” Norman said. “So the satellites on the roof were slamming on it and causing the roof to flex. It was a 6-inch concrete roof that was flexing — that we could see flexing."
Josh Norman, left, with fellow reporter Mike Keller having a drink at one of the bars left standing three weeks after Katrina hit on Sept. 22, 2005. Photo courtesy of Josh Norman.
Norman said he stayed through the storm because of “ignorance,” but that he would stay again knowing now that the building was safe.
“Journalistically it was incredibly important (to stay) — because to tell those stories about how horrible the storm is is important so that people don’t stay in the path of the storm when they know it’s coming,” he said.
Tensions ran high among the small group huddled in the newsroom during the storm, but after it passed Norman and the others made their way out into the destruction.
At the time of the storm, Stan Tiner was executive editor and vice president for news at The Sun Herald. He had stayed in his home in Gulfport during the storm; he and his neighbors cut through fallen trees with chainsaws to get out of their neighborhood the next day. Other staff members began making their way back to the newsroom as they could. Tiner said the paper had faced natural disasters before; there was even a book in the newsroom detailing how to cover hurricanes.
“We were such a part of the community because everybody on our staff was right where the people were that we were writing about. A lot of our staff had been hard-hit by the storm as well, lost their homes and possessions and things that were dear to them, and they were trying to push through the difficulties of just living day-by-day,” Tiner said. “But the stories we were able to tell gave us a sense of mission, that we had something really important to do to make sure that the Mississippi story of Katrina was heard.”
In the first days after the hurricane, Norman headed to the small town of Pass Christian, Mississippi, an old shrimping community. In one neighborhood, Norman said all the houses were standing, but everything inside the houses looked like they had been tossed in a blender.
“It was obvious that something terrible had happened there, that the water had gotten very high, but none of the houses had been knocked down,” he said.
While out reporting, Norman ran across a man who pointed him toward a woman who worked in a home for the mentally disabled. She had been at work during the storm, but her baby and her husband stayed home and drowned in their living room. Norman found the woman sitting next to her dead 2-year-old, who she had wrapped in a blanket.
After Norman got the woman’s story, she asked him for help, saying the sheriff and National Guard wouldn’t take her somewhere she could get the dead child out of the sun and have the body properly cared for. Norman said an older, more experienced photographer pulled him aside and
A roofless house in Pass Christian, Mississippi, on Sept. 13, 2005. Courtesy of Josh Norman.
said they couldn’t take her anywhere because they had to get their stories back before deadline.
“I heard him and it made logical sense and I didn’t argue because I knew intellectually he was right,” Norman said. “So I turned around and I walked back to the woman and I said ‘I’m sorry we can’t,’ and she just stopped speaking to me right then and there. Just didn’t say another word to me.”
Norman said he wasn’t able to go back and verify the details of the story because the woman would no longer speak to him and as a result, he failed to get her name correct in his story.
“There’s a lot of that I regret,” he said. “I understand that story ended up being the one story that most people talked about for years … but I had to look her in the eye and tell her I couldn’t help her. All I could do was leave her with a couple bottles of water and some phone numbers, when none of the phones were working, and drive away.
“That day was definitely the hardest part. I mean, nobody likes seeing a dead baby. Nobody likes talking to an actively grieving mother, let alone rejecting her request for help. But that’s what I had to do."
Immediately after the hurricane, The Sun Herald sent a group of six news staffers to Columbus, Georgia, where its nearest sister paper was located, to write, edit, design and print the paper. It was trucked into Mississippi from there. It was more than a week before they were able to publish on their own press again. But the paper never missed a day of publication, and with television and telephone service to the area knocked out, the paper was, for many, the only source of news.
Both Tiner and Norman acknowledged the overwhelming support from Knight Ridder in the days following the storm, making their continued coverage possible. The parent company sent in gasoline, ice, food and clothing, and a psychologist to help staffers deal with emotional and psychological trauma.
The Sun Herald also set up a camp near the paper called “Camp Hope” as a central gathering point for journalists who came from around the country to cover the storm’s aftermath.
“Because we had to face hurricanes a lot, I think we had a pretty good scheme for how to go about covering it,” Tiner said. “We’re also very grateful that we had help from volunteers; journalists from around the country came and made themselves available to our
Market Street in Pass Christian, Mississippi, on Sept. 14, 2005. Photo courtesy of Josh Norman.
newsroom and added fire-power to our coverage every day. We couldn’t have done the job that we did without their help.”
In the first weeks after the storm, Norman said The Sun Herald gave him stacks of newspapers to throw in the back of his car and take with him wherever he went. In one instance, when he pulled up to a bunch of people in line for fresh water, several jumped out of line to get a newspaper.
“The paper we put in hands was the first evidence to a lot of people that society was holding, that institutions were working,” Tiner said. “We gave papers away for about the first two months (after the storm). We would just take them to wherever people were congregated and pass them out.”
Tiner said the paper designed its coverage around trying to make sure they were telling the stories that would benefit the most people, while also trying to balance the terrible stories with stories of encouragement: “We were picking up on a narrative that already existed, which is that Mississippians are a resilient and strong people. … I think we reminded people of their better angels and tried to instill a sense of hope.”
Tiner and Norman agreed that Katrina reshaped the role of many journalists on the ground covering the destruction.
“I hugged and cried with a lot of my subjects, which was not the kind of thing that journalists normally do,” Norman said.
Tiner spoke of an instance where a staff photographer gave a man with no shoes the boots off his own feet.
“I think it speaks to the question, ‘What kind of people self-select to be journalists?’” Tiner said. "In the current environment, people are being critical of journalists. … But I think people in journalism typically and overwhelmingly have a sense of mission that they want to help other people. In an environment like a disaster, I think it allows you to do something you’re inclined to do and do it unashamedly.”
Tiner said the paper never once thought about a Pulitzer during its coverage; they were too busy “doing what they were doing.”
Even though winning a Pulitzer would usually garner a large celebration for a newsroom, Tiner said it didn’t go that way for The Sun Herald.
“Winning this Pulitzer was not like that for us because it represented such a tragedy for the community and there were still thousands of people that were in very bad circumstances at the time,” he said. “But it was a recognition of our newsroom, and I think also of our community. It was a powerful story that we were able to tell because the people here had lived through such a powerful period of time and survived it.”
The staff at The Sun Herald dedicated the prize to the people of South Mississippi, Tiner said.
Norman said he’s thankful he got to see “journalism in its purest form,” but that the award wasn’t a huge plus to him personally. It didn’t help him get the next job. And he said it caused some tension among Sun Herald staff members, reviving questions about the wisdom of staying or leaving during the storm.
“That kind of nonsense, it didn’t do anybody any favors,” he said.
Norman is currently a senior editor at CBSNews.com. Tiner was with The Sun Herald from 2000 until he retired in 2015. He recently started a writing course at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Mississippi to give the residents a chance to write their stories, and is working with his wife on marketing her brand of barbecue sauce.
Finding creative ways to educate and empower the public
Photo courtesy of Mark Mahoney
By George Ash
Mark Mahoney, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing, has a knack for turning traditionally bland topics into interesting editorials that encourage citizens to take action.
Mahoney’s collection of 10 winning works focused on open government, with each piece homing in on a different area of that subject. In one piece, Mahoney presents a step-by-step guide to sending a Freedom of Information Act request; in another he unveils the non-disclosure agreements a city is having residents sign as part of legal settlements, and in a third he questions the constitutionality of rules silencing school board members from discussing school related issues outside of formal meetings.
No matter what Mahoney is writing about, he’s always trying to find new ways to do so. Mahoney doesn’t think editorial writers should stick to only being sarcastic, angry or purely logical. He tries to use every club in his bag while writing, so he finds himself being funny, quoting movies and music, and using alliteration, metaphors or even illustrations to help get his ideas through. This really shows in his Pulitzer winning pieces, in which he quotes a Chinese proverb and a former U.S. Attorney General, compares school boards to sports team owners and compares a school board’s attempt to hide contracts from the public to filing your taxes by sending the IRS a shoebox full of receipts. The way Mahoney presents his arguments, it’s difficult not to get outraged at many of the government officials and policies he covers.
“If you stick with one approach, you’re going to get boring really fast,” Mahoney said. “You’re going to bore yourself to death and you’re going to bore the readers to death. When you do this every day, they expect something fresh every day.”
Mahoney had plenty of days to hone his craft, having graduated in 1985 from Ithaca College in New York with a bachelor's degree in communications management before starting work as a radio reporter. Within three years he worked his way into a reporter position at The Post-Star in Glens Falls, New York, where he would eventually win his Pulitzer. He climbed the ladder to city editor, and held that position for more than 13 years before becoming the paper’s editorial page editor in 2003.
In order to stay with one company for that long, one needs to have inspiration and motivation. For Mahoney, those come from the public.
“I really try to educate the public as much as influence them,” he said. “My editorials … I’m trying to get as many facts in there as I can. I’m trying to make as persuasive an argument for something as I can.”
Mahoney does this by tackling objections to his arguments head on. In his editorials, he tries to acknowledge other positions and explain why the paper’s position overcomes certain objections. Mahoney said in some ways he finds editorial writing to be even more difficult than traditional reporting.
“You really have to know both sides of an issue. You have to study everything really well and you have to read things and you have to do your own reporting, so that your editorials are strong and persuasive,” Mahoney said.
Courtesy of Mark Mahoney.
Next to finding creative ways to write about issues, the second-most challenging aspect of editorial writing for Mahoney is deciding which issues rise to the top. Mahoney doesn’t like to limit himself to specific topics.
He’s always sure to keep an eye on social media and the news,as he finds issues in the community which are changing or need advocacy. He said he sometimes comes to work wondering what he’s going to become an expert about that day. Other times he wakes up at 3 a.m. with the perfect idea and jots it down on the notebook by his bed or rushes to his computer to begin writing. When he really can’t come up with an idea for a column, he just starts writing until something clicks.
Mahoney also takes pride in his ability to change his opinions when confronted with new information, for fear of “being like those people who already believe what they believe.” He sometimes starts his editorials with a notion of how he feels, but finds his mind sometimes changes as he writes, or that he gives more weight to certain information as he learns about the subject.
What he finds most annoying are people who refuse to change their minds when given new information.
“One of the most frustrating things I get is when I read somebody criticizing an editorial, and it’ll sound like they didn’t read the editorial all the way, or they only read the parts that they agreed with,” he said. “I think that’s a problem with the public generally today, is that they only want to read things they agree with.
“When you can write it in a way that they are willing to kind of take a look at both sides and you make something interesting that maybe they wouldn’t traditionally find interesting, and you’ve educated the public, then you’ve done your job.”
Winning the Pulitzer not only brought Mahoney validation from within the profession of journalism, but from some members of the community who often disagreed with his positions. “After I won it, everybody was so nice to me,” he said. “Even the people who didn’t like my stuff.”
At first, that made it somewhat difficult for him to do his job; he found he didn’t want to upset long-time critics who were suddenly being so congratulatory. “I had about three weeks where I couldn’t write anything negative about anything. I remember the managing editor said, ‘Damn it, this Pulitzer killed my editorial writer.’ Then one day, after about three weeks, I walked into his office and I threw the paper down on his desk and I said, ‘Do you believe this?’ And he goes, ‘Oh thank God, you’re back.’”
A few years after winning his Pulitzer, Mahoney left The Post-Star to become a media and public affairs director for the New York State Bar Association. He eventually returned to editorial writing, this time at The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, New York.
As for the small size of The Post-Star, Mahoney’s happy the judges seem to keep an open mind and look beyond larger publications for worthy pieces of journalism.
“I think they like to reward a small paper for doing a good job,” he said. “I think what’s good is they did keep an open mind and they didn’t just pick The Washington Post and The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. They look and see what’s going on in the small communities.
“And I personally think the future of journalism is in the local news.”
Mahoney’s advice to other journalists is to read as much as possible, and never stop trying to improve.
“Never be satisfied with your work,” he said. “Analyze even your best stuff and say, ‘Well, what could I have done better? What could I do the next time that could make a difference? How much harder could I have worked and if I’d have gotten this? How much more could I have gotten out of the story?’
“I think it’s all the same whether you’re at a big paper or a small paper.”
The Post-Star | Glens Falls, New York
2009 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing
Five takeaways from Mary Chind-Willie
By Thomas Friestad
1) Sometimes, the value in a photo can extend beyond its technical aspects.
Photography can mean different things to different people, and at the beginning of Chind-Willie’s career, it was the human element of photojournalism that she found most captivating. “I liked the ability to be out and about, to meet people and tell their stories — that’s what sticks with you,” Chind-Willie said. “I’m not one of the people who worries about the technical aspects of a photograph. It’s all about the emotional, the social and the creative; all of those are more valuable to me personally.”
2) Pulitzer-winning journalism can happen at a moment’s notice.
When Chind-Willie arrived at work the day the flood rescue occurred, she hadn’t planned on going out and covering that story. “Maybe 30 minutes after my co-worker had arrived on the scene, she told me she needed more equipment, so I brought it to her,” Chind-Willie said. “I knew something was going on, so I brought my own equipment as well and just stayed on the scene.” Chind-Willie said she didn’t realize that a rescue was taking place until she saw a crane moving nearby, lowering a construction worker down to reach the woman caught in the river, but then she sprang into action.
Photo courtesy of Mary Chind-Willie.
3) Emotions can hit the hardest after the story has concluded.
In covering a scene, Chind-Willie said she prefers to focus on getting the photo before she processes any emotions the scene can stir up. “It’s an assignment — you don’t think about how it makes you feel until after it’s done,” she said. When taking her Pulitzer-winning photograph, she focused primarily on positioning herself to capture the moment, especially since, without a tripod on hand, she had to hold her camera steady to get a clean shot. Then the emotions hit her when the rescue had concluded. “Once she was out of the water and in the boat, you had people applauding all the way around the bridges, and that was when it started feeling amazing,” she said. “You realize how special and unusual and rare a thing you just witnessed.”
4) Attention from a viral photo can be rewarding, but intense.
Chind-Willie said that, though she had taken many photos prior to her Pulitzer winner, she had never had a photo go as viral as her rescue photo did. “We knew about the power of online, but it was so many messages coming in from all over the place, which was amazing to see,” she said. “It was cool to walk into the newsroom the next day, because my colleagues saw me walking in and a few of them applauded. I’ll always remember that.”
She said the attention just kept spreading, though as the Pulitzer evaluation process got underway, she didn’t pay a great deal of attention. In fact, Chind-Willie said she didn’t know what day the winners were set to be announced, so her victory came as a surprise to her. “I didn’t believe my colleague when she told me I had won — I thought she was pulling my leg because there were a bunch of other photographers around,” Chind-Willie said. “Then, she put (our mutual friend at The Washington Post) on the phone, and then I started going ‘Oh wow, that’s probably true.’”
5) For small publications, photojournalism can be a great equalizer in winning Pulitzers.
Chind-Willie said she believes larger publications still have an advantage at winning Pulitzers in that they can devote resources to larger content packages, but that on occasion, the Pulitzer judges will select individual images, which can come from papers both large and small. “You can win with a single photo,” she said.
Photographer Mary Chind-Willie has visited a number of diverse locales while working as a journalist, including Africa, Haiti and Mexico. However, it was while working at the Des Moines Register that Chind-Willie won a Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography for a shot she took in 2009 during an Iowa flood. Her prize-winning photo depicts construction worker Jason Oglesbee reaching into a frothing river to pull Patricia Ralph-Neely to safety.
Here are five takeaways Chind-Willie has had from her work in photojournalism.
By Jacob Scholl
Exposing unpaid royalties
Based on the reporting of Daniel Gilbert, The Bristol Herald Courier in Virginia was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. Gilbert followed a lead for more than a year and discovered that thousands of landowners in southwest Virginia were owed millions of dollars in royalties from natural gas collection. The investigation started as a side project while Gilbert covered the courts, but it developed into an eight-part series that sparked controversy and led to reforms by Virginia lawmakers.
Gilbert grew up in eastern Virginia and attended the University of Chicago. He was 28 when the Herald Courier won the prize. Since then, Gilbert has covered energy in Houston for The Wall Street Journal, and now reports on a variety of topics for The Seattle Times.
The following has been edited for style and clarity.
Q: Why did you get into journalism?
A: I wrote for my college paper. I was new to journalism at that time. I didn’t grow up reading the paper. I didn’t grow up exposed to journalism, but I liked it. I’m a curious person; I like learning things, and as I spent more time doing it, I learned I enjoyed the writing process, I enjoyed holding people accountable. I found some satisfaction in things that people didn’t know but would like to know. By the time I got to Bristol, I had more or less figured out what kind of reporter I wanted to be.
So for me, I was much less concerned (with) who I worked for and where I worked than what I was able to do and learn. Even if I won zero prizes, reported the same story I reported and had the same impacts, I’d be happy with that. I’d consider that time well spent. I may not have had the same professional boost, but I think that the work speaks for itself. You should take satisfaction in the work that you do and the lives that you affect.
How did you find this story?
I started the reporting process sometime in 2008 or 2009; it was a year, year-and-a-half before anything was published. I believe I had been writing a few stories of political intrigue in some of the “coal field” counties, as we used to call them, the more rural counties of southwestern Virginia outside of Bristol. After one story I wrote, someone alerted me to a controversy over natural gas and coal rights. So at that point I began to look into that a bit more.
What were some difficulties with doing this story?
It was a hard story for a young reporter to tackle in general, but it was certainly compounded by having a beat covering courts. It was not a situation where I had as much time as I needed, so it was something that I had to chip away at. I had to drive a lot. The people I had to talk to and see were not that close, the government body that I was reporting on was a 45-minute to an hour drive. My editors were very good about giving me some time to pursue that, but it was still something that had to be bargained for and negotiated. It was a marathon reporting process.
And of course, there were things I had to learn along the way that I didn’t know. I was not very proficient with even using spreadsheets and really reporting the story I wanted to and needed to. I ended up learning more techniques in Excel and Microsoft Access thanks to being able to go to a training that investigative reporters and editors go to.
How did the public react to these articles?
These were days before we had a whole lot of analytics on web traffic, but I think the people who did read it were deeply engaged by it, and it struck a nerve with a lot of people, enough so that it became a political issue and something that lawmakers decided they needed to do something about, because their constituency was upset about it. I heard from people who had a direct interest in what I was writing about, people who lived in the community, and people who had a generational connection. I heard from people all over the country.
Of course, there were people who were upset about this story. The gas companies were not happy with it. They made their objections and we reported what their objections were. It was a fairly robust response, as I recall.
You said it took over a year to research, but how long did it take for you to write these stories?
I would say the writing was a very small portion of that. It was around a month.
What were the gas company’s main criticisms?
They felt that the articles should have had more about the benefits that they brought to the state: The royalties that they did pay the people that they employed, the jobs they created. They felt that was missing from the story. I don’t think there was a single error in any of the stories that I was made aware of … so there was nothing factually inaccurate that they complained about.
What was your reaction when you won the Pulitzer Prize?
It was certainly an unusual feeling. It felt surreal. One day you’re a reporter that not too many people know of and you work for a tiny little paper that most people in the country wouldn’t be able to name and you’ve done this work that you think is really good and you’re proud of. There’s a big difference in that and suddenly the whole world is paying attention to you. I’ve never experienced anything like that before or since.
How has the award impacted your career?
It hasn’t hurt my career prospects. I’ve been recruited for a number of papers, but there were a lot more that reached out and opened doors that wouldn’t have popped open so easily. I actually met the Wall Street Journal editor who hired me at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference and had a good conversation with her, and I ended up going to work for her. I spent five years at the Journal writing about energy in Houston. I liked that job a lot, and then I learned there was an opening in Seattle. It was an opportunity for me to go back to indulge in the reporting that I was most interested in. So here I am. I feel very fortunate.
What advice do you have for smaller papers that have Pulitzer ambitions?
I would not pursue stories with an eye toward winning awards. I would pursue stories that would be the most valuable for the people who subscribe to your paper to read. I would pursue stories based on questions I think are important and interesting, and if the stories turn out to be really good, then you can think about awards.
I think a small paper can be powerful, especially in this world that we live in now with news online. Circulation size used to matter a lot more, but if you have a website there isn’t really a limit on how many people can see your article; people will find it. I really think there is a great deal of promise in small newspapers.
Do you have any advice for young journalists about to enter the field?
I would turn the question back on the journalist, and ask yourself why you want to be a reporter. Because the answer to that question determines what I would counsel you on. It depends what you’re interested in. It depends on what energizes you about it. For some people, maybe they’re just fascinated with cities, they want to write about cities, and they wouldn’t be engaged or happy working in a rural area. Then I wouldn’t encourage a person to do that. I think people should be attuned to what really drives them.
This is a profession where if you’re not driven by what you do, you’re not going to be very successful at it. The rewards are more what you get to do rather than the pay and benefits. It’s a tough time for the industry, so you just have to know what you’re interested in doing.
Telling the story of 'the bravest woman'
Photo courtesy of Susan White.
By Vera Tan
Eli Sanders did not realize he had won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing until the day of the announcement.
The Stranger had submitted his feature, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” without knowing if the Seattle alt-weekly even qualified to be considered for a Pulitzer.
“We read the admission rules and I think at the time it was something like, ‘must be from a reputable publication’ or something like that, and I wasn’t totally sure that The Stranger would qualify,” Sanders said. “(The paper is) known for … a lot of things in addition to its journalism, and some of those things being challenging for readers and more mainstream audiences, I just wasn’t sure if the Pulitzers would consider us a publication that met their criteria for entry.”
Thinking that the Pulitzer board would contact finalists prior to the announcement, and having heard nothing since the submission, he assumed that there was “no chance” he was in the running.
Then Sanders, the associate editor of the paper, visited Pulitzer.org the day of the Pulitzer announcement to see who had won, and saw his name. In shock, he went into his editor’s office to have him load the page, and then they called another person in the building to check. “Just to make sure it wasn’t some kind of weird practical joke.”
The pages came up with the same result — Eli Sanders had won a Pulitzer Prize, a Stranger first.
Pulitzer jurors awarded his piece journalism’s top prize in feature writing for the “haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner, using the woman’s brave courtroom testimony and the details of the crime to construct a moving narrative.”
Sanders did not intend to write the piece when he went to the courthouse to watch the South Park murder trial in June 2011. It was only when Jennifer Hopper (then anonymous) started testifying that it became clear to him that something needed to be written.
“It was a moment that was freighted with all kinds of anxieties and hopes and anger. ... It was one of those spaces filled with huge emotion,” Sanders said. “(Hopper’s) clarity and determination to bear witness for herself and for (her partner) Teresa Butz and for some sense of justice was stunning to me.”
“I, like a lot of people I think, saw what was happening — experienced what was happening. That simple awe propelled me to write about it.”
The trial was held on Wednesday and Thursday. His feature was published the next Tuesday.
At the time, Hopper was not speaking to the press. Sanders used trial questions from the attorneys as his interview, and Hopper’s testimony as the words of an interview subject. He had been covering the crime since 2009, so had background information to write about it with authority.
However, it was one thing to hear trial testimony in court, and another to relay it to the public. A woman had been raped and had witnessed the brutal murder and rape of her life partner in their home. Sanders wanted to make sure that Hopper knew that this feature would be published while not violating her desire for some measure of privacy.
“What was agonizing, somewhat anxiety-provoking, was whether simply revealing the details that I did reveal was going to cause harm somehow to (her),” he said.
Journalists do not give sources or the subjects of profiles veto power over what they are printing or writing, Sanders asserted. But, there is also an understanding that in certain sensitive stories, it is the right thing to do to make someone aware of the direction a story will take.
He decided to reach out to Hopper, letting her know that he would listen if she had something to say about the details he was going to divulge.
“It was not to exactly ask permission … but I did want to gauge her reaction,” he said. “She wrote back that, based on everything that she read already, she trusted me, and I should do what I thought was right.”
Reader reaction to the story was strong. The woman previously known only as Butz’s partner was moved to identify herself in her own words in the pages of The Stranger.
What is most striking when reading Sanders’ piece is the unmistakable emotion from Hopper’s testimony, people at the trial, and himself. We feel his admiration for the woman’s courage, we sense the horror of the listeners. Yet he only explicitly revealed himself with a two-word sentence: “I cried.”
The Stranger, 2011
It is not a unique approach in the world of alt-weeklies to be transparent to the perspective journalists bring to their reporting, he said. This connects to the “new journalism” approach — a literary movement in the mid-20th century that combined journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing when writing about real-life events.
“(This is) the idea that objectivity is not achievable — that it can be a goal, but it is not actually achievable for human beings,” Sanders said. “So another approach is to be more open about your perspective, about your orientation in the world, about the fact that you are a human being with emotions filtering this experience for the reader.”
“For me, it's not an excuse to skimp on reporting. And so I hope that this piece and other pieces like this bring a serious degree of reporting to the work,” he said. “But also when I'm doing pieces like this, I bring some of my own perspective, and I show my hand to the reader as a way of being honest, as a way of levelling, and maybe as a way of — hopefully — establishing a more powerful connection.”
Over the course of his journalism career, Sanders felt that even when he wrote longer crime pieces, it was difficult to convey the horror of those crimes and the transformative effects it has on so many people.
“I'd always wished that I could do better than I was doing,” he said. “I think that was with me as I wrote it… To more deeply
Portrait of Eli Sanders. Photo courtesy of kelly--o.com/Kelly O.
convey the horror of a crime and the bravery and beauty and grace that can be exhibited by crime survivors.”
Sanders, 39, has been in the world of journalism in some form or another for his entire adult life. A Seattle native, he joined his high school newspaper at the suggestion of a language arts teacher. He found that he loved it — writing something one day and seeing it in people’s hands the next. There was an immediate impact to his work, and he was “hooked.”
He earned his undergraduate degree in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University in 1999, where he was also involved with the student newspaper. Upon graduation he accepted an internship at The Seattle Times which then extended to a three-year newsroom residency. In a shift from mainstream journalism, he later held freelancing gigs with The Boston Globe and Time magazine and worked as a New York Times bureau assistant and a bike messenger in downtown Seattle. He also did freelance work for The Stranger.
After a year with The New York Times, he realized that there was “no way up” from being a bureau assistant, so he decided to leave. That was when a position opened up at The Stranger.
Sanders liked the freedom that The Stranger gave to the voice of the writers. And there was the opportunity to write longer features, something that he was drawn to.
He was brought on to write about politics, but in between wrote crime stories. His time at The Seattle Times had taught him how to cover court cases — finding documents, figuring out when a court date was, who was involved in cases. That was how the South Park murder trial came to him.
“The story fell on me because I knew what to do with it,” he said.
Sanders saw the possibility of a book coming out of the trial, and after winning the Pulitzer, he saw the opportunity of writing it.
“While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness” was published in February 2016. He took leave from The Stranger to write it, and said he feels like he is just now at the end of the immediate aftermath of winning the Pulitzer.
“It's opened a lot of doors and people kind of find you,” he said. “For the last four years I've been very caught up inside the world of this book… I've been really trying to be the best that I could with that opportunity.”
Courtesy of Aaronbagley.com/Aaron Bagley.
Under the Pulitzer’s qualifying rules, prizes have traditionally gone to major newspapers. That has changed in recent years as the Pulitzer board has allowed some magazines and online-only outlets to enter. In the 100 year history of the awards, alt-weeklies have won only seven times.
But even in today’s digital climate, smaller publications with limited resources have a harder time competing in categories like investigative and international reporting. Categories like feature writing, criticism and editorial writing seem to offer broader opportunities, Sanders said.
“Some of the smaller publications do have more of a realistic shot (in the feature writing category) just because it can be so dependent on the voice, the heart, the individual journalist brings to the work,” he said. “Same for criticism, smaller publications can kind of punch above their weight, so to speak.”
For smaller newsrooms with Pulitzer aspirations, Sanders is firm about doing good journalism without the expectation of winning awards.
“I don’t want to get to sanctimonious about it, but I don’t think it's a really healthy mentality to have,” he said. “You can’t do this work just to win awards. That doesn’t seem like a great motivation.”
When asked what kind of advice he would give to journalists, Sanders stipulates that the mercurial nature of the news business does not make him completely confident in the nitty-gritty of such advice.
In general, however, he thinks that a person should read “a lot,” find writers they admire and figure out why their work is compelling, and find reporters whose reporting ability they admire and learn from them.
“Reporting is a craft. It's not something you're born knowing how to do, so you need to take time to figure out how to do it,” Sanders said. “Work at merging your reporting skills with your writing skills and just keep at it. Keep writing, keep reporting. And know that the more you do it, the more you're likely to improve.”
As for advice for younger or aspiring journalists, Sanders admits that it might sound like a bit of a “grandpa” response, but he worries that the world of social media — of instant opining on Twitter and pontificating on Facebook — and the idea that “everyone is supposed to have a stance and a fully formed pronouncement on everything at every moment” can create a false sense of certainty in people.
“That kind of certainty is the death of curiosity, (and) an absence of curiosity means the absence of journalism. Journalism is asking questions,” he said. “And I worry … there are a lot of people who have been trained just by the culture of social media to have more answers than they have questions.
“And so my advice … is to encourage younger journalists to flip that — to be people who have unquenchable curiosity and always more questions than answers.”
The Stranger | Seattle, Washington
Photo courtesy of Jamon Smith.
By Jacob Scholl
Covering a hometown tornado
The Tuscaloosa News | Tuscaloosa, Alabama
When Jamon Smith was a high school student, he wasn’t very clear about his future. So he took a career aptitude test.
“The options it gave me were artist, journalist and trash man,” Smith said. “I didn’t feel too partial to being a garbage guy, no offense to anyone who does that.”
He didn’t want to be an artist either; the idea of the “starving artist” kept popping into his head.
“I guess journalism is what I’ll look into,” he concluded.
Fast forward several years, when Smith was working as a reporter at The Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News. On a violently stormy day in late April 2011, he found himself surrounded by his wife and colleagues in the basement of the news building, praying for the skies to clear.
“We knew it was coming,” Smith said. “We were warned.”
Smith’s wife originally thought to stay at home and wait for the storm to pass. Then she heard a voice telling her it was time to go, and drove to the newsroom to join Jamon.
“Fifteen minutes later, the tornado hit and blew down where we lived,” Smith said.
The tornado, one of a cluster that tore through a wide swath of the southeast, destroyed portions of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham and caused more than $2 billion in damage to the area. When it was over, the storm was blamed for as many as 60 deaths and 1,500 injuries; tens of thousands more were left without shelter, food or electricity.
After the storm had passed their immediate area, then-city editor Katherine Lee knew what had to be done. She immediately sent reporters and photographers out to areas they heard on the radio had been hit.
“We had some experience covering tornadoes, but we never had devastation right in the middle of town like we did then,” Lee said.
When Smith was sent out and discovered that his apartment building was gone, he texted Lee.
“He couldn’t call me, the phones weren’t working, but he could text me. He essentially said ‘my apartment building is gone’ and I was a little bit shell-shocked,” Lee said.
“But I’m out here, I might as well stay out here and report,” Smith added.
Smith and his wife began driving around Alberta City, a neighborhood in Tuscaloosa where they lived, and witnessed the carnage firsthand. They saw people trying to leave the area covered in dust and blood.
“They were like the walking dead, walking wounded, all headed to the hospital,” he said.
Smith saw a man trapped in the second floor of a building, and an overwhelmed fireman frantically chopping away at a wall to save him. He saw body bags piled by the road.
“The police couldn’t worry about people who were dead. They had to worry about the people who were alive,” he said.
Smith came across a man crying on the curb and asked if he was hurt. The man told him that the empty lot behind him used to be his house. He had just paid it off after 30 years.
“It looked like we got bombed,” Smith said. “It looked like something you’d see watching news about ISIS.”
Through all of the destruction and pain, Smith was able to capture much of what he saw on social media, specifically Twitter. He tweeted constantly, collecting video and photos of what he was seeing.
“Katherine (Lee) kind of had a plan already in her head,” Smith said. “We had just done some training on using social media to do real-time reporting, and she sent us out to different directions where the tornado had hit.”
Lee added: “In a crisis like this, people did learn that we were the first place to go for news. We were told that by members of the National Guard that they were following our tweets to figure out where they needed to deploy.”
When Smith came back to the newsroom, reporters and editors collected what they had and posted the stories online. Then they were told to go home and get some sleep.
“I can’t go home,” Smith replied. “ I don’t have anywhere to live.”
He and his wife stayed in eight places over the next six days, but he kept coming to work every morning because it kept his mind off everything else going on.
“It’s just work, man,” Smith said. “People weren’t getting news any other way. It was our responsibility to inform the people.”
Lee agreed: “It was like instinct took over, they just knew what they had to do.”
The newsroom’s efforts were rewarded with the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. Smith and Lee were two of the three members sent to the award ceremony at Columbia University in New York.
Lee’s advice for young journalists is to be aware that it’s not your typical nine-to-five job.
“Being a journalist is knowing a whole lot of stuff about a whole lot of topics and every day is completely different,” Lee said. “There are some down days, but then you’ll have days where you’re running on adrenaline and it’s so great. If that’s what you’re looking for, there’s nothing better.”
Lee has spent the last four years as the city editor at The Portland Press Herald in Maine. She said that events like the tornado have the ability to remind readers that local newspapers are there to be the community’s voice and can be applied to anywhere in the country.
“As long as readers are willing to appreciate and pay for good local journalism, that’s what we’re here for,” Lee said.
Smith had similar guidance to pass on, and advises young journalists to keep their heads up when things get tough.
“Prepare to work longer hours and hope you love what you do,” Smith said. “If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t do it.”
Smith now works as a communication specialist at the University of Alabama, and cited how the benefits and pay were his main reasons for leaving the News. After almost 12 years as a reporter, Smith still holds his old profession in high regard.
“Without journalists, this world would be ignorant,” he said. “It’s a difficult job, but it’s a noble job.”
By Vivian Farmer
Reporting an ecological disaster
The reporters and editors of InsideClimate News did not know how big a story they were embarking on when editor Susan White sent reporter Elizabeth McGowan to Marshall, Michigan, to investigate an oil spill. There were seven staff members total, including the publisher, at the online-only publication in 2012.
The story and subsequent year’s worth of reporting became “The Dilbit Disaster” series. Reporters McGowan, David Hasemyer and Lisa Song won the 2013 Pulitzer for national reporting for their coverage of the flawed regulations that allowed the oil spill to happen as well as explaining why diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is a controversial form of oil. While White was not named on the Pulitzer award, she worked as the main editor for the series and, according to the three reporters, was an essential member of the project team.
The oil spill in Marshall began in July 2010. Pipe B6, part of a line operated by the oil company Embridge, was corroded, eventually spilling oil into the Kalamazoo River. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 1.2 million gallons of oil eventually was spilled. The river was still being cleaned when McGowan traveled to Marshall in 2011, a year after the spill had been stopped.
The oil spill was not breaking news when McGowan traveled to Marshall. InsideClimate News pursued the story because the Michigan spill involved diluted bitumen, or dilbit, a type of heavy crude oil that is diluted with lighter petroleum products in order to help it move more easily through pipelines.
McGowan had been covering news on a different pipeline designed to carry dilbit – the proposed Keystone XL in Nebraska. The Keystone XL, which was never built, would have run from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steel City, Nebraska, as part of an pipeline system run and operated by TransCanada.
InsideClimate News was launched in 2007 as a non-profit focused on climate and energy news. It operates from small hubs in New York and Boston, but its reporters are spread across America.
Song began her own coverage of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2011 and it was then that she heard about diluted bitumen. She spoke to farmers who repeatedly mentioned dilbit, expressing concerns about what would happen if it leaked into drinking water.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth McGowan.
Those conversations became the center of deeper reporting, in which Song tried to answer the core question: “What happens when diluted bitumen spills into waterways?” She soon discovered there was very little existing research that would answer that question.
Meanwhile, White knew there had been an oil spill in Michigan but was unsure if that oil spill would shed light on questions about the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. So she dispatched McGowan to Michigan to see if the oil spill there could answer questions about the proposed Keystone XL.
“I didn’t know what we had and what we would do with it,” McGowan said.
After a week in Marshall, McGowan sat down to write the first section of what would become “The Dilbit Disaster” series. The words she wrote in that first draft laid out the human element of a piece that revolved heavily around science and policy.
McGowan, Song, and White worked together to unravel how the Michigan oil pipe ruptured and why clean-up efforts were still ongoing over a year after the initial spill had stopped. They needed to know how Embridge, the Environmental Protection Agency, and state and county authorities had responded to the spill, as well as how diluted bitumen was affecting the waterways, wildlife and residents of Marshall.
Each reporter on the team brought a different aspect of reporting to the series. McGowan reported from the ground in Marshall; she gathered local contacts and personal accounts of the spill from residents and state and county authorities. She enjoys talking to people and said her strong point is interacting with people and getting them to talk.
Song focused on verifying the scientific information that McGowan was learning in Marshall. Song has degrees in environmental science and science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She had to make sure all of the scientific terms used in the series were correct.
Reporter David Hasemyer was brought onto the project after the first four pieces of “The Dilbit Disaster” had been published. The aggressive nature of his reporting was directed into follow-up pieces, he said. He pursued topics related to the spill in Marshall such as new pipeline safety regulations and technology’s failure to detect pipeline failures.
With such a small staff, daily content for InsideClimate News slowed while Hasemyer, McGowan, Song and White focused on the dilbit series; for a considerable period of time, half of the news staff was working on the project.
Distance also made for reporting challenges. After a week reporting in Marshall, McGowan worked from Washington. Song was in Massachusetts, and Hasemyer and White were in California.
“As a reporter, you like to be in the situation,” Hasemyer said. “It is difficult to get a full sense of the people and place without being able to use all of your senses.”
To overcome the distance and work together, Hasemyer, McGowan and Song called each other and read their copy aloud.
“We would sit for hours in front of our laptops, talking to each other,” McGowan said. “Those phone conversations were so helpful.”
Looking back, McGowan, Hasemyer and White agreed on a few similar qualities that make good journalism.
Photo courtesy of David Hasemyer.
“You don’t have to be a big organization to do journalism. You have to be a committed journalist to do journalism,” Hasemyer said.
Once InsideClimate News dedicated itself to covering the story, the reporters had the resources they needed. Hasemyer said, “This was the kind of story that came about by old-school gumshoe reporting as much as anything else.”
The team studied Embridge’s call logs, researched the regulations for interstate pipelines, and stayed in contact with residents in Marshall. Embridge, the company responsible for the spill, was not forthcoming with information, White said. The team poured over Embridge’s public statements to piece together what Embridge was doing.
McGowan also emphasized the value of commitment on the part of editors and publishers. That’s what they got from White.
“As an editor, you want to go to bed having asked every question possible,” White said.
To achieve that, the reporters and White read each piece of the Dilbit Disaster series aloud over the phone multiple times. White said reading aloud does two things: “One, it gives you good rhythm, and two, it helps you focus on errors. You’ll do any dance you can to bulletproof yourself.”
McGowan likened the process of putting the entire story together to starting with a bare Christmas tree, then hanging lights and finally adding ornaments.
Journalism’s ability to explain complex subjects and hold the powerful accountable attracted McGowan to journalism. She was shy growing up, but “the notebook and pen gave me access and taught me how to put myself in front of people and ask uncomfortable things,” she said.
In a high school journalism course, Hasemyer discovered the empowering qualities of journalism.
“I could go into the principal’s office and ask all sorts of obnoxious questions and get away with it,” he said.
Part of journalism’s purpose is to bring voice to the disenfranchised, Hasemyer said.
The oil spill in Marshall was not new when InsideClimate News began its coverage. The small newsroom set itself apart by reporting with a depth and clarity culled from legwork, tenacity and the drive to report the story as fully and accurately as possible.
By Thomas Friestad
Plus he had tendency to pursue paths that veered from those he started on. That included a veer he made when he was still a student.
“The people I admired when I was younger were narrative-based folks; I called it narrative non-fiction,” Philipps said. “But I found that creative writing classes in universities can be really bad; they’re more about therapy than producing anything anyone wants to read. I was in that track and not very satisfied by it, so I went to J-school, which set off a bell in my head.”
Philipps became a Pulitzer finalist in 2009 for his reporting on violent crime as a result of the Army’s handling of soldiers with behavioral health issues. Though he did not ultimately win for that work, he said the experience was valuable for two reasons: It gave him
connections both within the Army community and also put his name on the Pulitzer judges’ radar.
“I met a lot of people tied into the world of trying to get troubled soldiers a fair deal,” Philipps said. “Through them, I was hearing that more and more soldiers were being discharged for little stuff. I decided to look into it a little, but I didn’t think it would be as big a thing as it turned out to be — that it would be a nationwide thing.”
Philipps eventually found himself writing about how combat veterans often lost their health benefits after being discharged from the military for minor offenses. At first, covering this story was equivalent to walking into a dark room without a flashlight, he said.
“You can’t see where you’re eventually going to end up, you just keep bumping into things and hitting your shins, feeling where everything is and taking another step,” Phillips said. “Only at the end are you able to see clearly.”
Philipps found himself at many dead ends as he reported, uncovering content that never made it into his final story. However, he eventually uncovered data that revealed the Army veterans’ problems had roots deeper than he had ever expected — the dysfunction, he found, was built into the medical discharge program.
The project presented a series of ethical challenges for Philipps. Most notably, there were discharged soldiers who needed food or transportation, but Philipps felt constrained by journalistic boundaries.
“You’re there, watching in a very voyeuristic type of way; people’s lives are falling apart, and you can’t ethically interfere by giving them a ride to the doctor or buying them a cheeseburger,” he said. “That’s not part of your duties, and yeah, that’s in direct conflict with your duties as a human being, which is unpleasant, but you have to navigate that stuff.”
The reporting challenges were also logistical. Key local officers key to his investigation declined to cooperate with Philipps. A lieutenant colonel even threatened Philipps by claiming he knew who Philipps had been speaking with and that he “was watching.”
Philipps also had to deal with internal tensions. As he was reporting, Army officials contacted The Gazette’s parent company, Clarity Media Group, urging that the story be spiked.
“The owner of the chain is a conservative billionaire, and someone from the Army reached out to them and said, ‘This reporting is wrong. It is biased and will paint things in a bad light,’” Philipps said. “I had a number of rather tense meetings with The Gazette’s publisher and the CEO of the newspaper chain where these views were expressed to me with a great deal of skepticism about what I was doing.”
Eventually Philipps persuaded his bosses to to publish the first three parts of his story. But a fourth part — which discussed how Army commanders had banned watchdog advocates seeking to
Reporter Dave Philipps interviews Sgt. Paul Sasse, center, and veterans advocate Georg-Andreas Pogány, right, in the El Paso County Jail in January. When Philipps visited, Sasse had been sitting in solitary confinement for months without military charge. Photo courtesy of Michael Ciaglo/The Gazette.
provide soldiers with benefits from entering Fort Carson — was nixed.
“Someone convinced the leadership that these watchdogs were dirtbag liar shysters trying to squeeze money out of soldiers, and I was unable to make the case (to publish this portion) successfully, despite stomping around and threatening to quit,” Philipps said. “Someone had either maliciously or out of ignorance said that the advocates were taking money from soldiers. In statements (the leadership) made to me, they made it sound like they believed these advocates were charging soldiers money for their services and unfairly promising soldiers who were kicked out help so that they could take their money, which was incorrect because they never charged anything.”
Despite the obstacles to reporting and publishing, Philipps said the final project received a very positive reaction overall. His work became one of The Gazette’s most-read stories and drew in a majority of its readers from outside the region. Philipps attributes this partly to how egregious the treatment several of his soldier sources received as well as his choice of “Rosa Parks” figures as human faces for his story’s central topics.
“I call (the three focal combat veterans) Rosa Parks because she wasn’t the first African-American to refuse to give up their seat on a bus, but she was just the first who someone made a big deal about because she was the right person,” Philipps said. “If I can take an injured, decorated special forces soldier and show that he’s now sitting in solitary confinement without a charge, that’s going to resonate with a lot of people. And if that can happen, what the hell else is happening?”
Philipps now works as a national correspondent with The New York Times, a change that came about in the wake of his Pulitzer win.
“I’ve always admired (the Times’) work and thought about working there,” Philipps said. “In June 2014, they called me. I think they needed someone to write about veterans and thought that was something I’d be able to do. I was really surprised and excited when that happened.”
However, Philipps said he tries to live in the present, rather than allowing his Pulitzer win to define him. “In the journalism world, no one ever asks what you did a couple of years ago,” he said.
And he emphasized that winning a Pulitzer win should never become a journalist’s true goal. Rather, to produce quality journalism, reporters need focus on covering stories that truly interest them and on becoming a “scholar of the world.”
“If you have Pulitzer aspirations, those are the wrong aspirations,” he said. “Your aspirations should be to kick journalistic ass and see what else follows.
“I was motivated not by winning but by the fact that there were soldiers unable to get medical care and people sitting uncharged in solitary confinement. It was crazy and maddening, and it made us want to have an impact.”
Journalist David Philipps believes that if you’re not the dumbest person in the room, you’re probably in the wrong room.
That was Philipps’ perspective when he began his journalism career working for The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Philipps made the transition from getting his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University to working for his hometown paper as an intern in 2002. He stayed on as a full-time reporter and soon started covering military-based stories.
Though Philipps said he didn’t initially have any interest in military affairs, he gravitated to wherever the most important stories were — and, in a town with more than 50,000 active duty troops and Fort Carson located nearby, those stories often involved the U.S. Army.
“The Army was the biggest and most influential force in our community,” Philipps said.
Dave Philipps interviews former Fort Carson commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson in his office at Fort Carson in January. Anderson refused to discuss specific cases but said deciding what to do when injured soldiers get in trouble is "the hardest thing." Photo courtesy of Michael Ciaglo/The Gazette.
By Sarah Fine
Uncovering a 'vipers' nest'
Q: Before you began your coverage, you had already established yourself as an education reporter. How did you settle on the education beat?
A: I think I sort of stumbled into that. ... In Oregon I was a city hall reporter, so I covered the (Roseburg, Oregon) city council. I liked doing that, but about a year into my stay I had an opportunity to move to a bigger market, specifically the Bay Area. Even though I hadn’t worked my way very high in the world of journalism in Roseburg, I moved to a bigger market and found myself kind of at the bottom of the totem pole. ... I was a night clerk, which is a cops reporter. If it sounds bleak, it’s because it kind of was. … But I find if you make the most of your situation, you can find opportunity. So doing that gave me some freedom to pursue some investigative stories and I wrote an investigative piece about a local runaway that attracted some attention. That helped me segue into a beat that was more desirable, which was a half-city, half schools beat.
Rob Kuznia takes notes while reporting. Courtesy of the Daily Breeze.
After having done that for a couple of years, I applied for a job at the Santa Barbara News Press, the paper of record in Santa Barbara, and an education reporting position that was open. The editor liked the education clips that I provided, so next thing I knew I was hired there and was now branded an education reporter. By then I realized that the education beat was kind of a hidden gem in a way. A lot of reporters don’t want to do it because it doesn’t seem very sexy. But the topics can be really broad, so it provides opportunity to kind of go beyond hyper-local reporting.
How did the story about Centinela first come onto your radar?
I started at the Daily Breeze in the summer of 2010 and right away I was alerted to the fact that the Centinela school district had a history of corruption and that it was something to keep a close eye on... It started with a routine story in 2010 about the perks in the superintendent’s contract. All the perks that we wrote about later in the story that would win the Pulitzer were there back in 2010, and they were pretty much all mentioned in the original story. The only difference was that his salary hadn’t been inflated yet. It was only $300,000 or something. So it didn’t jump out at people as much. But in his contract there was a clause that entitled him to get an annual nine-percent raise.
Then a couple years later, after I broke that one-off story that didn’t go anywhere, I received a strange email from an account that was obviously from a fake account … from somebody in payroll for the county office of education, which is the government body that approves the budget for little local school districts like Centinela. This person had seen that story that I wrote that nobody cared about and said that they had it on good authority that the superintendent’s pay had ballooned even more and that we should take another look. That was kind of the catalyst for revisiting the story. The key piece of information from this person — this classic “Deep Throat,” I don’t know who this person is, I don’t even know if this person is a man or a woman — was to ask for W-2 forms, which is a great way to compare compensation of public officials like superintendents because it provides one clean number that includes benefits and everything. … So we would take his W-2s and compare them to the W-2s of other area superintendents.
At first they weren’t that different — his was maybe $270,000 and the others were $250,000. But periodically, maybe every six months, we would just go back and put in a Freedom of Information Act request to the county office and get his W-2. Sure enough, the gap between what he got and what everybody else was getting began to really widen. It wasn’t until December of 2013 that we got the smoking gun, which came in the form of one of these W-2s. The other three superintendents were all comfortably in the $225,000 to $250,000 area, and then his just leapt off the page because it was $663,000. We realized we should jump on it as soon as possible.
What was the most challenging aspect of reporting this story?
Initially the challenge was to just kind of get our arms around the scope of this story. I think that one thing that made it more manageable was the fact that this had been on my beat for so long and I had developed so many sources. In that sense this is kind of a classic example of … what do they call it? Shoe-leather reporting. It was kind of a complex web of corruption, so trying to map it out was hard. So that’s challenge one.
Two was getting people to talk to us. You’re dealing with people whose jobs are on the line, and it’s justifiable that they feel threatened for speaking out. In the rare cases where we couldn’t use somebody’s name, we would try to triangulate by getting at least two credible sources to verify the same piece of information or documentation. Every time we did a story we’d have to call the people who were in the hot seat, which is never fun, but it’s something that you have to do.
I think it was also sometimes challenging to differentiate between a story that was more of an insinuation and a story that was solid. There were a couple times that we almost had a story, but really it amounted to insinuation, so we couldn’t run it. There were a couple of layers left of the onion that we weren’t able to peel because we hadn’t been able to nail down enough specifics about some of the people who were involved.
I should say that Frank (Suraci) and Rebecca (Kimitch) were great to work with. Our strengths sort of complemented each other. Rebecca is very strong at filing Freedom of Information Act requests in a way that elicits a useful answer, and Frank has 40 years of experience which he was able to draw on to help us focus in on a lot of these stories. His editing was just impeccable as well.
While you were pursuing this story over your four years at the Daily Breeze, did you ever consider that it could turn into a Pulitzer-winning series?
In the back of my mind the Bell story was still sort of fresh. The Bell story was that several city officials went to jail after The L.A. Times revealed that the city manager was making $800,000 a year or something like that, and the city council members, even though it was a volunteer post, were making six figures. This struck me as a miniature version of Bell at the time. That maybe had a bearing on my motivation, but I never could have imagined that I could actually win the Pulitzer.
How did you work with your editor (Frank Suraci) on this story? Was he encouraging? Was he cautious?
The Daily Breeze at the time was an outlet that had really been slammed by the poor environment for newspapers. Editors don’t have time to give you much feedback. At first it was kind of just me looking into this and giving my city editor updates, and him encouraging me to keep on them, but also get all my other stories done: “I need something for tomorrow, oh and there’s two people on vacation and we only have three reporters!” So kind of encouragement to keep on it and to stay on the treadmill with other reporting.
Once we found out the superintendent was taking in almost three-quarters of a million dollars in a single year, that changed the dynamic. The top editor of the chain of newspapers that the Daily Breeze is a part of
From left, Rebecca Kimitch, Frank Suraci and Rob Kuznia celebrate after winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. Courtesy of The Daily Breeze.
became very interested, which was very helpful because he understood it was important to clear the deck and give me some runway here to do a story.
But even then, mid-size daily newspapers have a predicament of having to put out a product every day with diminishing resources. Even on the day that we finally dropped the bombshell about the superintendent’s lavish pay and benefits, I had to go cover a story for the cops reporter who was on vacation. I remember I filed my investigative piece at 5, and then at 5:30 I had to be at somebody’s house to write a quick story about a homeless guy who reunited with his long lost daughter or something. By the time I got back from that interview all the editors were really interested in the Centinela piece, so I had to quickly turn out that daily story about the homeless guy and then get back to the investigative piece because people had questions. Then they wanted a sidebar, so I had to do a sidebar. And then, after all that was done, probably around 9 p.m., I had to do what we called School Notebook, which is the classic local newspaper story: just a collection of blurbs about kids who won awards or teachers who get selected for fellowships or fundraisers.
So, did I have the support of my editors? Yes, but they have the responsibility of putting out a product every day and we were all struggling to do both at the same time.
Do you think this pressure to put out several pieces a day is typical of, or perhaps specific to, small papers?
I think it’s harder now because up until really the last five years or so, a small outlet was a place where you could have an entire career. … I think it’s different now. It’s just not as viable to put in an entire career at a local outlet. It’s become more of a stepping stone. I think that dynamic can affect morale a little bit. People find themselves wanting to move on after putting in a couple years. In my experience, the pay often just isn’t high enough to sustain a career that allows you to save for retirement.
What are the benefits of working at a small outlet?
The great thing about working at the local level is you’re truly on the front lines. … In many ways, when you’re working at a local paper, that’s where some of the most original reporting happens. That’s because so much content at the national level is repurposed from stories that have been generated at the local level. Since winning the Pulitzer I’ve had the opportunity to write for The Washington Post. Some of those stories have involved reporting on larger national trends. Without local journalism I wouldn’t have been able to do those stories because the local papers wrote stories that enabled me to spot a larger trend. So I like that aspect of (small outlets) — that’s where original reporting really happens.
Also, every city is kind of a little miniature country or something — they all have a certain drive, like technology or some other industry. So it’s a good opportunity to gain a mastery of that industry, which can be helpful later in life. I think it’s also unlikely that, if there really is a story to be told in your hometown, a national organization can swoop in and tell it. So if the local reporters don’t do it, nobody will.
What specifically about your work do you think made it Pulitzer-worthy?
First, I think it was just the sticker shock that comes with the fact that a superintendent was making twice as much as the president of the United States. And then the fact that it wasn’t just him, there was a sort of cabal of collaborators who were very organized. That included a construction company that would find a way to put proxied members on the board and get rid of people it felt were not sympathetic, and there was a law firm that was making millions of dollars basically by doing the bidding of the superintendent, which included keeping information secreted away and ensuring that it was inaccessible even to board members who were asking questions. This group of cronies even included politicians from other cities with no connection to this school district. … So I think it was sort of the extent to which we had uncovered the vipers’ nest.
And then, maybe most importantly, our investigation yielded results. The superintendent was fired. It triggered an FBI investigation and an investigation of the (district attorney)’s office. The makeup of the school board changed. Many of the classes that they cut for the disadvantaged student population were restored, like summer school and vocational ed, which was a valuable program for these kids. The teachers were finally given a raise after five years. And I think just the overall atmosphere, at least for a time, really improved. … These students were being taken advantage of. Their school was being used as a cash machine, and we exposed that. I think that probably resonated (with the Pulitzer judges).
How has winning a Pulitzer influenced your career?
There has been a boost, I guess, but it hasn’t upended my life. I did get some attractive job offers, but some of them required moving far away, so I opted to hold off for now. I do feel like it’s given me more options. It sort of opened the door to do freelancing for outlets like The Washington Post. In addition it has led to opportunities that I never would have known even existed; I was contacted recently by the National Academy of Sciences to write a piece for them. So I think the change is actually kind of subtle, but it’s definitely been a change for the better.
For some reason I can’t get myself to write “Pulitzer-winner” on my Twitter account. Maybe I should get on and do that.
You left the Daily Breeze and took a public relations position before you knew you won a Pulitzer, and Rebecca Kimitch has since entered PR as well. Why did you choose to leave journalism?
I got out of journalism before we won, which was largely why all this attention kind of avalanched on me. (I left journalism) largely because of all those challenges I mentioned earlier. I do consider myself a journalist still. At the time I left I thought I’d had a great run. I didn’t necessarily achieve all my goals and I didn’t land the dream job, but I was able to do some great stories.
Then the Pulitzer happened. It’s a confusing thing. It’s like, “Wait a second, I thought I left this behind me. Now I’m being celebrated for this thing I did in my past life.” What’s unique about my situation is that I was at a small outlet, so all those difficult dynamics that were in play while I was there are still in play now. It’s still a reality that it’s really difficult to make a comfortable wage at an outlet of that size. I personally wanted to just move on from local journalism. It was great while it lasted, but I wanted to either go big leagues or bust.
What would be your advice to those local reporters, or to new or aspiring reporters?
I’d say that first, I think it’s easy to write off people who seem like they’re a little crazy, and a lot of times those people are very difficult because they take up a lot of time and they won’t let you get off the phone. But it’s important to at least hear them out because some of the time, people really do have something to say and nobody will give them a chance to say it. I think it’s important to listen to people and not be too short-sighted about just wanting to get your daily done and go home.
I think a great story in journalism is the great equalizer; in journalism, as in any other profession, people start out at different levels of the ladder. … But you can catapult your way up just by finding a really great story. Try to aim higher.
Daily Breeze | Torrance, California
Reporters Rob Kuznia and Rebecca Kimitch and editor Frank Suraci won the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting in 2015 while working at The Daily Breeze, a community newspaper serving Los Angeles County’s South Bay region. The three collaborated to publish a series of stories about the cash-strapped Centinela school district and its superintendent, who was earning over $600,000 a year while students and faculty suffered through severe cutbacks. (A complete list of stories in the Centinela series is available on the Pulitzer Prize website.) However, the win was a complete surprise to Kuznia, who had already left The Daily Breeze to take a public relations position by the time winners were announced. We spoke to Kuznia about reporting, the benefits and drawbacks of working at small outlets and his decision to leave journalism.
The following has been edited for style and clarity.
By Thomas Friestad
Correcting failures in the prison system
Brian Gleason wasn’t expecting to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing — in fact, his victory took him completely by surprise. Gleason said his colleague and co-winner, John Hackworth, submitted a package of editorials written for The Charlotte Sun, three of which were his. The editorials focused on the story of a man who died while imprisoned in Charlotte Correctional Institution after being beaten to death by up to 10 correctional officers.
Gleason left the Sun in August after a 26-year career in there and now works as a communications manager for the Charlotte County Board of County Commissioners. He spoke with us about his Pulitzer victory as well as his experience covering a corrections officer-on-inmate assault story through editorials.
The following has been edited for style and clarity.
Q: How did you first get into journalism? Did you have any inspiration or goals going in?
A: Before I got into journalism, I was an avid reader of The Boston Globe, The Standard-Times (in New Bedford, Massachusetts) and Sports Illustrated; I was a big sports fan back then. I always thought (writing) would be a great way to make a living. I went to school at Bentley College, as it was called back then (before it was renamed to Bentley University). I got my degree in business communication, and I was going to work in PR and advertising. I worked for a magazine as an ad salesperson for about six months, and I realized I did not want to do that.
So I started applying for positions with newspapers and was able to start stringing for the Standard-Times, writing two to three stories a week. I got an assignment to interview the former drummer for the band Boston, who was basically kicked out of the band right before its first album hit. The editors called me about two weeks later and said, “We’re going to break this story in two and run it as the cover story for the Sunday magazine.” That was a realization, an ‘a-ha!’ moment where I thought, “I could do this for a living!”
How did your winning story idea (on local corrections officers assaulting and killing a prisoner) arrive on your radar?
Our news team had been covering the prison deaths and John Hackworth (my co-winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing) and I took a lot of our lead (in editorial writing) from The Miami Herald, which was looking heavily into the death rate in prisons statewide. When we had (a death) here in our own backyard at Charlotte Correctional Institution. It was a no-brainer. We had a statewide, national story that happened here, and the circumstances of the death here in Charlotte were atrocious.
I told people when the Pulitzer announcement was made that it was easy to sum up outrage and whatever negative feelings you wanted — the way it happened, the lack of transparency, and the seeming indifference on the part of the governor and Department of Corrections. They just shuffled prison superintendents in and out of jobs within the system; you’d move out of one place where someone got killed on your watch and get a job as the chief of another state prison. They’d say it’s just a routine re-deployment of people among prisons, but really, they just wanted to get people away from where the fire was burning.
Did you receive any pushback from within your newsroom while covering this story?
No, we had the full support of the publisher and the editor to really go at this. We’re a community paper, so our usual approach to stories is not the sort of gotcha’ stuff you see in big investigative national papers; we’re more of a community-minded paper where we see issues that have arisen and we try to make positive suggestions for changes.
Once in awhile, we’ll get our hairs up and make a stand on something, but usually it’s a very collegial approach. And in this case, I put a line in one of my editorials that said, “the governor’s response to the problem spoke to a question of his character, his personal character,” which is a very, very outside-the-box statement for our editorial board. I sent that paragraph to the publisher and said, “Hey, I don’t know how far you want to go with this on the prison deaths,” and he said, “Go with it.” So that was an example to me of how much leeway we had and how strong he wanted the position of the paper to be.
Who nominated you for the Pulitzer? What was your reaction when you found out you had won?
That’s the crazy part of it. I left the (Charlotte Sun) in August of 2015 and I had written several of the editorials on the prison deaths; John Hackworth wrote some more after I left. He went through and, without my knowledge, submitted them for the Pulitzer, not knowing at the time that he had submitted three of my editorials within the eight he submitted. After the award was announced, my former boss called me and said John had won, and I didn’t believe him — that’s a common response from many small papers: disbelief. It’s really, really hard, a camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle kind of thing.
I said, “Naw, you’re kidding me,” because he liked to give me a hard time. I asked what John won for, and he said “the prison death editorials.” My jaw just dropped, and I said, “Jim, I wrote some of those editorials.” I said he needed to check and see what editorials were entered, and that set off a mad scramble. They went through the archives and saw I had written some of the editorials. We had to call the Pulitzers and get my name added to the list. If you do a Google search for ‘Gleason’ and ‘Pulitzer,’ the New York Times did a story on that.
What are some common obstacles small publications face in their pursuit of the Pulitzer?
I think you have to take a principled and well-thought-out stand. You can’t win a Pulitzer with vanilla; vanilla ice cream doesn’t win any prizes, so you’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to obviously have all your facts straight, be well-edited and well-researched, but it’s got to be something that is on people’s minds. Something that has a local impact but also reverberates on a statewide or national level.
What advice might you give to new journalists looking to break into the field?
Well, number one, have a plan B, since early in their careers, they’ll struggle to make ends meet, especially at a small paper.
Second would be work for your college or high school paper to get a taste for just how much you want to be in the field.
There will be challenges going forward, so be a reader. The best writers are strong readers, so read everyone you can think of, and in genres you’re not typically used to reading. If you’re a big history or biography reader, read a Russian novel from the early 19th century or the classics. Stuff that’s a literary touchstone for a broad number of people you can use in your writing to spice it up and emphasize a point, like Shakespeare, Greek classics and Roman oratory type stuff. You’ll be able to cite things that have a broad universal acceptance of truth.
Eli Sanders. Photo courtesy of Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times.
From left, Frank Suraci, Rob Kuznia and Rebecca Kimitch pose in front of the Daily Breeze offices. Courtesy of The Daily Breeze.
Photo courtesy of Brian Gleason.
Mary Chind-Willie waits in a crowd of journalists for a chance to photograph Hillary and Bill Clinton at former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s 37th and final Harkin Steak Fry on Sept. 11, 2014. Photo courtesy of Mary Chind-Willie.
The Des Moines Register | Des Moines, Iowa
Reporter Dave Philipps talks with the head of Fort Carson's medical discharge system, Lt. Col. Vincent Barnhart. Some in the Army suggest delays in the medical discharge system encourage misconduct discharges. Photo courtesy of Michael Ciaglo/The Gazette.
Photo courtesy of Clay Bennett.
Photo courtesy of Susan White.
Damaged and destroyed buildings in downtown Grand Forks, North Dakota, sit in a pool of flood water during the the 1997 flood that covered nearly the entire town. Courtesy of Eric Hylden.
When it comes to quality journalism, mission and dedication matter more than masthead and circulation.
We celebrate small news organizations that dared to go big.
Where are these Pulitzer-winning publications?
The 2016 centennial celebration of the Pulitzer Prizes brought deserved honor to 100 years of journalistic excellence, reprising work that is essential to American democracy. Journalism, done in service to the public, can right wrongs, save lives, change laws and change hearts. It can outrage and educate and enlighten and delight.
Pulitzer-winning work is dominated by bigger news organizations rich in traditions and resources. But it is far from exclusive to them. Small newsrooms and individual journalists have shown time and again that size does not have to limit greatness.
This project shines a bright light on some of the best journalism produced by news organizations with daily circulations under 100,000. It specifically focuses on work done in the past 25 years, as the digital age has introduced demands that pose an additional challenge to small organizations.
Call them the little newsrooms that not only could – but did. To find out how they excelled, we spoke with the winners of 17 Pulitzers: editorial writers and cartoonists, journalists who braved killer storms even as they lost their own homes, a photographer on the spot, beat reporters who dug to get to the heart of corruption, even a classical music critic who used words to make his readers feel the emotion of sound. Their work inspired us, as we hope it does you.
We are a capstone class of seniors at the Missouri School of Journalism, poised to enter our careers in chaotic times. Our experience may still be limited, and our options different than in the profession’s past. We may work for community newspapers, digital start-ups, alt-weeklies and niche publications as well as for legacy newsrooms. But our aspirations are consistent with 100 years of Pulitzer work – to serve the public and make a difference for the better.
~ The No Small Pulitzers team ~
About the project
Mark Mahoney (left) accepts the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing from Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University. Photo courtesy of Mark Mahoney.
I'm Kelsi Anderson. I'm a print and digital news major at the University of Missouri who will be graduating in December 2016. I've spent two semesters on the public life beat at the Columbia Missourian daily newspaper, covering local politics and public policy. I currently work at the Missourian as an assistant city editor, and I write for the MU College of Engineering's communications office. My interests include political and science writing, and I'm also a huge linguistics nerd.
Behind the scenes
Photo courtesy of Daniel Gilbert.
The Ocean Springs bridge to Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina hit on Sept. 16, 2005. Photo courtesy of Josh Norman.
I’m George Ash, a soon-to-be* graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, where I’ll be receiving* a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Print and Digital News Editing and a minor in Political Science this December (2016, for those of you from the future). I want to eventually end up in the video game news media (yes, that’s a thing), but I’m intrigued by a range of topics, such as politics, economics and sports.
*knock on wood
I’m Vivian Farmer. My writing career began when I wrote three stories about a fictional flamingo named Wandie the Swan. I was five and I illustrated the pieces myself. Since then, I’ve continued to look for imaginative aspects of life. I won a congressional art competition in high school, traveled to the south of France to learn how to paint and then transferred to the University of Missouri, where I’ve spent the last three-and-a-half years honing my reporting and writing skills. My dream is to glide around the world writing about as many places as I can. Barring that fantasy, I will be here in Columbia, Missouri, writing about culture and embarking on graduate school.
My name is Sarah Fine. I'm a senior at Mizzou studying Print and Digital Journalism with an emphasis in News Editing. I spend most of my time in class or at Ellis Library, where I work as a social media coordinator for MU Libraries. My favorite things in life are happy dogs, dark chocolate peanut butter cups and naps. When I graduate in May 2017, I hope to treat myself to one of each of those things. When I am not in class or working, I love to cross stitch, hike and bake. If I weren't going into journalism, I think I would follow my second passion (after AP Style, of course) and become a writer and illustrator of children's books.
My name is Thomas Friestad. I’m a senior print and digital news student at the University of Missouri. Over the past year, I’ve worked as a state government reporter, copy editor and page designer for the Columbia Missourian newspaper, and as a writing tutor at the Mizzou Student Success Center. Upon graduation, I plan to move to the nation’s capitol and pursue my dream of becoming a political correspondent. Fun facts about me? I’ve spoken Spanish for 16 years, I can recite the order in which every single Survivor contestant was eliminated over more than 30 seasons, and I own a beagle named Woody (after the famous pull-string cowboy). In my free time, you can usually find me reading, writing, gaming, swimming or running.
My name is Katie Pohlman and I'm a print and digital journalism major. I’m originally from the Washington, D.C., area. I'm also majoring in environmental science and minoring in Luso-Brazilian Studies. I'm planning to be an environmental journalist. When I'm not doing journalism, I'm hanging out with my rabbit, Ophelia, and kitten, Pica. (Yes, Pica as in the InDesign measurement. I'm so journalistic.) I love traveling the world and have lived in Tunisia, Morocco, the Bahamas and Brazil. I also love binge-watching Netflix — I'm currently hooked on “Dexter” — and cheering on Washington, D.C., baseball and football teams.
My name is Liying Qian. I am a senior studying business journalism and economics at the University of Missouri. Professionally, I am interested in reporting on stories that involve real people and using data to untangle complex economic ideas for non-experts. I am intrigued by the fact that money is at the center of every human endeavor and is relevant to every area of journalism. My goal is to become a strategic business reporter who is able to tell the most accurate and complete story in the manner that is the best fit. When I am not out reporting, you may find me hanging out at a jam session, checking out the latest comedy show in town or planning my next road trip.
My name is Sean Roberts. I have had a passion for travel since my first trip to Europe when I was 16. After backpacking parts of Europe at 21, I decided to pursue an education from the Missouri School of Journalism. During that time I had the opportunity to do some field reporting in Costa Rica. Now, at 26, I have a BA in International Journalism with a minor in Political Science. I am considering law school in the future.
I’m Jacob Scholl. I’m currently a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism studying News Reporting. I was born a Chicago Northsider and transplanted to the prairies of South Dakota, a place I called home for 12 years. When I’m not in the newsroom I enjoy reading, running and yelling at my TV, mostly due to the Bears and Cubs (at least it’s been out of joy this year).
My name is Vera Tan. I study journalism and political science at the University of Missouri. I am primarily interested in international reporting, and have worked for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., and worked as the lead producer for Global Journalist, the international news show for mid-Missouri's NPR affiliate. I grew up 15 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Upon graduation, I hope to work for Malaysia’s only independent radio station, and later on to establish a national broadcasting system that is free from governmental control.
After three decades in newspapers, I now coach the next generation of journalists. My own reporting career took me to all seven continents, including three trips to Antarctica. I have covered corruption and crime, beauty pageants and popes, AIDS and the Olympics, dogsled expeditions and refugee camps, labor strikes and political strife. Along the way I won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 1988, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in international reporting in 1986. My primary contribution to #NoSmallPulitzers was to remind the project team to take some risks, stay hungry to learn and have fun. Mostly I applaud as they learn to fly higher than I ever did.
Anne Marie Hankins
My name is Anne Marie Hankins and I am a Journalism major at the University of Missouri graduating in December. I’ve also completed a minor in Leadership and Public Service and after graduation I will be joining Teach for America as a corps member in Jacksonville, Florida, for two years. Eventually, I’d like to attend law school and live close to the beach with my extremely small dog, Wiley.