The Anchorage Daily News was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service on Monday for “Lawless,” a yearlong examination of the failures of the criminal-justice system in communities across Alaska. The series was reported in partnership with ProPublica.
It’s the third Pulitzer Prize for the Daily News in the newspaper’s history — all in the public service category.
Reporting for “Lawless” was led by Kyle Hopkins, and included contributions from many ADN staff members as well as those from ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsroom with a focus on investigative reporting. The collaboration was part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, which partners with local news organizations nationwide.
The gold medal for public service is among 15 Pulitzer Prize categories awarded for journalism this year.
“We’re humbled by the recognition, but the stories put a bright light on serious problems in Alaska that have needed attention for a long time,” said Daily News editor David Hulen, who co-edited the series with ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein. “In some ways, we’re just getting started and we’re as determined as ever to continue this work.”
“Lawless” was the first comprehensive investigation to document Alaska’s failing, two-tiered criminal justice system, in which many rural communities are denied access to first responders. The project evolved from reporting on similar issues by the Daily News in 2018, and the partnership continues in 2020.
The collaboration’s first story, based on more than 750 public records requests and interviews, found that one in three rural Alaska communities has no local law enforcement of any kind. These communities are also among the nation’s most vulnerable, with very high rates of sexual assault, suicide and domestic violence. The series’ second major installment found that many Alaska villages, desperate for police of any kind, hired officers convicted of felonies, domestic violence, assault and other offenses that would make them ineligible to work in law enforcement or even as security guards anywhere else in the country.
Another major story revealed how the state’s 40-year-old Village Public Safety Officer program, designed to recruit villagers to work as lifesaving first responders, has failed. The series documented how Alaska State Troopers resources have been deployed largely to patrol areas on the road system, and concluded with a set of practical solutions based on interviews with experts, village leaders, Alaska’s congressional delegation and sexual assault survivors.
In the wake of the investigation, U.S. Attorney General William Barr visited Alaska last spring. He declared an emergency for public safety in rural Alaska and pledged more than $52 million as part of a sweeping plan to better support law enforcement in Alaska Native communities. The plan included three new federal prosecutors to focus on rural Alaska, the hiring of 20 more officers, upgrading public safety infrastructure for Alaska villages and expanding tribal victim services. The U.S. attorney’s office in Alaska announced it would hire rural prosecutors, and some communities will receive Alaska State Troopers posts for the first time.
The “Lawless” project continues in 2020 with a deep exploration of sexual violence across Alaska.
“With ProPublica’s help, we’ve talked with hundreds of survivors of sexual assault from all over the state,” said Hopkins, an Alaska-born graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism program. “Our reporting on the lack of law enforcement and the two-tiered justice system in remote villages was long overdue. It also just scratches the surface of what we are hearing from Alaskans.”
Anyone who wishes to confidentially share their experience with sexual violence in Alaska, or to offer tips for investigation, can do so here.
The series previously won a series of other national and regional journalism awards.
ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network began in 2018 as a way to support local newsrooms.
“This project is exactly what our Local Reporting Network was created to support: Work that has a deep sense of place,” said ProPublica’s Ornstein. “Stories that make you stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Ideas that reporters wouldn’t otherwise have the time or resources to pursue.
“It’s easy these days to read stories about the decline of local journalism and grow discouraged. Projects like this are a good reminder of why strong local news organizations are needed now and why they need our support. We’re so proud to have partnered with the ADN on this important work.”
The Pulitzer comes less than three years after the Daily News filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, followed by a change of ownership and extensive reorganization and staff reductions. The business became profitable within a year, has aggressively grown paid online readership and has been consistently recognized by regional and national journalism awards, including first-place awards in 2019 by the Online News Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors.
The Daily News previously was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1976 for a series about the impact and influence of the Teamsters Union on Alaska’s economy and politics, and again in 1989 for “A People in Peril,” which reported on high rates of alcoholism and suicide in Alaska Native communities. The newspaper was a finalist for a Pulitzer in photography in 1990 for its coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.