In journalism, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.
Two Phoenix area reporters today won a Pulitzer Prize, the most coveted award in the industry, for a series of articles in the East Valley Tribune that exposed problems with local immigration enforcement.
The Pulitzer committee honored journalists Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin with a win in the local reporting category for their “Reasonable Doubt” series, which showed how a heavy focus on immigration by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was hurting the agency’s own efforts to solve violent crimes like rape and assault.
The pair will share the award with the staff of the Detroit Free Press, which won for its reporting that led to the jailing of Detroit’s former mayor. Other Pulitzer recipients this year include the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and Las Vegas Sun.
“Disbelief. Shock,” said Gabrielson, reacting to the announcement. “I didn’t think it was a possibility.”
Word of the win comes after a devastating year for the Tribune and journalism in general. In fact, in its explanation of the award, the Pulitzer committee commended the team “for their adroit use of limited resources” to put the series together.
Indeed, “Reasonable Doubt,” published last July, was researched at a time when cutbacks had become the norm at the ailing Tribune. Both reporters named in the award were still on staff at the paper and were backed by a group of fellow staffers who continued to work on the package, even as layoffs and pay freezes were landing all around them.
Patti Epler, who oversaw and directed the series as its editor, said the remarkable thing about “Reasonable Doubt” was that hard-working journalists were able to complete it in the face of great obstacles inside the news organization. “What’s really, really, really cool about it is that it does prove that you can still do excellent journalism, even when you have a paper that’s on its last legs,” Epler said.
Combined, Gabrielson and Giblin equaled something like 10 percent of the Tribune’s metro staff, Epler said. That made it hard to let them spend the time necessary to report on the intricacies of the subject. “I, personally, as the editor who directed and supervised the project, was under a lot of pressure from the higher-up editors to just get this done, get these guys back,” said Epler. She even heard grumbling from lower-level staffers who had to make up the difference for the out-of-rotation reporters. “There was peer pressure in the newsroom,” she said.
In the end, however, the journalists received the support they needed to turn the thing into a five-day series that earned them praise throughout the state and now the nation. “That can’t be discounted,” Epler said.
All the acclaim wasn’t able to stop the Tribune from making more cuts, though. Today, after further blows to the newsroom, Gabrielson remains the only journalist directly involved with the series and its presentation to still work for the paper.
Epler and reporter Giblin were among 140 people laid off from the Tribune in January as part of a major restructuring, which also saw the cuts of many of the other journalists involved with the series — including its photographer, graphic artist and videographer. Amid the downsizing, the Tribune also ended home delivery in many areas and reduced its number of days in print to just four. Last week, the paper announced it would now just publish a newspaper just three days a week.
Epler and Giblin have since gone on to co-found the Arizona Guardian, a state Capitol news website, with other former coworkers of the Tribune.
The “Reasonable Doubt” team has been riding an awards juggernaut of sorts this year, earning several other prestigious industry honors. The series won a George Polk award, first place for investigative reporting in the Best of the West contest, and was a finalist for an award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.
Still, Gabrielson said the Pulitzer win today was the last thing he expected. He only learned of the victory when he surfed over to the award’s website to see if a couple reporters he met in New York last week while accepting the Polk prize had won. (They hadn’t.)
Gabrielson said he reacted not with immediate cheers, but by summoning a couple nearby editors over to his computer to “make sure we were seeing the same thing.”
Epler got the word when a former coworker from the Tribune called her, asking if she had heard “the news.”
“I thought she was going to say the Tribune’s closing,” she said.
Giblin was unavailable to comment on the win this afternoon because he was out of pocket, covering the Congressional hearings being held in Arizona regarding, of all topics, border and immigration issues. Earlier in the day, however, he was quoted by his former newspaper. “It’s something I never even allowed myself to think about,” Giblin told the Tribune. “I never thought it was possible.”
The Pulitzer Prizes are given out annually by Columbia University in New York.
Full disclosure: I am a former Tribune reporter, and was cut in January along with some of the reporters mentioned here.