National Reporting Pulitzer Goes to Richtel, Other ‘N.Y. Times’ Staffers for Covering Distracted Driving Dangers

By: Jim Rosenberg

Jumping on a story on everyone’s mind, then staying with it through print and multimedia, The New York Times’ Matt Richtel and other staffers were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for coverage of the dangers of using cell phones and other portable devices while driving.

Credited by the Pulitzer board with “stimulating widespread efforts to curb distracted driving,” Richtel has stayed on the story into this spring, as those efforts to end the behavior continue, with the U.S. Department of Transportation funding two pilot enforcement projects this month.

Richtel wrote a half-dozen longer pieces and a couple with others, some making substantial contributions and some coming from overseas. “Eight other reporters got involved at various levels,” he recalls.

“This was not so much a series as an enterprise,” Richtel remarked upon returning to California after a couple of days at Times headquarters in New York. The “enterprise” joined long-form journalism with Web reporting, video, blogging and every sort of multimedia feature. “We had conference calls with probably a dozen people three or four times to set up the multimedia packages,” he recalled.

But while “this was not some exercise in old-school journalism,” Richtel said, “we understand it’s not just about other media; it’s about attention span. We thought through all these stories and said, ‘we’ve got to keep people’s attention.”

Richtel thought his reporting might end with the first, main story, but he said a “disconnect” soon became clear between what people know and how they behave. “We got the reaction that you fantasize about” as a young journalist, he said. So more stories were proposed and approved, “and the reaction was nuts.”

But it was more than giving voice to the issue “because we did a good job,” said Richtel, emphasizing that the writers had picked at something just below the surface and allowed it erupt. If journalists need to stay ahead of the curve, then they may achieve the biggest effect by staying “only two inches ahead of the curve,” he saids.

“We just kept on asking good dumb questions,” he added. “There was a lot of running room” afforded for the series. At the same time, Richtel acknowledged that much of what moved the work was the result of others’ terrible misfortunes.

Still, to the extent that readers and authorities have reacted, “it is deeply gratifying to me when we can think about the implications,” he said. “What else is journalism, if not that?”

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