By Jacqueline Fellows
Portraits by Matthew Brown
Whether winning a Pulitzer Prize alone or with a team of reporters, earning a spot among journalism’s most acclaimed writers is a career peak.
Jacqui Banaszynski, J. Lynn Lunsford and Gayle Reaves, all Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, say that what happens after receiving the award varies. The recognition and celebration is typically short-lived because, frankly, there’s work to do. The news does not stop.
When Banaszynski, who won a Pulitzer for feature writing in 1988 for her three-part series, “AIDS in the Heartland,” opened up about the experience of covering a dying AIDS patient in rural Minnesota, Reaves recalled the story instantly. “I still remember the opening scenes of your story. It was just fantastic.”
Reaves was part of The Dallas Morning News team that won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1994. A 14-part series called “Violence Against Women: A Question of Human Rights,” put Reaves in the center of Thailand’s sex trafficking ring.
Documenting tragic events are a common thread among all three journalists. Lunsford, an aviation beat reporter who covered major plane crashes, the Columbia space shuttle crash and the Oklahoma City bombing, used all of his experience on 9/11. His stories helped propel The Wall Street Journal to win the Pulitzer for breaking news coverage in 2002.
Banaszynski, Lunsford and Reaves recounted their prize-winning stories along with what’s missing in journalism today (a lot) and what advice they have for new journalists (go small).
Was winning a Pulitzer Prize
a personal goal?
Reaves: That’s like saying, if you go into baseball, you have to be on the all-star team. You just work the work and do the job, and if it looks like it’s going to happen, that’s cool. But, I don’t know if people think about it.
Banaszynski: It never crossed my mind. I wasn’t working at papers where it would happen. I was working at small shops, but Lynn, you came from a world where that was common.
Lunsford: Frankly, I was always a little disappointed when I came into contact with people who were angling their stories for [a Pulitzer Prize]. To be fair, at some point, when you get onto a really good, solid story, you realize there is the potential for it, but if you start off just saying, ‘Okay here’s what we’re going to do,’ it becomes almost contrived.
Reaves: Someone, who shall remain nameless, said, ‘I think investigative reporters just do it for the prize.’ That is so not true. The work, who you touch and the stories that need to be told are the reason you do it. And once you realize the importance of a project you might think about it, but you do it because it’s what needs to be done.
After you won, were you more self-confident or self-conscious?
Lunsford: You know that you’ve done good work. A lot of times it is circumstance, particularly with The Wall Street Journal. The reason we won is because we did solid work, but we did it on a day when our newsroom was destroyed [on 9/11], and we still managed to reach 90 percent of our subscribers. The 10 percent we didn’t get were the ones whose offices were in the World Trade Center. We had a plan in place, and the management had built a ghost newsroom in South Brunswick, N.J. When we lost the newsroom, all the copy editors and the IT people knew they needed to get to South Brunswick. They went in and turned on all the machines, the copy desk … [and] there it was. The bureaus took over doing what New York would do. The thing that distinguished the story that I was part of was the fact that I had 15 years of experience covering aviation, and I had phone numbers. I was able to reach out and get people nobody else could get. It gave me some self-confidence, but it was more a validation that all the stuff I had been doing all along was the right thing to do. I didn’t cut corners. I was diligent about developing my beat, staying on top of things, being fair, no surprises, ethics and it was, if anything, saying I did it right.
Reaves: At The Dallas Morning News, it was the first time the women in Dallas had ever had anybody write their stories. Our stories were about women and cultures all over the world, but they were stories that women in Dallas cared about. They gave us parties, asked us to come talk over and over again. They really took us into their hearts. That was really special. But in terms of confidence, that was in a period when the Morning News won several [Pulitzer Prizes] in a fairly short time, and they didn’t want anybody getting a big head. So, in the next couple of days, there was some penny-ante story that was beloved by the publisher that nobody else in the world cared about, and I was assigned to do it. So the paper had decided they didn’t want you to feel special, but it didn’t change the fact that it was pretty darn special.
Banaszynski: I think the fact that I had been a finalist and then two years later won was more important than just winning because it was validation. I suffered greatly from imposter’s syndrome as a reporter. The win was the sort of validation that the effort I was putting in, and the way I was doing journalism worked. It had consistent underlying value. But, like Gayle said, we just kept working. I didn’t have a choice. The news goes on. We weren’t in a newsroom where you could sit around and act like it was a big deal. And I didn’t want to.
You each worked on stories
that were difficult: 9/11,
violence against women and
dying from AIDS. How did you insulate yourself from being too personally affected?
Reaves: For the violence against women series, I did two stories. There was a rash of cases of [Dallas] police coercing sex. They’d pick up some woman walking down the street late at night and get her in the car and drive around the corner. The other story was when I went to Thailand for a story about forced prostitution. So many of the people we talked to were young women. Some of them were literally kidnapped into prostitution, some were sold by their families, and some went into it as adults because they had debts. But, we were in Thailand for about three weeks. I wasn’t with the women and girls day in and day out writing their story while they lived it. It would have been a lot harder to have done that.
Lunsford: My day job for many years was covering plane crashes. I happened to be in Laguna Madre down in South Texas whenever we happened upon an airplane in 12 feet of water, and I was with a friend of the pilot. You could see it underwater, two people were floating out of the plane. I saw stuff like that over and over and over. I learned to be an accident investigator. What I told the editors is, ‘Look, I’ll cover this plane crash, but you have to get somebody else to talk to the families.’
Banaszynski: What I tell students and young reporters is that not everybody is cut out to do this work. Having a job to do makes a huge difference. You channel your emotion into the work. If I ever had a moment where I wondered about it, [it was when] I was in Africa covering the famine. There was a health clinic, and there were 300 to 400 people standing in line to see four doctors. This man comes up to me and he holds his baby out to me because I’m white, western, and he assumed I was a doctor or one of the relief workers. He held his baby out to me, and this baby was so sick that its insides were coming out, and he’s asking me to take care of his baby. He’s trying to give me his child. And I had this real kind of crisis, ‘Is the work I do worth it?’ And you realize it is because things change, peoples’ hearts change, laws change and once I sort of got my head around that I didn’t have a huge problem with where I put the emotion.
Lunsford: One of the best moments in my entire career as a journalist was when the vice chairman of a major airline told me that a story I had written had been the strongest evidence he used to persuade their board to spend $15 million to outfit all of their airplanes with a new piece of equipment. And since this particular piece of equipment has been in the commercial fleet, there has not been another accident for that cause in the world.
In journalism today, do you see
reporters giving the time to the same kinds of stories?
Banaszynski: I judged one of the big contests last year. I was very impressed with the quality of work, but what was missing was really good storytelling. The stories were more investigative, issues-based. They didn’t have that intimate kind of human undercurrent. You could tell they were missing really good editors, the master class. I grew up and was groomed by the master class that was a generation older than me. I learned from them. I watched them. They kicked my ass. That master class generation is really almost nonexistent in newsrooms. There’s very few of them because they’re the ones being bought out, pushed out. I think that is a big gap.
Lunsford: At The Wall Street Journal, people I worked with will ask, ‘Do you miss being in the business?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I really liked it whenever we could go do this or go do that.’ More than once, I’ve had the person on the other end of the phone say, ‘Lynn, you’re missing a paper that’s not here anymore.’
Reaves: Who knew we were in the golden age of journalism? We didn’t know it.
Banaszynski: I think people of our era miss being in the business that was. It would take a lot to lure us back into a newsroom.
Lunsford: I deal every day with journalists, and it’s given me a really interesting flip side of what it’s like. I can tell you that when I was an aviation beat reporter, there was a group of us at The Washington Post, New York Times, St. Petersburg Times and Los Angeles Times. They used to call us the seven dwarves. We’d sit on the front row and ask the questions. Those beat reporters aren’t there anymore. I see the general assignment person who has maybe never covered aviation at all. I see a lot more reporters who are looking for a single sound bite and as soon as they have it, they’re out. I will tell you that I have had fatal plane crashes that I never got a single call on.
Are you seeing young journalists have the same fire that you did when you were in college? Where do you tell your students to look for jobs?
Reaves: Yes, I definitely am. I tell them to go look at small papers. At the Morning News, I saw too many young reporters come in and get sent off to cover Podunk city council. It’s far better to start at a little paper. For 14 years, I was editor of Fort Worth Weekly, an alternative paper. Tiny staff, tiny budget, but we had space, and we also had a publisher who let us do what we wanted to do. There were no sacred cows. And I think a lot of that kind of work is getting done at smaller places, including a lot of the alt papers who are now the second paper in town. They’re the court of last resort if the daily paper’s not covering it.
Banaszynski: Absolutely. The small papers are a really good place to start. I mostly have them go somewhere they can find a couple of colleagues or an editor who will work with them. And I increasingly send them to non-legacy publications, like National Geographic, ProPublica. It matters where they start.
Lunsford: The thing I worry about is, I see the kids with the energy. What I don’t see to the same degree are fabulous editors who were in the business forever and who say, ‘Let’s talk about your story. Let’s go spend some time with this.’ Some of the young reporters who I come into contact with are extremely good, and they ask wonderful questions. You read what they wrote, and they just nail it. There are other reporters who think that journalism is ‘Six ways you can make your dog become a vegetarian.’
Are your Pulitzer Prize-winning stories your favorite stories? Or your best stories?
Banaszynski: That’s an interesting distinction. There are stories that have that kind of impact, get a big award, make the difference, and then there are stories you just had a kick-ass time doing. “AIDS in the Heartland” has had such legs. I’m asked to speak about it all the time. Even if I wanted to walk away from it, I couldn’t. And I don’t think I would have wanted to.
Reaves: That’s one of the joys of this business. I was at the Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing. I was working on a story about microlending, when loans of $50 or $100 changed the lives of women. When I was interviewing a group of women from India, we were sitting on the floor because there was nowhere else to be, and people just had to go around us. I’m talking to them through an interpreter, and this one older lady she keeps tapping the interpreter on the arm, she wants to tell me something. So I said, ‘I want to hear what she has to say.’ And she said, ‘None of this would have happened if we hadn’t come out of our houses,’ meaning they went from being somebody totally involved in their family to getting together in a communal group and learning about money. I was like, ‘You can tap on my interpreter’s arm any day.’
Lunsford: One of the most interesting stories I covered was non-aviation. Of all the crazy things I did, the one that almost got me killed was a feature story. I was in the mid-cities bureau, and I was covering aviation, but also anything else, and there was a gang warfare that erupted in Fort Worth and lasted for about a month. You have to go to the funerals, and I noticed, whether it was a crip or a blood, the same funeral director was handling the services. It was a really colorful funeral director, Gregory Spencer, gaudy and ostentatious. The gang members nicknamed him Dr. Death. I went out in Fort Worth over a period of about a week and started taking slices of this story and one night, I was by myself. This gang member pulled a gun on me, put it to my head and was being a tough guy. It was at a car wash and he was showing off, but I figured I was done. He said, ‘I should pop a cap in you right now.’ I said, ‘If you do that, I can’t put your name in the paper so, tell me what you know.’ He was like, ‘Oh, ok!’ The focal point was Gregory Spencer and how he negotiated this line between these warring gang members, but it was a great human story. It took a slice of what was happening in that community and put a different face on it. It was one of the most interesting stories I did.
Banaszynski: I don’t know how reporters get bored. You never have to be bored. There is always something out there to be discovered. It’s a free passport to the wackiest, coolest, most fascinating parts of life.