The Better Government Association, which celebrates its centennial next year, received an early anniversary gift Monday — its first ever Pulitzer Prize.
Former BGA reporter Madison Hopkins and Chicago Tribune reporter Cecilia Reyes won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for “The Failures Before the Fires,” a joint investigation documenting the city’s yearslong failure to enforce building and fire-safety codes. They found that from 2014 to 2019, 42 fires killed 61 Chicagoans in buildings with known fire safety issues. Most of those buildings were in low-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents were Black or Latino.
Hopkins, who is now a reporter for The Kansas City Beacon, told BGA that the award was a “huge honor.” She added that she wanted to express her “deepest gratitude” to the families who shared their stories with her and Reyes.
In an email to the Tribune staff, executive editor Mitch Pugh called the prize “a testament to the focus, grit and commitment to serving the people of Chicago you all possess.”
“Thanks to this work, Chicago now publishes a more accurate list of building code scofflaws. A city ordinance mandates the use of long-lasting smoke detectors despite opposition from the fire department,” Pugh wrote. “Unquestionably, the lives of innumerable Chicagoans are now safer thanks to this dogged journalism.”
The Chicago Tribune is one of the largest daily newspapers in the country — even after losing dozens of staff in the past year since its acquisition by hedge fund Alden Global Capital — and has amassed 28 Pulitzers since the prizes were established in 1917.
BGA, comparatively, maintains a much smaller newsroom of just nine investigative journalists. Despite its nearly 100-year history, BGA is less well-known outside of Chicago where it is based. The nonprofit outlet was founded in 1923 and serves as a watchdog, often partnering with other local news organizations. (BGA is also a partner of PolitiFact, which is owned by Poynter).
Though BGA has never won a Pulitzer or been named a finalist before this year, it came close in 1979, after it published a 25-part investigation into corruption among city officials that it had unearthed via undercover reporting.
In 1977, BGA and the Chicago Sun-Times bought a bar: the Mirage Tavern. They operated the bar for a few months, and during that time, undercover reporters and photographers documented city inspectors seeking bribes and accountants offering to help the tavern commit tax fraud.
Their reporting garnered praise, and there was talk of honoring their work with a Pulitzer. However, two members of the Pulitzer board — then-president of The St. Petersburg (Florida) Times (now The Tampa Bay Times) Eugene Patterson and former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee — criticized their use of undercover reporting. Patterson said the Mirage investigation “had an element of entrapment.”
BGA didn’t win the prize that year. (The Pulitzers didn’t start announcing finalists until 1980). But 40 years later, the outlet finally got a nod from the board.
“There’s a lot left to be done,” BGA president and CEO David Greising said in a press release. As part of their investigation, Hopkins and Reyes outlined nine ways the city could better protect its residents from building fires.
The Pulitzer board named two other finalists in the Local Reporting category. Tony Cook, Johnny Magdaleno and Michelle Pemberton of The Indianapolis Star were recognized for “Red Flagged,” their investigation into Indiana gun laws. The board also honored Lulu Ramadan of The Palm Beach (Florida) Post and Ash Ngu, Maya Miller and Nadia Sussman of ProPublica for their project “Black Snow,” which revealed the dangerous effects Florida’s sugarcane harvest had on air quality.
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