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This year’s Pulitzer Prizes underscore the value of local reporting at a time when many papers and newsrooms have been closed or downsized. According to a recent estimate, more than 35,000 news media employees have experienced job or income loss since the pandemic began. Jeffrey Brown talks to two winners, Joe Sonka of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News.
Local newsrooms were a big winner this week when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. It underscored the value of local reporting at a time when newsrooms continue to lose journalists, and papers have been closed or gutted.
A recent estimate found that, since the pandemic began, more than 35,000 news media employees of all kinds in the U.S. have been laid off, furloughed or faced pay cuts.
Jeffrey Brown zeroed in on this with a pair of the winners.
In Alaska, The Anchorage Daily News won the prestigious Pulitzer for Public Service for a year-long investigation into sexual violence in the state and a two-tiered justice system that leaves rural communities at risk. The paper collaborated with the news organization ProPublica.
In Louisville, Kentucky, The Courier-Journal won the prize for breaking news reporting for its coverage of outgoing Governor Matt Bevin's last-minute pardons of hundreds of people, including perpetrators of violent crimes.
Just two among other examples of honors for local reporting this year, at a time when local news organizations around the country face huge economic challenges and now more cuts amid the pandemic.
Joining us are Joe Sonka, political reporter at The Louisville Courier-Journal, and Kyle Hopkins, special projects editor at The Anchorage Daily News.
Congratulations to both of you.
Kyle, I want to start with you.
Your organization clearly put a lot of time and resources into this. What was the significance? Why was this story so important?
Well, I think, for us, it was a story that we have been meaning to tell for a long time.
You know, these are stories that, in some ways, I feel like we should have done 10 or even 15 years ago. And we were looking for the right way to tell them and the right partner to do it with.
And the thing that we most wanted to explore was Alaska's high rate of sexual abuse and sexual assault, especially abuse of children. And we felt like we couldn't really tell that story without telling people about what's happening with criminal justice in Alaska and what's been just a decades-long, generations-old inequity when it comes to how justice and public safety is delivered if you live in a city and how it's delivered if you live and grow up in a village that's hard to reach, off the road system, and that you have to take a plane to get to.
And, Joe Sonka, you had a very different situation. This was breaking news. What made this an important story to pursue?
Well, people were not only outraged by the nature of some of the crimes that people were pardoned for.
People were recently convicted of very long for — very long sentences for crimes of murder, child rape. But they were also outraged by the fact that none of these — many of the prosecutors were not warned. Many of the victims were not warned at all.
This was a total surprise to them. And then also our reporting was able to find some of the political connections that the families of those individuals had to Matt Bevin.
One person who was convicted in a fatal home robbery, his brother and family had hosted a big fund-raiser for Matt Bevin the summer before and raised over $20,000 for his — to retire debt from his previous campaign.
So, it really drew outrage across the political spectrum.
You're both doing this kind of work as the landscape has shifted so much for local news.
Kyle, what is the situation where you are? And how do you manage to continue to do this kind of work?
Well, I like to say that our newspaper, The Anchorage Daily News, we have been through all the things that small newspapers around the country are experiencing.
You know, we have been through it all. We are — our ownership has changed a couple times. We went bankrupt. We had to survive the bankruptcy. We almost didn't exist. You know, more recently, during the pandemic, like lots of small newspapers, we got hit pretty hard by a loss of revenue.
And so a lot of reporters here and employees have had to take temporary pay cuts and see their hours reduced.
And what — and what's the situation for you, Joe?
I haven't been to the newsroom in over two months now. We have been all working remotely. This is my office right here.
Our reporters are also on furlough now. I will be on furlough next week. And then next month, I will have another week of furlough. You know, we're — the newspaper industry has been hit just as hard as other industries throughout the economy right now.
And with the changing nature of the news media, the move away from advertising-based revenue to subscription-based revenue, it really makes subscriptions to local papers even more important now than it ever was.
We spoke to one of the other winners, Luke Broadwater of The Baltimore Sun.
And he told us that, on Sunday, he took a pay cut. On Monday, he won a Pulitzer Prize. That just shows the kind of weird, crazy times that you're in.
Joe, it when people wonder now about the value of local news, this kind of reporting, what's your response?
Well, I think that we showed the value of local news by how much — how many resources we devoted to this project and uncovered things that might not have been known to taxpayers if we didn't have our whole team working on it.
We put out dozens of stories in the following month and found out some really incredible things about some of the pardons. So, that's the power of having local people on the ground who know the situation and can uncover things and really shed light on what their government is doing.
And, Kyle, you're in a huge state, all kinds of resources.
But I guess so a lot of those things can go on without much of a spotlight.
I mean, there's — Alaska is a resource-rich state. And there's not a lot of people, but there's a lot of money to be made here. And what we think is that, if there's no one — there's no one playing a watchdog role, you know, you can imagine who's going to get elected, where that money's going to come from, and then what they're going to do in turn for, you know, businesses that want to come here and make a dollar, regardless of how it impacts the land in Alaska and the people in Alaska.
Kyle, you know, I mentioned that you did this in a partnership with ProPublica.
I just wonder, briefly, if you think about the future, is that kind of partnership what you see?
We felt like this was kind of a proof of concept for us, because we knew that we didn't have much money. You know, we just don't. And we don't expect to have much money in the future.
And so how can we do work that we're proud of, but that takes a lot of time? And that's where we needed a partner who could help, you know, that — my salary was paid for by ProPublica last year. So that allowed me to spend all my time just on this one project.
And so I think we're looking for more opportunities where we can — you know, we know we have stories to tell. We know there's good stories to be done in Alaska, but we don't always have the resources and the bandwidth to do them. So who can help us do that?
And in this case, it was ProPublica, which came in and helped with editing, helped with research. You know, they have data experts that a small newsroom like ours doesn't have. And so I think there's a real hopeful future in those types of collaborations.
Well, congratulations to both of you once again, Kyle Hopkins at The Anchorage Daily News, Joe Sonka at The Louisville Courier-Journal.
Thanks so much.
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