Eric Eyre barely mentions the moment he won the Pulitzer Prize in his new book.
To be fair, “Death in Mud Lick” mentions the award right there on the cover. Eyre doesn’t bring it up until page 219, and then only in reference to his newspaper, the Gazette-Mail of Charleston, W.V., filing for bankruptcy nine months after he won it.
Instead, Eyre focuses on his reporting about opioid addiction, and that’s why I wanted to talk with him. Despite his newspaper’s struggles to pay its bills and keep its reporters employed, he refused to let anything stop him from doing enterprise reporting.
That lesson should mean something to journalists everywhere in this time of cutbacks and layoffs, and it should have particular resonance here in Pittsburgh.
A similar spirit drove Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalists Peter Smith, Stephanie Strasburg and Shelly Bradbury last year when they produced a series of stories and photographs on child sexual abuse and cover-ups among Amish and Mennonite communities. The Pulitzer committee named it a finalist for the prize in local reporting earlier this month.
[A quick aside here: the Pulitzers name winners — and often one to three finalists in each category. It’s a big deal even to be named a finalist. But if someone ever tells you they have been “nominated” for a Pulitzer, that means almost nothing; anyone can nominate their work for consideration.]
The big moment in Eyre’s reporting comes when he finally gets his hands on a packet of government papers documenting the flow of 780 million prescription pain pills into West Virginia over five years. More than nine million pills went to one pharmacy over two years in the town of Kermit, with just 392 residents.
Before he can even start digging through the data, Eyre has to cover a press conference and file a story for the next day’s newspaper. That theme runs throughout Eyre’s work: He has to steal away time for reporting on his enterprise project while also filing about 250 stories a year. That’s at least a story a day, and often more than that.
“Somebody who worked at The New York Times or The Washington Post that was on an [investigative] team wouldn’t understand that,” Eyre told me when we talked right after the Pulitzers were announced this year.
“That’s always been my problem for the 22 years I worked there: You get this momentum, you make progress and then when you come back from the press conference, you’re not where you were. You’re actually a couple of steps behind. It takes you another couple of days to get caught up.”
Eyre only stumbled onto the opioid beat because he had been covering West Virginia’s state government and noticed that while overdoses were killing people, no reporters were trying to tell the larger story of why so many of the drugs were coming into the state or how people were getting so many prescriptions.
The newspaper let him keep reporting on the topic because he continued to find stories. Journalists call this “feeding the beast,” or keeping editors happy by always having content to fill pages and the internet, especially on the weekends when fewer reporters are working.
Eyre signed up to get monthly overdose reports showing where people were dying, and then he started attending meetings of the obscure West Virginia Board of Pharmacy, arriving early and staying late to meet people. Pretty quickly he realized that the pharmacists on the board weren’t going to call out their buddies across the state who were making millions of dollars by dispensing opioids.
“Nobody wanted to say anything to anybody because it was a financial windfall for everybody, and everybody just kept their mouth shut,” Eyre told me.
Eventually, Eyre discovered that the wife of state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey had worked as a lobbyist for Cardinal Health, a drug wholesaler supplying more prescription painkillers to West Virginia than anyone. Facing reelection and concerned about looking like he was covering up the epidemic, Morrisey handed over the documents tracing the flow of pain pills.
“One of my philosophies has always been — this is not ironclad — that when the pack of journalists goes one way, I try to go the other way,” Eyre told me. “I didn’t get into the business to cover press conferences and to cover press releases. I like a challenge; I like a mystery. I like to try to answer the questions about why people behave the way they behave.”
Eyre said he doesn’t even know where his Pulitzer award is now, tucked away in some drawer. Winning the award helped put more of a spotlight on the opioid epidemic, and he feels proud that the attention shifted the focus away from the addicts and onto the suppliers.
Asked his advice for young journalists, Eyre said he would steer them away from working at a traditional newspaper because the advertising financial model no longer works.
Eyre recently resigned from the Gazette-Mail, but he declined to talk about his next steps. He reveals in the book how he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease while covering the opioid story, and he said tremors make it hard for his right hand to keep up typing with what his mind wants to write.
A former colleague at the newspaper, Ken Ward Jr., an environmental reporter who had won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2018, quit the newspaper too, in February right after the Gazette-Mail fired its executive editor.
Ward has been writing for ProPublica, the national nonprofit news outlet, and he recently helped start Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit newsroom focused on West Virginia. Mountain State Spotlight has hired four Report For America reporters, and it will start producing stories in June.
I would bet that Eyre hasn’t giving up on digging for news stories either.
“The process is sometimes more interesting than the end result,” he told me. “The digging part of it, the going through the records. I actually enjoy that, finding connections, finding clues. It’s almost like solving mysteries.”
Even as reporters face uncertain times, especially now during the coronavirus pandemic, I hope that many of them will keep that spirit alive in their own work.
Any journalist can quickly turn press releases into short stories to “feed the beast” and chase internet clicks. The enterprising ones are asking difficult questions, going to obscure government meetings and digging for the stories everyone else has missed.
Too often, we think it has to be one way or the other. I was fortunate to work as an investigative reporter for several years when I could take weeks or months on a story, but before that I covered many ordinary beats and always tried to look for the larger stories while sitting through boring meetings.
If local journalism not only survives but continues to play a vital role in our communities, reporters have to cover the stories they must to make the economic model work — and they also have to pursue the enterprise stories that uncover corruption and hold powerful people accountable. The job demands both.
Comings & Goings
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Newsroom employees have been told that they will be presented with a buyout proposal on Monday, May 18, with the company offering one week of severance pay for each week of service up to 16 weeks, Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, told me. The deal includes three months of healthcare.
Employees will have until July 3 to accept the offer, and then another week to change their minds, he added. Union leaders met with the company’s human resources directors to go over the terms, and then they informed their 139 members.
“In the middle of a pandemic, I’m not sure what people will do,” Fuoco said. “I’m sure some people will take it, but I don’t know how many.”
Fuoco said the company is looking for 24 people to take the buyout, and management declined to say whether layoffs could follow if the target isn’t reached. The union’s contract mandates that people with the least amount of time must be let go first. The soonest a layoff decision could occur is August.
The newspaper has not laid off newsroom employees in recent memory but it has offered multiple rounds of buyouts. At a recent peak of about 15 years ago, the Guild had more than 300 members, Fuoco said.
Reached by phone, Tracey DeAngelo, the newspaper’s vice president and general manager, said she could not immediately provide a comment.
Pittsburgh Current: Editor Charlie Deitch says the publication might not be around next week if it cannot pay its bills. A $5,000 Facebook Journalism Project grant helped the biweekly newspaper stave off the end for a little while, but with most of that money gone, Deitch wrote that he does not know how much longer it can keep going.
“We are at the point where forward momentum is impossible to gain,” he told readers this week. “We, like a lot of businesses, are running out of time, running out of money and running out of options.”
Associate Publisher Bethany Ruhe told me the newspaper faces the same challenges as any other business that relies on advertising for revenue. When the crisis first happened, she and Deitch decided to stop printing a newspaper temporarily because it costs so much and fewer people are going out to pick it up.
“We rely on theaters, bars and restaurants, and those are the very things that are not only just not open right now but that also don’t know when they will reopen,” Ruhe said.
Many local publications are looking for financial support, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ones like Pittsburgh Current do not have a corporate parent to help cover expenses, and as private businesses, they cannot qualify for many foundation grants.
Paradoxically, many news sites are seeing record traffic to their websites. If you value local journalism (and if you have made it this far in the column, you do), please support the people doing the work with a subscription or donation.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.