Medill alum and two-time Pulitzer winner Brian Rosenthal discusses winning work, time at The Daily Northwestern


Daily file photo by Owen Stidman

Fisk Hall, home to the Medill School of Journalism, at 1845 Sheridan Rd.

Assem Belhadj, Reporter

New York Times reporter Brian Rosenthal (Medill ’11) unpacked how his Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the New York City taxi industry led to official investigations and industry reform in a Wednesday Zoom Q&A.

After 18 months of reporting and more than 600 interviews, the former Daily Northwestern editor in chief won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in May this year. Medill Dean and Prof. Charles Whitaker and Medill Events Director Stacy Simpson moderated the event, which celebrated Rosenthal’s work.

“I remember very clearly, when I started the project, telling a friend of mine, that it was only going to be a two month thing,” Rosenthal said. “I was looking at it as a mini project… and obviously, it turned out a little differently.”

His investigation, released in the form of six podcasts, revealed a predatory lending scheme in New York City’s taxi industry where lenders would drive up the price of taxi medallions — permits issued by cities for cabs to operate — and profit from drivers.

Rosenthal’s podcast series, which also overviews lender misconduct and local leaders’ inaction, focuses on the lives of a few affected cab drivers, a majority of whom are immigrants to the United States.

“These are largely immigrants searching for the American dream, right?” Whitaker said. “These are generally people who are signing these (financial agreements) with no real understanding of the terms, no representation.”

Rosenthal’s narrative dug into his sources’ financial details, as well as other personal information — stories Whitaker said were “very painful” to hear. His reporting garnered a substantive response from local and federal authorities. In February 2020, New York attorney general Letitia James threatened to sue the City over the taxi medallion scheme, claiming the city owed $810 million to local taxi drivers.

Rosenthal said his article inspired reforms in policy regulating NYC medallion sales, such as annual financial disclosure requirements for medallion brokers. Additionally, local leaders developed new efforts to help cab drivers with financial literacy.

According to a Northwestern alumni news release, Rosenthal has been awarded two George A. Polk awards, the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and was named a finalist for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics for his past work.

The journalist said his experience at Northwestern laid the foundation for the reporting he does today. Rosenthal, who took the helm of The Daily in 2010, said he started working 40-hour weeks for the newspaper at the start of his freshman year. He founded the newspaper’s InFocus investigations desk, which he said was a “precursor” to his investigative work with the New York Times.

Writing for The Daily taught him reporting skills and ethics, as well as the value of local journalism — a trade Rosenthal said “you can only learn by doing.” Ultimately, he said his work with The Daily adequately prepared him for this work at the Times.

“In reality, I think it’s really not that different … when you’re working on investigative projects for the New York Times, you’re thinking critically in much the same way,” Rosenthal said.

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