National Press Club

Pulitzer Winners Reveal How They Got Their Big Stories

October 1, 2013 | By Peggy Orchowski |

Recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the biggest awards in journalism, shared their stories with Club members Sept. 23 at a forum sponsored by the Professional Development Committee.

The winners said hat their Pulitzer Prize-winning stories started with a germ of an idea, a piece of a story that they followed and just felt was bigger than it seemed at first.

They used their news sense and intuition to connect the dots. They patiently and persistently followed leads, even when many led to dead-ends. They practiced shoe-leather journalism to develop their sources. They eventually found great corroborative data using a lot of creative thinking and modern technology to dig it out. And they were supported by enthusiastic editors that gave them the support and the resources they needed.

“Cops Speeding” by the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., started off as an off-hand story about a couple of police officers who broke speed limits to get home after their late night shifts. But editor Howard Saltz, who has a math background, said he ‘challenged the story on math grounds. I ended up with an astounding story of extraordinary numbers of cops traveling home hundreds of times at speeds between 90 and 130 mph.'' He said he didn’t count the trips where the officers drove under 90.

John Maines, the Sun Sentinel’s database reporter, discovered they could get the public records of cops traveling on passes on toll roads. From those, they calculated how many minutes it took each cop between entering one toll gate and exiting another. Many were reaching their destinations in less than half the time it was supposed to take. The news team cracked the story in less than three months `‘because the data was so extraordinary,” Saltz said.

Finding the context was another thing, Metro Editor Dana Banker said. It was about a culture of speeding. “The cops sped at such velocities because they could get away with it,'' Baker said. The reporters talked to ``those who had nothing to lose by telling. “We interviewed retirees, former supervisors, and then, sadly, the relatives of victims killed and maimed by the speeding cops,” Banker said.

In the end, the police supervisors themselves were stunned by the extent of the story. They requested a meeting with the Sun Sentinel news team to find out how it found the facts.

In contrast, the Pulitzer to Inside Climate Today went to an online publication written and produced by a four-person staff that lives hundreds of miles apart and rarely sees each other. But when the staff writers started to investigate the pipeline industry, they found themselves deep into a story about massive abuse of industrial and pipeline regulations, environmental damage and public health menaces. In the end they uncovered the Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan.

“We never were quite sure where this story was going to go,” said Elizabeth McGowern, one of the four . “We pulled together resources, sometimes through crowd sourcing on the Internet, so we could go visit sites, gather data and interview everyone connected to the story, including victims. Even when we published the story, we did not realize how big it was. Until we got the Pulitzer.”

In a way, McGowern said, the team avoided what she called the worst thing you can do in investigative journalism: “Write your lead before you investigate the story.'' She said reporters have to find the nugget, discover where the story is going, and find the information to corroborate it.