‘Lawless,’ an expose of villages without police protection, wins Anchorage Daily News its third Public Service Pulitzer

The Daily News won the top honor in the 2020 Prizes, taking the Public Service award for a series on the lack of law enforcement in remote Alaska.

May 4, 2020

The Anchorage Daily News won the top honor in the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes competition Monday, taking the Public Service award for a series on sexual violence and lack of law enforcement in Alaska’s remote indigenous villages.

The yearlong reporting effort prompted a declaration of a federal public safety emergency by the Justice Department and $10.5 million for training and mobile holding cells and pledged $52 million altogether. A special legislative study commission on how to fix flaws in the Village Public Safety Officer Program, a parallel agency to the state police, has also been formed.

The first of the stories found that a third of the villages have no police protection, and many of those that do work with inadequate resources. The lead example cited an officer investigating a rape, who had only three hours of law enforcement training and no backup, save for state troopers a half-hour plane ride away.

The series was done in conjunction with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, also named in the Pulitzer citation, which now supports on-site reporters at 23 outlets.

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This was the third public service win for the Daily News. It was honored for a series on alcoholism and suicide among native peoples in 1989 and another for reporting on the influence of the Teamsters Union on Alaskan politics and the state’s economy in 1976.

Editor David Hulen was a writer on the 1989 Pulitzer series and covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill that year. Lead reporter and special projects editor Kyle Hopkins grew up in Alaska in a remote village. He has been at the Daily News since the mid-2000s.

The Daily News, like many regional papers, has struggled financially in recent years. It had a near-death ownership experience in 2017. A wealthy woman, Alice Rogoff, had bought the Daily News in 2014 for $34 million from long-time owner, the McClatchy chain. She then racked up big operating losses, and the paper filed for bankruptcy protection.

At an auction, four siblings in the Binkley family, who ran a successful riverboat tours business, were the only bidders. They had loaned $1 million to keep the paper afloat, so their $1 million bid, in effect, meant that the sale price was zero.

The paper has a newsroom staff of fewer than 30 and paid print circulation of about 25,000.

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The Daily News finished ahead of two other finalist entries, one from the Washington Post unearthing a database on the opioid crisis, and another by The New York Times documenting the Trump administration’s political war on science.

It has not been unusual for regional papers to beat out the big national organizations and be honored in the category. In the last seven years, the South Florida Sun Sentinel won twice, most recently in 2019 for exposes related to the Parkland school shooting. The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, won in 2015.

In a reader’s note on the series, Hopkins said that his interest was provoked covering the 2018 disappearance of a 10-year-old girl, whose body had later been found in a tundra with evidence of sexual assault.

He gathered other information on unprosecuted rapes, reported and not reported. And he discovered that to complete the forensics needed to eventually make a case, victims often were told not to shower and flown hundreds of miles to a center that could do the tests.

Hopkins’ focus remained on sexual violence, but he also broadened the scope to document how many villages had no police protection, the hiring of officers with criminal records and other shortcomings of the Village Public Safety Officer Program.

The seed for the series was planned even a decade earlier, Hopkins told me in a phone interview. “I was in one of the villages that no longer even had a police officer and was shown a filthy, ramshackle jail. I thought if people could see this they would just be horrified … That stayed with me.”

When the Daily News hit hard times financially, Hopkins switched to a TV job, “and I thought about getting out of the business. I had two young children and staying in didn’t seem prudent.”

He returned after the Binkley family took ownership to work on special projects “but I figured I would need to find my own funding.” That came through with ProPublica. The nonprofit paid his salary in 2019 (and renewed for 2020). But beyond that, Hopkins said, “they had data expertise we didn’t and also provided great editing help.”

Tracking responses to the Daily News series continues this year. “We have 12 of 15 topics on our original list to do,” Hopkins told me, some partly completed. But as the coronavirus crisis has intervened, much of the paper’s focus and his own work have shifted to those stories.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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