behind the news

Pulitzer Winners Go Behind the Scenes of Their Stories

Reaching for the high-hanging fruit
October 5, 2011

Four of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners visited the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism last night to discuss their winning stories, which they found “hiding in plain sight.” Moderating the discussion was three-time Pulitzer winner Walt Bogdanich, who opened the talk with Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives of the Los Angeles Times. Winners of the Public Service prize for their investigation into the corrupt city government of Bell, California, the probe produced a total of 200 stories. At the start of their reporting, the pair were given the run-around while requesting documents at city hall.

After threatening to sue if their information request was not fulfilled, Gottlieb and Vives received a seemingly ominous invitation: come and get the documents, in person, at nearby Little Bear Park, from city manager Robert Rizzo himself. It even induced a bit of paranoia; Vives envisioned a white van pulling up and kidnapping him from the parking lot. The story’s scope became apparent when a cohort of city officials, including Bell police officers, showed up to confront the reporters. Eight people were eventually indicted as a result of the story. With all the intimidation aimed in their direction, the two stressed the importance of having a newspaper backing them up, “as opposed to the cliché of the blogger sitting in his underwear writing,” said Gottlieb. “It’s too easy to push those people away.”

Amy Ellis Nutt received the Feature Writing prize for her Star-Ledger story, “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” about a puzzling fishing boat accident that killed six men. Her reporting took her almost eight months, as she immersed herself into the boating world. She even spent thirteen hours on a fishing boat, which helped her sift through the different theories that were floating around. Tales of ten to twelve foot waves sinking the boat seemed wrong; it appeared a completely normal condition to the fishermen. Also, at night on the boat, she noted that the bright lights of the ship made seeing into the distance almost completely impossible. Keeping different piles of notes for each theory put forth, she concluded that the ship was most likely hit by a large cargo ship, which then steered away, leaving the fishermen to die. A line from a mariner she spoke to for the story sums up the investigative challenges: “There are no skid marks on the ocean,” he said.

It took three years for Paige St. John to complete her comprehensive Sarasota Herald-Tribune report on ineffective property insurance in Florida, where homeowners went essentially unprotected every hurricane season. Many companies simply didn’t have the funds to insure people. Insurance is one of the less-prized beats among journalists, and St. John described becoming so overwhelmed by the complexity of the story that she would wake up in cold sweats, feeling that she had taken on more than she could handle. Many sources were reluctant to talk, and when they did, their jargon was too thick to comprehend. She described listening to her tapes in the car, liking it to the “Rosetta Stone” approach. She learned the lingo of insurance that way, realizing that she was actually listening to these executives “confess their greed in their own language.” Her advice for getting the chance to take on a story this big? “Don’t ask for three years up front,” she said with a laugh.

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.