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.”