New York Daily News reporter on Pulitzer work: 'We forced them to account for what the city had done.'

For its top 2017 journalism award — the Public Service gold medal — the Pulitzer Prizes reached beyond several entries growing out of the presidential election campaign. Rather, it honored a gritty New York Daily News and ProPublica collaboration that identified and corrected abusive practices by New York City’s police department.

The project’s lead reporter, Sarah L. Ryley, an 11-year veteran of the Daily News and other New York papers, interrupted a night of celebrating to tell Poynter by phone that more than the Pulitzer, “the validation of our work was that we got 13 laws passed.” The laws, aimed at so-called “nuisance abatement” legal activity by the NYPD, helped keep mostly poor and minority citizens from being evicted from their homes and businesses.

“I was totally surprised and thrilled that it was recognized in this way,” Ryley said of the Pulitzer for the Daily News and New York-based ProPublica, whose work had largely been passed over by other journalism competitions. She credited the impact of the project, getting public attention and helping win corrective legislation with leading to the Pulitzer honor.

“It did have an incredible reaction from readers,” she said, “but also from elected officials. I want to sing the praises of metro dailies, which have such an impact with the mayor and city council. We forced them to account for what the city had done.”

A statement from ProPublica president Richard Tofel called the stories on which it collaborated “strong examples of ProPublica’s mission: to expose abuses of power and spur change.” He noted that after the initial investigation was published “the New York City Council began working to reform these practices and the NYPD drastically diminished their use of the [nuisance-abatement] orders.”

In particular, Tofel credited ProPublica editor Eric Umansky for his work with Ryley and others at the Daily News.

Related Training: How to Do Award-Winning Journalism: Lessons From Pulitzer Winners

The seven-member Pulitzer Public Service jury met in late February and forwarded the Daily News-ProPublica entry as one of three top choices, along with two other regional investigations by big-city papers. Working with the jury nominations, the Pulitzer board named The Chicago Tribune a finalist for its stories exposing dangerous pharmacy practices in ignoring harmful drug interaction, with the Houston Chronicle being named for its revelations of unfair cost cutting aimed at special-education students.

“We expected to see more entries that had to do with the national election,” said juror Howard Saltz, editor of the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He said that at least two entries had concerned candidate Donald Trump, with others dealing with election fraud. And at least one Trump-related entry was forwarded to the Pulitzer board among the additional recommendations, beyond the top three voted by the jury, Saltz said. But the jury agreed on the Tribune, Chronicle and Daily News-ProPublica entries—especially noting the powerful impact the three had had in their communities and the combination of impressive reporting and presentation skills they displayed.

Some jurors were surprised, Saltz said, that campaign-related stories by Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold weren’t included among the work reviewed in Public Service. Fahrenthold was awarded the Pulitzer in the National Reporting category yesterday. The Pulitzer citation said the reporter’s Post coverage “created a model for transparent journalism in political campaign coverage while casting doubt on Donald Trump’s assertions of generosity toward charities."

Emory University professor and author Hank Klibanoff — a fellow Public Service juror who himself was a 2007 Pulitzer winner for History — said in a telephone interview "it would be wrong" to assume that having three regional stories nominated in their category meant that Public Service journalism at a national level was lacking.

“It was a phenomenal year for public service journalism of all kinds,” he said.

In an email this morning, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said to Poynter that Fahrenthold's work “didn’t seem to fit well in the public service category based on what has won there in the past.” Besides National Reporting, the Fahrenthold stories also were entered in the investigative category, Baron said.

Ryley said in the interview that she “had been working on the story at the Daily News since early 2014, doubling that story with other responsibilities,” including for a time as special projects editor. The Daily News is “a typical daily newspaper that’s stretched thin for resources. I was getting away whenever I could.”

As she grounded herself in the peculiarities of the nuisance-abatement activity the police were using in legal cases against citizens, one issue she faced was developing databases for the Daily News to use. Cooperation from the NYPD was minimal. That led her to plan coffee with ProPublica editor Umansky in the spring of 2015.

“We had been talking about the potential of some partnerships, and when I told him about this story he was very interested,” she said.

Working with ProPublica “was amazing; their editors are fantastic,” she added. “They provided resources that helped bring the project to the next level.”

Because Ryley doesn’t speak Spanish, ProPublica also helped her with contacting Latino victims of the legal measures the NYPD was employing. Among other Daily News staffers she cited for working on the project was editor Robert Moore. In placing as a finalist last week in the Investigative Reporters and Editors competition, other contributors cited were Barry Paddock, Christine Lee, Pia Dangelmayer, Andrea Hilbert and Sarah Smith.

There was no particular “aha!” moment in her reporting, she said.

“There were a million different moments, where things kept getting more egregious.”

But she does recall being particularly shocked when she saw attorneys for the NYPD “pulling people into the hallway and giving them advice,” when the people being evicted didn’t have legal representation of their own.

Ryley noted that “there was a time when we could have taken on this project ourselves” at the Daily News. But financial and other pressures have taken their toll. “I’m really happy the Daily News was recognized. It’s so often unheralded, but it does so much public service work. To be at a New York City tabloid is one of the things I’ve cherished."

She’s proudest that in the face of NYPD injustice, “we kept on them, with stories, editorials and letters,” and won regulatory change. She added, “This is a really important time to talk about this. The Daily News is fighting for its life; I went in today to a sea of empty desks.”

Her own desk is now empty, too. It was announced before the Pulitzers that as she has just begun a new job as investigative reporter for The Trace, a nonprofit news organization focusing on gun violence.

She began there on the day of the Pulitzer win.

  • Roy J. Harris Jr.

    Roy Harris is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor who has also edited and written for online news sites and magazines.

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