After 35 years on the outside looking in, USA Today won its first Pulitzer Prize today. The award for Explanatory Reporting, shared by the Arizona Republic and USA Today Network was for a spectacular multimedia project titled The Wall.
The Cincinnati Enquirer won the Local Reporting prize for stories and video documenting a week of heroin damage in the city. Andie Dominick of The Des Moines Register won in Editorial Writing for pieces on the privatization of Medicaid.
Another USA Today Network series, by Brett Murphy, on the exploitation of truckers, most of them Hispanic immigrants, was a finalist in National Reporting. And Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press was a finalist in Editorial Cartoons.
For the series on the border wall, the network brought rich documentary and digital detail to the impact of President Trump’s proposed border wall. The project included a map of the entire Mexican border with helicopter footage that could be searched by location.
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Nicole Carroll, editor of the Republic at the time, told Poynter in an earlier interview that she regarded the project as explanatory rather than an expose and hoped that readers and viewers would make up their own minds on the contentious immigration issue. She added in a brief phone conversation after the prize was announced, "We were proud that we could bring it to the public. The people need to see the facts and meet the people along the border."
Gannett papers in Texas, New Mexico and California collaborated with the Republic on the reporting, and specialists from USA Today and the Detroit Free Press joined in for some of the video editing.
The teamwork involved was several years in the making. Joanne Lipman, hired in late 2015 as chief content officer, made national investigative projects, mainly data driven, a top priority for the network, which includes USA Today itself and 109 regional papers.
Carroll was named USA Today editor this winter when Lipman resigned to promote a book on women in the workplace.
The data aspect of The Wall included documentation of the impact its proposed construction would have on parcels of private property and an analysis of Texas autopsy records suggesting official estimates of immigrant deaths during border crossings are significantly undercounted.
The formation of the network — including insert sections of USA Today national and sports news in the regional papers — dates back further to an initiative of Gannett CEO Robert Dickey, former USA Today publisher Larry Kramer and former editor Dave Callaway.
USA Today, founded by longtime Gannett CEO Al Neuharth in 1982, was derided in its early days as “McPaper,” a collection of light news and factoids.
Even as USA Today matured, its bigger projects were viewed with some condescension in the Pulitzer judging and other big contests. But the USA Today Network investigations, drawing on a pool of 3,000 journalists around the country, have started to break through.
Gannett and the network have also been early adopters of virtual reality and other video formats. That was an element of both The Wall and the Enquirer’s heroin story.
Carroll said that a full-length documentary version of The Wall debuted at a Detroit film festival recently and is planned for wider distribution.
Maribel Perez Wadsworth, publisher of USA Today and president of the network, said that the historical element of the win had been noted. “We are incredibly delighted and proud of the recognition,” she said in the phone interview. “We are proud to show what we can do…. But the greatest reflection of the quality (of The Wall) has been in its impact.”
Editor's note: Poynter has a training partnership with Gannett.
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Correction: This article was updated to correct the spellings of Brett Murphy and Nicole Carroll's names.