To say it was a big day in Seattle journalism would be an understatement. Monday was a huge day, with the announcement that The Stranger


Seattle Times' Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong and The Stranger's Eli Sanders Win Pulitzers

To say it was a big day in Seattle journalism would be an understatement. Monday was a huge day, with the announcement that The Stranger's Eli Sanders had taken home a Pulitzer in feature writing for his piece, "The Bravest Woman in Seattle," and the Seattle Times' Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong were awarded a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for their three-part series "Methadone and the Politics of Pain."

The series by Berens and Armstrong delved into the increased prescription of methadone and the subsequent increase in methadone-related deaths in Washington, and the way patients with state-subsidized insurance (predominantly low-income) were steered toward the dangerous and unpredictable drug in an effort to cut costs. Sanders' piece detailed the brutal 2009 attack of Jennifer Hopper and her partner, Teresa Butz, in the couple's South Park home, using Hopper's powerful courtroom testimony to drive the narrative.

The Pulitzer awarded to Berens and Armstrong marked Seattle Times' ninth, meaning they'll have to change the masthead. Sanders' honor was the first Pulitzer for The Stranger.

Eli Sanders
The award bestowed upon Sanders' effort is especially noteworthy - an example of long-form narrative journalism from an alternative newsweekly that the Pulitzer judges have too infrequently recognized. Butz was murdered during the attack, and as the Pulitzer judges noted when announcing the honor, Sanders used Hopper's "brave courtroom testimony and the details of the crime to construct a moving narrative."

Calling it "moving" is putting it lightly.

Sanders is the first alt-weekly writer to win a Pulitzer since the L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold took one home in 2007. Sanders did not return calls and emails from Seattle Weekly seeking comment. He did speak with Seattle Times.

For The Times' series on methadone, the paper utilized a slew of impressive web-based bells and whistles to help illustrate the striking results of the research Armstrong and Berens conducted - something Armstrong says Pulitzer judges take into consideration, and indicative of the way journalism has evolved over the course of recent history. Berens and Armstrong - who've both enjoyed lengthy careers in journalism, with The Times and elsewhere - say the series took them more than ten months to complete.

"The amount of work that went into it was kind of attributable to the fact that we did so much online that was rather ambitious," says Armstrong, referring to the interactive graphics, maps plotting deaths, income breakdowns and geographic displays that helped flesh out the story online. Armstrong says at least 15 people contributed to the effort.

"It would almost feel like a missed opportunity if you didn't do some of that stuff," Armstrong says of the online aspects of the methadone series, "when you consider how so many more people read it online than they do in the paper."

Ken Armstrong.jpg
Michael J. Berens
Berens and Armstrong say the weight of their now Pulitzer-winning story hit them when they realized how disproportionately the problem was impacting the poor and low-income. More than anything, Berens says the story was able to touch the chord it did with readers because they can relate to it emotionally.

"We found that there were a substantial number of impoverished patients who weren't given a choice about what drug to take, were told what drug to take, and when they did exactly as they were told they died from risks they weren't told about," says Berens. "On a fundamental level, I think that's what resonates with people."

Michael Berens.jpg
Ken Armstrong
"We all identify with being hoodwinked, or not being told the whole story," he continues. "Here, we do an investigative project about thousands of people who didn't have a choice, weren't warned about the risks, and paid the most tragic of prices with their life."

"Stories about painkillers are not uncommon, and stories about painkillers linked to fatal overdoses. But when we saw that the toll in Washington was so dominantly among the poor, I think that's when we realized that this was a different type of story," says Armstrong.

While the story has led to dialogue and statewide health warnings, both Armstrong and Berens seem most touched by the personal impact their work has had on real-live people, as illustrated by emails they say they've received from readers thanking them for potentially saving the life of a friend or loved one.

"Those kinds of things mean an awful lot," says Armstrong of the personal messages he's received since publishing the story. "You don't get a whole lot of messages like that. But when you do, and it's so personal, and so genuine, it means an awful lot."

Perhaps coolest of all, Berens says he and Armstrong have donated their award money - $10,000 - to The Times, asking editors to earmark it for investigative reporting training.

Follow the Daily Weekly on Facebook & Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus