NU Declassified: Path to the Pulitzer

Megan Munce, Assistant Campus Editor

Evan Hill and Brian Rosenthal have a lot in common: They both graduated from Medill, were editors at The Daily Northwestern, are now New York Times investigative journalists — and recently won the highest honor in journalism: a Pulitzer Prize.

MEGAN MUNCE: Last week two more awards joined the long list of Pulitzer Prizes won by Medill alumni. This week, I interviewed the two winners together over Zoom.

MEGAN MUNCE: Did you two know each other before this?

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: There is a (Northwestern alumni) Slack channel. Are you in the Slack channel Evan?

EVAN HILL: I am not in the Slack channel, no, I should be in the Slack.

MEGAN MUNCE: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Megan Munce. This is NU Declassified, a podcast that looks into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. That was Brian Rosenthal and Evan Hill. Along with being Medill alumni and former Daily editors, they both now do investigative reporting for the New York Times. Brian won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting with a story about predatory loans in New York City’s taxi industry. But that actually started as a profile of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal attorney.

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: I learned about the taxi industry. One person took his work for President Trump, one person took his family, one person took his legal career, and I was assigned kind of the last piece, which was to look at the fact that he had invested in 30 New York City taxi medallions. There was this conventional wisdom about how the value of a medallion had gone down from over a million dollars down to $200,000. I’m not an economist, but I’ve ridden in taxis before. The driver is almost always an immigrant, they’re miserable, they’re working 80 hours a week, they’re not paid very much. Why would you pay a million dollars for any job, but why would you pay a million dollars for that job? That was the question that kind of sent me off.

MEGAN MUNCE: Evan’s investigations are housed within the Visual Investigations team. They were awarded the Pulitzer in International Reporting after their story revealed the Russian military had been deliberately bombing Syrian hospitals.

EVAN HILL: The first time that we heard a Russian pilot on the audio give the coordinates of a hospital that he had bombed, my colleague on this project, Christiaan Triebert, I kind of put my arm around him and as a joke I said, “It’s a Pulitzer, baby, we got a Pulitzer.” And then after that, of course, we never mentioned the word Pulitzer again. You know, it’s like a jinx, like, never again.

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: I also believe in that jinx. I don’t even say the word.

MEGAN MUNCE: Jinx or not, Evan and Brian were both announced as winners on a May 4 livestream.

LIVESTREAM: The prize is awarded to Brian M. Rosenthal of the New York Times for an expose of New York City’s taxi industry that showed how lenders profited from predatory loans that shattered the lives of vulnerable drivers, reporting that ultimately led to state and federal investigations and sweeping reforms.

The prize is awarded to the staff of the New York Times for a set of enthralling stories reported at great risk exposing the predations of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

MEGAN MUNCE: However, neither of them had expected it.

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: I remember thinking, “This is going to be a great mini story to do for a couple months while I find my next big project.” I think it’s somewhat rare that the story you end up with at the end is so much more outrageous than you ever thought it was. I think I had talked to myself about all the reasons why it was not going to happen so much to mentally prepare myself, so when I heard that it did happen, I was mostly just dealing with my surprise, because I was genuinely surprised.

EVAN HILL: I don’t think I’ve processed it actually and what it means and you know the implications of being a Pulitzer winner. My parents were extremely happy. They were like, “This is the biggest day of our lives!” And I was like, “Well, no.” Journalism is so rough, sometimes, especially these days. And I personally have been both in and out of it. And It’s been a long and windy road with a lot of stress and a lot of stressful assignments, and so, when you get the top honor, it’s almost as if the decade that came before that, I know now was worth it. In that sense, it’s like a relief, almost.

MEGAN MUNCE: But besides being a relief, winning the Pulitzer for a story about human suffering was also a moment of reflection for the two.

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: Journalism awards are so weird. One of the weirdest things is that we are often honored for our work about the suffering of others. I remember wondering whether I should call Mohammed, who was the main driver in part one, and then thinking about how that conversation would go and what the emotions of that would be like because something good had just happened to me because something bad had just happened with him. That itself was a reminder of the reality of the stories that we write.

EVAN HILL: We wanted all of our sources in Syria to know what we had won the Pulitzer, and they were all very excited about it. We made sure to thank them publicly and name the ones who have been crucial to it, but then at the end of the day, you know personally that this is huge for you but it’s probably not going to change things for them. I mean it’s maybe part of a piece of a larger puzzle that everything changes things. Definitely what Brian said, it’s a reminder that these people, especially these Syrian journalists, are doing the same work we’re doing under such harsh circumstances, and they’re not winning Pulitzers for it, you know what I mean?

MEGAN MUNCE: The people they did end up telling first were a bit closer to their personal lives.

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: The first person I called is actually a colleague at the paper, Steve Eder, who is one of my closest friends on the paper — I’ve known for 10 years. He actually helped me get hired here. He was texting me that whole week while the judging was going on, like, “Hey, have you heard anything? Hey, have you heard anything?” So the way I got him to shut up was I was like, “Steve, you have to stop texting me. As soon as I hear anything, I’ll let you know.” So when I heard something, I let him know.

EVAN HILL: I think I called up my mom and dad and I said we had won the Pulitzer and there was much, much screaming in the background. And then some of my closest friends from Wisconsin and from Northwestern actually, including one of my roommates who had seen me go out on my first assignment for The Daily back in like 2003 to cover an Amnesty International talk on campus. I remember we were joking, “This is either the beginning of a really long career or a really short one. We’ll find out soon!”

MEGAN MUNCE: Although Brian and Evan both wrote for The Daily while at Northwestern, they missed each other by just a year. Evan, who graduated in 2007, served as assistant campus editor, and Brian was editor in chief during his senior year in 2011. Their time on staff helped further their interest in investigative reporting.

EVAN HILL: I was an underachiever at Medill. The biggest story I ever did for the Daily was with Jordan Weissmann. It was a murder investigation in Evanston. I think we thought that we were going to crack this case that the Evanston police department couldn’t crack, which we did not. That’s definitely what I wanted to do, and I think that that’s been the trajectory of my career, is whatever I’m doing, I want to be the guy who finds out the thing that no one wants you to find out about and publish that.

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: I was always interested in investigative journalism. One of my claims to fame, I believe, is I was editor of the Daily in 2010. I created the concept of an In Focus story, which was an investigative story, so did I know I would end up at the New York Times? No, I did not. I was actually more focused in college on the Washington Post because I have two older brothers who live in DC. So I guess I failed in that goal, but I did OK, nonetheless.

MEGAN MUNCE: But journalism right now looks different from how it did when Evan and Brian were staffers at The Daily. Many newsrooms are laying off or furloughing staff and many keystones of traditional journalism aren’t possible right now due to the pandemic. For Brian and Evan, changes to journalism aren’t new, nor are they life-shattering.

EVAN HILL: If I can be kind of cynical and pessimistic for one part of this, the fate of a lot of journalism was sealed in the 2000s when the industry did not adapt to the complete change in technology and advertising and social media. I think that it’s really rough to advise journalists at this point, because the trajectory for so many outlets is that you either get rescued in a way that gives your control over to wealthy individuals rather than a subscriber base, or you slim down and you become something different.

BRIAN ROSENTHAL: I will assume the optimistic side of the coin then, if need be. People have been predicting the demise of journalism at least since I’ve been a journalist. Obviously, the industry has suffered, but I think that there are a lot of new models coming in. On Pulitzer day, ProPublica won two Pulitzers, and one of them was for its local reporting network, where they’re supporting investigative projects in local newsrooms all around the country. I continue to believe that if you really, really want to be a journalist, then you will find a job in journalism. I started my career by going to a small newspaper, Evan started his career by going to a small newspaper and I know people that work in small newspapers that are desperate for people coming out of college that are really ambitious and enthusiastic and well-trained. Those opportunities still exist, and we need students and graduates and young journalists now more than ever to help us get through this tough period.

EVAN HILL: I graduated in 2007, 2008, which was our last crisis within the past decade, and I thought I wasn’t going to work in journalism ever again because of where things were going. But I got a job within six months at a small paper out in San Francisco and then plodded along for the next decade until I ended up where I ended up. I don’t think that pandemic is going to be an extinction event for journalism, but I do think it’s another major milestone on the end of journalism post-World War II as we knew it.

MEGAN MUNCE: With Evan and Brian’s wins, they join the list of over forty other Pulitzer Prizes won by Medill alumni. You can read their pieces on the New York Times’s website and see the full list of 2020 prize winners on From The Daily Northwestern, this is Megan Munce. Thanks for listening!

MEGAN MUNCE: This episode was reported and produced by me, Megan Munce. The audio editor of the Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief of The Daily is Marissa Martinez.