According to Marjorie Miller, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, the 2023 Pulitzer Prizes seem to indicate that local journalism is finding its footing in a rapidly changing landscape.
“Local journalism spread its wings after the pandemic,” she said.
Four of the 16 prizes in journalism were awarded to local news outlets. Miller said local media outlets seem to be focusing their resources on stories their audiences cannot get elsewhere instead of attempting to replicate stories from national news outlets and wire services.
“They are using their limited resources to do what no one else is doing, and that stands out,” she said.
Among the winners was Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today “for reporting that revealed how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre,” the committee wrote.
Wolfe said the story began for her in 2017 when she requested records from the Mississippi Department of Human Services to find out how they were spending federal dollars. She knew then that the state only approved about 2% of applicants seeking cash welfare assistance. That statistic prompted her to dig deeper.
“We looked at the federal data, and we saw that really just a very small fraction of the overall program had anything to do with providing cash assistance to families in poverty. ... The rest was being spent to plug budget holes in other areas of government or to basically provide funding to any number of grantees that the leadership favored. And they just were not really reporting any kind of outcomes to the state agency to justify the money that they were getting and to substantiate whether what they were doing was actually moving the needle on poverty,” she said.
She started the project while working for The Clarion-Ledger. She was hired at Mississippi Today in 2018 after pitching a proposition to cover a beat on poverty with an investigative angle.
She published stories on the secrecy within the program in 2018 and 2019, and an audit began that led to the arrests of six people accused of embezzling $4 million.
“That really started the efforts of myself and many reporters in trying to get to the bottom of exactly where all this money went, who was responsible for the misspending and just what happened here because the indictments were tailored to a very narrow part of this overall scandal. We would find out that it totaled at least $77 million that was just completely frittered away here and not used actually to uplift families in poverty,” she said.
She said the importance of examining the role of then-Gov. Phil Bryant in the misspending was immediately apparent because his office directly oversees the State Department of Human Services.
“There’s no effective oversight of that agency besides the governor’s office. The governor appoints the director. The governor is the director’s boss. The governor can essentially tell the agency how to run its programs. And from all of our sourcing — people who’ve worked in the department before — the idea was that this just could not have happened without the governor’s knowledge and, more likely, his blessing,” she said.
Wolfe said a source shared text messages that “broke that side of the story wide open.” National media outlets latched onto the story after a text was revealed from Favre asking if there was any way the media could find out where the money came from.
“I attribute all of that national attention to that one text … because you’re almost taunting the media at that point. So, of course, the media will want to jump on reporting that,” she said.
Wolfe said she was confident that Mississippi Today’s nonprofit, digital-only business model and its editors’ focus would allow her to produce impactful journalism.
“It’s an online publication. There’s no beast to feed with the daily newspaper. So that helps because there's less emphasis on just churning out copy for copy’s sake,” she said.
Wolfe said she hopes journalists continue to see the potential of careers within local journalism.
“You can have your dream job in local news. You don’t have to strive to end up at some big national paper in order to feel like you have a good career where you're making an impact. I feel like I have the dream job in this industry,” Wolfe said.
Miller spearheaded an initiative to emphasize the importance of local news and highlight its achievements with events called “On the Road.”
“The purpose of these … is to show the value of local news and why it’s so important and why these are stories that won't be told if local media aren’t there to tell them, and also to show how this reporting is done,” she said. “It’s deep reporting … and the role of this reporting in democracy and pressuring local governments in getting laws passed and changed and getting agencies to crack down on violations.”
The first event was held in March in Madison, Wisconsin, with 2022 Investigative Reporting winner Corey G. Johnson and 2010 Local Reporting winner Raquel Rutledge. They led discussions on health and safety protections for U.S. workers, which were topics of their reporting.
Miller said about 125 people attended the event in person, and about 400 attended online. She plans to hold three or four “On the Road” events yearly and draw attendees who may be skeptical of the media and are not deep consumers.
She said the board was encouraged by the quality of work despite the industry’s challenges.
“I think the board felt really good about the finalists that they had to work with and the quality of the material, even though all year long, we are constantly battered by layoffs and newsroom cuts and … the whole fight over truth and facts and the legitimacy of mainstream reporting,” Miller said. “I think that they felt like there was a lot of really great work that was recognized, and I think it made the board feel good about the future of journalism.”
Alyssa Choiniere is an Editor & Publisher contributor and a freelance journalist based in southwestern Pennsylvania. She previously worked as a local newspaper reporter for 10 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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