Local news: Still hard work even when you win a Pulitzer

It ain’t easy, but newspaper reporting is still important

Eric Eyre had waited for three years, gone through several legal battles and finally had what he was looking for: official documentation showing just how many opioid pills drug manufacturers were pumping into rural West Virginia. When Eyre finally got his hands on the data it was a Wednesday.

He went into his editor’s office and said, “this is a hell of a story.”

His editor replied, “OK. Can we have it for Sunday?”

This is bitterly funny to any local newspaper reporter, because it’s so damned familiar. You never have time to rest on your laurels: the news never sleeps, the big wheel keeps on turnin’ and editors always want copy for the Sunday paper.

In this case, Eyre managed to get a little more time to write his story, and it worked out pretty well: That work on the opioid crisis in West Virginia won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

Eyre has been at the Charleston Gazette Mail for 18 years, a tenure almost unheard of in newspapers these days. For anyone unaware, the industry has been hard-hit by economic realities. Money for the display advertising that used to sustain newspapers has dwindled or been redirected to other, cheaper media. Poorly-conceived internet strategies have (in part) led to layoffs, buyouts and salary freezes at local papers across the country.

Eyre himself hasn’t had a raise in 10 years. When he entered the opioid story for Pulitzer consideration, he had to double-check the paper would pay the $50 entry fee (they did).

So how, in this atmosphere of uncertainty and chaos and shrinking budgets is it possible to produce a story worthy of journalism’s highest honor? That’s what I wanted to know.

Eyre came to Pittsburgh last week to talk to the local chapter of the Online News Association, of which I’m the group leader. I thought there was no way we’d be able to get him, assuming his schedule would be full of engagements, but figured it was worth a shot and sent him an email.

He replied to my email that he was going to be in town, maybe we could work him into our schedule. Uh, yes, I told him, we would figure something out.

My ONA colleague and friend Mila Sanina, the executive editor of Public Source reached out to Andrew Conte at Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation to see if they’d host. Yes, of course they would. Friday afternoon at 4:30? No problem.

I had almost no expectations for the event, just wanted to hear what it was like to win a Pulitzer and how he had managed to pull off this huge story while still doing a regular night cops shift and covering his beat on a daily basis.

Eyre didn’t seem to think he had a lot of wisdom to impart, but quietly, and without the benefit of his PowerPoint (we had technical difficulties), he talked about how he works. When he has a big story he sets up a Word document with “what I have” and a “what I need” columns. He lamented the creative energy lost when you have to pause work on the big story to write your daily beat story (I can attest to the distraction factor: I’ve been trying to finish this post for five days). And he talked about the strangeness of seeing White House officials visit rural West Virginia, and what it was like to meet Kellyanne Conway.

He also talked about the uncomfortable position of winning an award about a serious problem that has killed many West Virginians. In his reporting, he detailed how the majority of the opioid pills that flooded into the state went not to large pharmacy chains but to small mom-and-pop pharmacies. Had people stopped patronizing these pharmacies as a result of the reporting? No, Eyre said, because for many communities, without the mom-and-pop drugstore, there would be nowhere else to go.

The thing that struck me and a lot of the other journalists in attendance was what a nice, regular guy Eyre is. He’s just a statehouse reporter who came across a really good story, he protests. He’s bemused by the attention he’s received since winning the Pulitzer which started out with national attention and NPR interviews, but has also included appearances to convince local Boy Scouts to say no to drugs.

This is what everyone says when they meet someone famous (or notorious), but it’s true. He and his wife Lori Dubrawka (a native of Coraopolis, north of Pittsburgh) were in town not for a gala event or a high profile appearance, but because their son was in a card tournament. I (stupidly) almost didn’t open the door to let them into the lecture hall where we were holding the event because they came to the wrong entrance and I had no idea who they were.

Eyre admits he’s not all that digitally savvy, and there wasn’t a team of graphic designers or videographers to help him produce the work. Some 68 million people saw the stories on social media, thanks in part to a tweet from fellow 2017 Pulitzer winner David Fahrenthold:

…and partly due to the “Bernie effect:” The stories were shared on two of former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Facebook pages. They were also posted to the Facebook pages of ProPublica and comedian Trae Crowder

The story was also posted to Data is Beautiful 21 separate times. According to the Gazette-Mail stats (thanks Glen Flanagan), the most-commented thread had 1,718 comments — some from West Virginians who the opioid epidemic had personally affected, some from folks in other states who had experienced similar problems, and some from folks debating politics and medicine.

But to me the most interesting parts of the conversation were not so much the stats, but the stories behind the story. The courtroom scenes alone that he described are already primed for a Hollywood movie: The Gazette-Mail’s two pro bono lawyers facing dozens of pharma company lawyers, many of whom were not local. “Then our guy gets up in front of the judge and says [cue West Virginia twang] ‘well these pills are killin’ people,’” Eyre recalled.

(I especially like the drug company attorney who referred to the Gazette Mail’s “intrusive journalistic nose”).

The bottom line is there’s no easy way to write a Pulitzer-winning story and break daily news at the same time. Eyre set aside quiet time every day after his daily duties were met (turning off the cell phone is a must, he says), and just did it.

So if you’re a journalist struggling to figure out what you’re still doing in this relentless and often unforgiving industry, just consider Eric Eyre and his hard work and good journalism (not all of it fun and most of it a slog to work through).

The Gazette-Mail’s late publisher Ned Chilton III used to say that the “hallmark of crusading journalism is sustained outrage.” Sometimes that sustained outrage takes the form of a statehouse reporter from the one of poorest states in the country who just wanted to figure out what the hell was going on.