April 10, 2017

Eric Eyre was not standing hopefully with coworkers in the newsroom, bottle of grocery store champagne ready, when news broke that he won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

He was barely even in the building.

Eyre, a government reporter with the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail, was standing in a hallway by the exit, getting ready to head back to the capitol building. After failing to win any awards at Investigative Reporters and Editors’ annual contest last week for his investigation into West Virginia’s opioid crisis, Eyre just figured there was no chance.

When his phone rang a few minutes after 3 p.m., it was Andrew Brown, a former co-worker. Eyre thought, well, maybe they were finalists.

“He said, ‘no, you actually won,'” Eyre said. “And I was like, ‘no shit.’ It still hasn’t sunk in.”

Eyre is technically the Gazette-Mail’s first Pulitzer winner. The Charleston Gazette, where he’s worked for 18 years, merged with the Charleston Daily Mail in 2015. The Daily Mail won its only Pulitzer Prize, for editorial writing, in 1975.

When Eyre first came to the Gazette, it was a paper full of seasoned investigative reporters. He figured he’d stick around for a year or two.

But he stayed. Despite the awards his work has won, Eyre isn’t a projects reporter and can’t take months off his beat for enterprise work. Eyre is a statehouse reporter. He estimates he writes more than 250 stories per year and still covers a monthly night cops shift. (His colleagues in the newsroom of about 40 write more and cover those night cops shifts weekly, he noted.)

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Eyre’s work is underpinned by the basics of reporting — he’s built relationships with his sources over time and tries to become an expert on specific subjects while filing daily stories. Those sources and his knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry all came together for his winning work, but it took about three years of regular reporting.

He also thinks about what he needs to report daily and what he can hold back for bigger stories.

“I don’t have two notebooks, but in the old days, they used to say you have two notebooks, one in the back pocket and one you were holding,” Eyre said.

Once he knew he had enough information for the project, Eyre put his editors off for a week to make time to write his two-part series.

His year or two with the paper has turned into nearly two decades. But The Gazette-Mail, like a lot of small, local newspapers, has a tough time keeping young journalists. Reporters who eventually leave the paper often use him as a job reference.

But his advice to them is to stick around, just for awhile. It takes about a year to find the bigger stories. It’s hard to drop in and out and have much of an impact.

“You have to pay your dues,” he said.

That doesn’t mean journalists should stay someplace they’re not comfortable, he said. Everyone deserves to move on to bigger and better things. The Gazette-Mail is trying to fight attrition in part by pairing new reporters with the veterans.

Now, one of those vets is a Pulitzer winner.

And he did get a glass of champagne. Eventually.

“We had to send someone out to Kroger’s and they brought back two bottles of Korbel,” Eyre said. “We were unprepared. I had no speech written or anything. I just flubbed through that.”

Related Training: Introduction to Investigative Reporting

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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