New project looks at the biggest stories from the smallest newspapers

Every year, Nigel Jaquiss gets calls from college students who want to talk to him about his Pulitzer Prize for their class projects.

It's been more than a decade since he won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting, but he likes that people are still interested.

So when University of Missouri senior Kelsi Anderson called, Jaquiss shared the story of his reporting with her, like he always does. But Anderson went much deeper.

They spoke for an hour and a half. She had detailed, tough questions. She was diligent with fact checks. She produced a podcast. She wrote a Q&A. And she spent time on something many students often gloss over — the impact of Jaquiss' work on the community.

Anderson's work is part of a larger project that launched Tuesday by a class of senior journalism students at Mizzou. "No Small Pulitzer" looks into 17 Pulitzer wins by newspapers with a circulation of 100,000 or less in the last 25 years. The students spent the semester on the project, and some of what they found surprised them, including:

– The digital revolution hasn't changed all that much about really good journalism.

– Pulitzer winners are pretty normal folks.

– You can do big things at small places.

Digital hasn't changed everything

Jacqui Banaszynski, a professor, Pulitzer-winner and a Poynter editing fellow, knows her students are entering a different era of journalism, and she wants them to see the possibilities in front of them, as well as the challenges.

So at the start of class, she split her 11 students into groups and offered them three ideas for a class project: reporting hidden stories, the press and presidential politics, and, in time for the Pulitzer Prizes' 100th year, what journalists can learn from past winners.

The class picked the Pulitzer theme, then they got more specific. They decided to stay within the digital age, so they went back as far as 1991. And they looked into the work of smaller newsrooms, limiting winners to circulation of 100,000 or less at the time of the win.

They started with a spreadsheet, said student and project leader Anne Marie Hankins, and went through every winner of every year to find their sources. Everyone signed up to interview winners, and each member took on a role in shaping the project as a whole, from design to storytelling to social promotion.

But one of the big lessons they learned is also one of the oldest.

"After talking to these people, I think a lot of us realized a lot of the principles and processes that make up great work remain exactly the same as before the internet came about," Hankins said.

"Good journalism has been good journalism and it will be good journalism," Anderson agreed. "That idea hasn't changed, but the way that we get that to the community has changed."

In 2004, while Jaquiss was working on an investigation into a former governor's sexual abuse of a minor, he learned that the person he was investigating was going to the Oregonian to confess. This happened on a Thursday, but Willamette Week only publishes on Wednesdays. For the first time, Willamette Week decided to publish breaking news online.

The internet helped Willamette Week break the story he'd been working on, and he was the first investigative reporting winner to win for a story first published online.

The digital era has also helped smaller places get bigger audiences, said student Thomas Friestad. Stories that resonate within a specific community, such as The Colorado Springs Gazette's coverage of veterans, also resonate in other communities.

"Regardless of the fact that we're very much into the digital age of journalism, if you really dig down deep and look at any project, the process and the skills, really everything, you dig down to it, it's all the same," said student Jacob Scholl.

Small market, big impact

Another lesson the class learned, Banaszynski said, "masthead is not destiny."

"This kind of work still makes a difference, and it probably makes a more tangible difference in smaller communities," she said. "I really wanted them to see that the work that you do is essential to these communities, but you need to honor the story that you find where you find it."

Friestad, who hopes to move back home to the Washington, D.C. area and cover politics, got that message. Now, he said, he'll be much more willing to accept a job at a smaller publication.

Sean Roberts already knew the value of a local paper. She's from Liberty, Missouri, and while no one at the Liberty Tribune has won a Pulitzer yet, she grew up delivering the newspaper and seeing what it meant to the community.

For her, the project was a lesson in what a small group of people can do together when they're excited about the same thing. They learn from each other. They bring out each other's strengths. That, she said, will benefit all of them as they move into their careers, most likely in smaller publications.

And that work, Hankins said, matters, too, in the communities where it's done. It's valuable to have journalists who live and work there. The work of winners from "No Small Pulitzer" benefits journalism as an industry, too, she said.

"In the wake of such a tumultuous year and a half when the press has become a huge target for people that are unhappy with some of the ways that things are going, I think it's important to remind people of that aspect of journalism."

The surprisingly normal lives of Pulitzer winners

Even though they had a Pulitzer-winner guiding the project, many of the students still felt intimidated about calling winners.

"You think, 'I've got to call this Pulitzer-winner and interview them,'" Anderson said. "Are they gonna think I'm an idiot because I'm a beginning reporter?"

They did not.

The students found that the sources for their project didn't have meetings to plot out Pulitzer projects. They were too busy covering their communities.

"Nobody sets out to win Pulitzers, nobody's like, I'm gonna win a Pulitzer," said student Vera Tan. "Maybe people do at the bigger papers, but in these smaller papers where their main purpose is to inform their local community, all they're doing is just their jobs. They're just wanting to write the stories that need to be told."

Tan helped build the site and, like many in the class, said learning to work as a team was a big takeaway. Many of the students also shared the lessons their subjects shared with them.

Tan spoke with Eli Sanders, a 2012 feature writing winner. He shared something she hasn't heard enough.

"He said he thinks that this culture of social media and instant opining creates the perception that journalists need to have a fully formed opinion about everything at any time," she said.

But we don't have the answers and we shouldn't pretend to, Tan was reminded.

"That's why we're journalists."

Scholl collected the little "aha" moments the students shared throughout the semester in a Storify.

They also spoke about them in class with Banaszynski. This semester, she watched her class learn that Pulitzer-winning journalists are real people who get up and get to work every day.

"They're not riding some winged beast that's labeled 'Pulitzer' and riding around the universe drinking Black Label."

Good news in bad times

One thing really struck Anderson about her hour and a half talk with Jaquiss.

He told her that in 2004, before he wrote his investigation, he felt like he was in a rut at Willamette Week. He had all but decided to leave.

"He worried that he was doing good work but being at a small paper meant it wouldn't be able to have as big of an effect," Anderson said.

Then, his reporting uncovered sexual abuse by the former governor, and his work sent the state into a frenzy. Doing that work changed his mind about where he was.

Today, he's still there.

Journalism students are facing a vastly different landscape than they did even in 2004, when Jaquiss wrote his Pulitzer-winning story. There are less journalists, less jobs.

But there's still a big country full of stories in small- and medium-sized cities, he said. Technology means that the work of those small places can reach much farther and live much longer. And the way that Anderson and her classmates have learned to tell stories, not just through words and images but social media, audio and digital, makes that work more accessible to more people.

"I think it's really helpful for them to understand that you can have an impact at a small publication, that you can produce journalism that makes a difference without having big-city resources," he said. "I think that's a really powerful lesson because it's a pretty dismal time."

The MU class that produced "No Small Pulitzer." (Photo via Jacqui Banaszynski)
The MU class that produced "No Small Pulitzer." (Photo via Jacqui Banaszynski)

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