November 13, 2014

When it came time to nominate feature photography projects for the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes, editors at The New York Times had four worthy entries but could only submit three for consideration.

That left Josh Haner, a staff photographer at The Times, with one chance to enter the contest: He had to nominate himself.

He did, and eventually won for his photo series chronicling the gradual recovery of a Boston Marathon bombing victim. And Wednesday night, he shared the stage at the Poynter Institute with his editor and three other Pulitzer winners who each discussed the stories behind their award-winning work. Just take a look Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at The Poynter Institute, begins the panel with Tampa Bay Times investigative reporter Michael LaForgia (Kenny Irby — Poynter)[/caption]

Josh Haner, feature photography
Haner began making pictures of Jeff Bauman less than a month after his legs were blown off during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Capturing Bauman’s painful physical therapy and gradual reintroduction into the world required sensitivity, Haner said.

Haner says he built a rapport with Bauman and his family by respecting his personal space as much as possible. He would often stop shooting pictures and withdraw so Bauman could have his privacy. In one case, Haner retreated from Bauman’s room shortly after his girlfriend visited on a particularly painful day. He took a few frames before he left them alone together, one of which ended up in his contest submission.

“You have to know your limits and when not to take a picture — when to let a moment happen in front of you that you’re not taking,” Haner said.

Haner said the project also required him to be more than just a passive observer. Bauman and his girlfriend asked him to open up and talk about himself, which Haner said he was happy to do because it made the project less intrusive.

Haner’s editor, Becky Lebowitz, chose him for the project partially because he is relatively close in age to Bauman and the other Times reporter on the story, she said.

“The reporter is young, and Josh is young, we thought they could get together,” Lebowitz said.

Stephen Henderson, commentary
Stephen Henderson said the biggest challenge of editorial writing in Detroit was wakening the city’s residents to unlivable conditions they’d grown accustomed to over the years.

Henderson said he accomplished this by invoking a series of scenes and images that illustrated how bad the financial decline had become: creditors who pursued the city’s art collection like “buzzards” circling carrion; Belle Isle, a “jewel” of a municipal park, slipping slowly into the river; a boy who died in a house fire because “the city’s depleted ambulance corps could not get to him in time.”

Henderson said he could have chosen from “a hundred” other examples to convince his fellow Detroiters that the city needed to change, he said.

“You want to roll the dice on a heart attack or a stroke in your house under those conditions?” Henderson asked. “What I was trying to say was, ‘this is the bottom. This is unacceptable.’”

Michael LaForgia, local reporting
Sometimes the best stories can come from the most unlikely places, said Michael LaForgia, an investigative reporter with the Tampa Bay Times. In the case of his 2014 prize-winning story, the tipster was a homeless man. He alerted Tampa Bay Times investigative reporter Alexandra Zayas to the existence of a squalid homeless camp that was being subsidized by the county government.

“He called up and said, ‘this is going to sound crazy, but the chairman of the Port Authority is running an illegal trailer park, a slum,’” LaForgia said.

Zayas passed the tip onto LaForgia’s reporting partner, Will Hobson, who “worked the hell out of it” and confirmed what the man said, LaForgia said. They two kept hammering away at the story until a key official agreed to sit down with them. The investigation ultimately led county administrators to make policy changes.

LaForgia has a history of following up on tips that seem farfetched. His 2012 investigation into lack of regulation of child predators in Florida summer camps was prompted by a tip that four other reporters ignored, he said.

“You shouldn’t dismiss anybody as a reporter who gives you a tip,” LaForgia said.

Dave Philipps of The New York Times shares his reporting experience. (Kenny Irby — Poynter)

Dave Philipps of The New York Times shares his reporting experience. (Kenny Irby — Poynter)

David Philipps, national reporting
A couple of big obstacles stood in the way of David Philipps’ prize-winning series that exposed mistreatment of American combat veterans.

First, he was interviewing military members whose recollection was often scrambled by post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. Because of this, they sometimes had differing versions of the events they were describing. Information from these unreliable sources had to be verified independently whenever possible.

“We had to treat those as being suspicious, trying to do as much reporting as we could and rely on documents,” Philipps said.

Philipps’ reporting was also impeded by his outsider status. Veterans, he said, are often reluctant to discuss combat with reporters who have not served in the military because they assume the journalists are hunting for sensational details.

In an effort to gain their trust, Philipps adopted a conversational approach, preferring an easy back-and-forth to a series of intrusive questions, he said.

“I found that if I just had the people tell their stories without asking many questions, that worked really well for me,” Philipps said.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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