Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Side Streets Extra: Gazette's Pulitzer Prize award result of dogged quest to right a wrong

By Bill Vogrin Updated: April 15, 2014 at 10:29 am 0

Something very special happened Monday in Colorado Springs.

Absolutely amazing, frankly.

A Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, the most prestigious honor in all of journalism, was bestowed on The Gazette and Dave Philipps.

It was recognition of his three-day series "Other than Honorable," which examined how wounded combat veterans were being discharged from the Army and stripped of benefits for offenses likely caused by their war injuries.

It was a powerful series built on fearless reporting by Dave. He spent months relentlessly digging to obtain more than 700 pages of documents through the Freedom of Information Act, plus upwards of 2,000 pages of disciplinary records of soldiers.

Dave used those documents to show a pattern in which the Army was indeed kicking out soldiers, many of whom served in battle. And he developed sources willing to go on the record to reveal deeply personal stories.

The entire package was bolstered by incredible photos and video by photojournalist Michael Ciaglo and an online presentation that blended video, photos, data and poignant storytelling, all shaped by dozens of hands on our copy desk and online team.

It was important work that revealed more than 13,000 soldiers have been discharged since 2009 under a provision called Chapter 10 - resignation in lieu of prosecution - an other-than-honorable discharge that bars most soldiers from medical benefits.

Dave's investigation resulted in changes in the law and drastic improvements in the lives of a number of combat veterans. The rate of soldiers kicked out with other-than-honorable discharges immediately started to drop after his reporting.

Also important, the series sparked a national dialogue, and much larger news organizations followed The Gazette's lead, from The New York Times to Fox News. The attention has helped the public understand that modern warfare scars soldiers in ways that require new types of treatments.

I was not surprised Dave won journalism's Super Bowl. He deserved one in 2010 when he was a finalist for his "Casualties of War" series that uncovered the tragic reality of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries among our troops.

After his near victory, I figured Dave eventually would win his prize. He is curious and driven and a passionate champion for people being abused by powerful institutions.

But I feared his champagne-popping celebration would occur at a much larger paper, as has happened recently for other former Gazette reporters.

For example, former Gazette business and sports writer John Branch basked in the Pulitzer spotlight last year for, as the judges said, "his evocative narrative about skiers killed in an avalanche and the science that explains such disasters." Branch celebrated his feature writing prize within the halls of his employer . . . The New York Times.

And in 2010, the prize for local reporting went to former Gazette reporter Raquel Rutledge. The Pulitzer judges praised her "penetrating reports on the fraud and abuse in a child-care program for low-wage working parents that fleeced taxpayers and imperiled children, resulting in a state and federal crackdown on providers." She celebrated at . . . The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

That same year, "Casualties of War" was a runner-up and judges praised Dave for his "painstaking stories on the spike in violence within a battered combat brigade returning to Fort Carson after bloody deployments to Iraq, leading to increased mental health care for soldiers."

Similarly, former Gazette reporters were among the staff members who contributed to the Denver Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage for breaking news in 2013 for the Aurora theater shooting massacre. That same year, the Post was a finalist for its coverage of the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs.

See the trend? Talented reporters have left Colorado Springs to do world-class work at much larger news organizations.

Not Philipps. He did leave us after 2010 for a journalism sabbatical at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But he came back.

Dave loves Colorado Springs. He grew up here. He runs the Incline, hikes and bikes our trails. And he is raising a family here.

I especially like the fact he's a huge fan of our history. He writes one of my favorite features each Sunday, "Ask Gen. Palmer," in which he channels Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer to give insight into life here 150 years ago.

We are lucky to have drawn him back, especially after 10 hard years in which The Gazette spiraled in an economic free fall, laid off dozens of talented journalists, endured bankruptcy and two sales. It was hard for me to imagine we'd ever commit to the kind of sophisticated journalism required to win a national reporting Pulitzer.

These are not easy stories to report or write. They require months of investigation. Hundreds of hours of interviews. Endless meetings with editors and attorneys.

Typically, teams of reporters at major metropolitan daily papers win this award. The two finalists in this category this year were from the Wall Street Journal.

Papers the size of The Gazette, with a daily circulation of about 56,600 and 72,800 on Sunday, just don't sneak in and win national reporting awards. This category is the land of the giants populated by the likes of the Journal, the Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and others on the short list of Great American Newspapers.

In fact, The Gazette is the smallest paper to win any Pulitzer this year.

Investigative reporters are a luxury these days as newsrooms have been slashed. The reporters who tackle these kinds of stories often live them. So do their editors.

Dave's immediate editor, Joanna Bean, had the immense burden of vetting Dave's work. She is the person who collaborated with Dave, questioned everything, suggested new angles, debated and argued with Dave, massaged his writing and eventually signed off on every damning fact, standing behind every explosive allegation.

On Monday, she recalled taking calls about the series from Dave and others while traveling through the Western Slope with her kids just before the series was published.

Then consider the timing of their bombshell package. It came after Clarity Media purchased The Gazette.

Imagine being Joe Hight, our editor, who was only months on board at The Gazette as part of the new leadership team, when Dave and Joanna informed him they had a story that would take a long, hard and painful look at the Army, not just the largest employer in Colorado Springs but one of the largest in all of Colorado.

Welcome to The Gazette, Joe!

But it was all worth it.

Thanks to "Other than Honorable," our soldiers - residents of our community - are being treated more fairly. Their injuries, physical and emotional, are better appreciated and understood. Powerful lawmakers are coming to their defense.

And, on a personal level, the Pulitzer win reaffirms what a small paper can do when it thinks big, commits to being the best paper it can be, invests in talent and stands behind them when they uncover injustice and dare to tell the world.

It's an amazing thing that happened and I was proud just to be in the room when it did.

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