By: Mark Fitzgerald
Brett J. Blackledge, who won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for The Birmingham (Ala.) News Monday, says his win is a victory for general assignment reporters everywhere.
Blackledge’s winning project, a series on nepotism and corruption in Alabama’s community college system, was the “bread-and-butter stuff” of everyday daily newspaper reporting, he said in a phone interview Monday.
“If you look at (the series), it’s still good, but it’s basic daily stuff, and that’s the affirmation to me — that this very regular basic work that so many of us do every day can be honored with an award like this,” Blackledge said.
The Birmingham News win came with a little bit of a twist in the Pulitzer competition. In reporting weeks before Monday’s announcement, E&P Senior Editor Joe Strupp had tipped the News as a finalist in the public service category — something Blackledge said his paper was able to confirm.
That was surprise enough: the newspaper originally entered the project in the local reporting category. “Internally, I sort of argued against going into investigative reporting because you see so many great projects winning that category,” he said.
Instead, the Public Service award went to The Wall Street Journal for its groundbreaking investigation into stock option backdating. “I figured it had to be them in that category,” Blackledge said.
He was surprised as anyone when, as the bullet points of the Prize committee release scrolled along, the series was picked for investigative reporting.
“Who am I to argue with the Pulitzer Prize people? If they want to move me around to any category they want, I’m all right with that,” he said with a laugh.
Blackledge’s investigation, which began back in April of 2005, included far more stories — 50 — than the 10 maximum that the Pulitzer contest allows.
And it is not over, Blackledge says — in fact, now that the newspaper has assembled a huge database on Alabama community college contracts, personnel, accounts receivables and payrolls, it’s likely to get even more interesting.
The Birmingham News series has made things hot for officials of the community colleges — and for legislators.
One of the revelations of the investigation was that the state House majority leader had contracts in two separate campuses. Since the series, the chancellor of the system was fired. Relatives of chancellor and other college officials have lost their job. A federal investigation that, unknown to Blackledge, was looking into one college in the system before the News revelations has now apparently greatly broadened the scope of its probe.
This investigative system grew from some complaint at one obscure part of the sprawling two-year college system. “A number of folks in a small fire college approached me, concerned about some things they had seen,” Blackledge said, “and I used that sort of as an entree into the broader issue.”
Blackledge had wanted for some time to look into the two-year college system, which was created by former Gov. George Wallace, and was always the subject of rumors about corruption and nepotism.
The investigation combined shoe-leather journalism and dozens of interviews with computer-assisted reporting. The paper collected reams of data from campuses and “created a database that for the first time allowed us to look at every check, essentially, written” by the colleges. By analyzing that data, Blackledge found patterns of corruption and favoritism.
Even with this project, though, Blackledge doesn’t think of himself as a classic investigative reporter. “We sort of joke about that title, investigative reporter,” he said. “I came in as a general assignment reporter, helping out with projects, doing a little beat work, doing a little of everything.”
The native of Baton Rouge, La., started in journalism with The Associated Press right after graduating with a journalism degree from Louisiana State University in 1986.
He had a typically peripatetic AP career, serving time in bureaus in New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., and Tulsa.
He was hired by the weeklies then known as The Journal Newspapers in suburban Washington, D.C., and was quickly laid off in the recession. After writing for a D.C. newsletter, he was hired by the Mobile (Ala.) Register in 1993. He joined The Birmingham News in 1998.