Eyes on the Prizes
Carolina alumni rack up the Pulitzers
By Craig Brandhorst and Rebekah Friedman, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3681
Growing up, Michael LaForgia, ’05, never thought about becoming a journalist. He liked reading, he liked writing, he paid attention to the news, but when he got to the University of South Carolina, he majored in English, not journalism.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who really sweated the career thing,” he says. “I knew that I enjoyed writing, and I figured that I would try to do something around that.”
Fifteen years later, he’s the investigations editor at the Tampa Bay Times — and the recipient of not one but two Pulitzer Prizes for Local Reporting, first for his contributions to a 2014 series about corruption in a Hillsborough County housing program, and most recently for an in-depth series on racial discrimination in a Tampa, Fla., school district.
The first series took five months. The latter, which concluded in 2016, took 18 — and featured contributions from several other reporters, among them education reporters Lisa Gartner and Cara Fitzpatrick (LaForgia’s wife), who shared in the win.
And both series have had real-world impact, leading to the firing or resignation of public officials and, in the case of the schools story, greater investment in an underperforming district.
“For us, it’s not a ‘We gotta nail these scumbags’ approach. It’s more, ‘What in the world is going on here?’” says LaForgia, who went from reporter to the team’s investigations editor in 2016. “Once we get the story out there, maybe a conversation will start, and once a conversation starts, maybe there will be some change, or maybe there won’t, but at least we did everything we could to put it out there.”
It’s a ton of responsibility for a guy who started as a walk-on reporter at the college paper.
“I hadn’t thought about being a reporter until I started working at The Gamecock,” LaForgia explains. “I saw a sign for an interest meeting when I was a freshman and looked into it on a lark. It was fun to just go out and learn the job while you were doing it. That appealed to me.”
But he wasn’t winging it. While soaking up Shakespeare and postmodern lit in his English classes, he was also paying close attention to his peers at the paper. “I picked up a lot of stuff from the J-school kids at the Gamecock, foundational stuff,” he says.
Meanwhile, LaForgia was feasting on the work of established newspaper reporters like Katherine Boo and Anne Hull, both of the Washington Post. “I read a story about a grocery store by Anne Hull when I was sophomore, and it kind of changed my life,” he says, recalling the reporter’s 2001 analysis of gentrification and consumerism, “Divided Feast.” “I couldn’t believe you could do that type work and put it in a newspaper. That made me want to be a reporter.”
Eventually, LaForgia was named editor at The Daily Gamecock. He also interned at the Summerville Journal Scene, covering county government and education, and later in Cape Cod. He supplemented his income — and his education — as a stringer covering high school sports, even after graduation. Eventually, he landed at the Palm Beach Post, where he spent six years before joining the Times.
“I just kind of picked it up by doing it,” he says, “and the editors straightened me out if I ever started to go off path, which, of course, I did.”
The Truth and Something Big
Chief among LaForgia’s influential editors was fellow alumnus Chris Davis, ’95, who hired LaForgia at the Tampa Bay Times because he was impressed by the younger reporter’s systematic approach. Davis, who was at the time the deputy managing editor for investigations at the Tampa paper, had already won a Pulitzer himself at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2011. He would go on to win three more at the Times, including the two with his protégé, LaForgia.
“There is something when you hear a reporter who’s onto a great story,” says Davis, who graduated with a degree in print journalism from Carolina. “I don’t know if it stirs the right emotions or it just tickles your brain in the right way, and you start thinking this is something special — all these stories had that early on.”
But the large-scale, investigative journalism that has become Davis’ and LaForgia’s specialty also requires what Davis calls “synthesis,” the arduous process of combing through vast quantities of data to uncover the big picture.
“Oftentimes reporters are out gathering this huge amount of information,” he says. “They’re very close to the story. They don’t necessarily have the time or the practiced eye to see exactly what it is that they’ve got. My job is to help them connect the dots and then tell that story in a way that people get it immediately.”
Davis himself began connecting dots as an undergrad at USC when School of Journalism and Mass Communications professor Ernie Wiggins put him touch with a team at The State newspaper seeking to expose problems within South Carolina’s coroner system. Just months after the series was published, voters approved an amendment to raise the minimum standards for the job.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t had that experience, but it certainly gave me a taste of what it was like,” Davis says. “I fell in love with it.”
And not being on the front line has done nothing to diminish that love.
“The best part of my job is listening to really talented reporters who have come back,” he says. “They’ve gotten something amazing, and they’re in your office or they’re on the phone or they’re sending you a text in the middle of the night saying, ‘Oh my God you won’t believe what I just got.’ It’s being part of that chase toward the truth and coming up with something big.”
Everything that Follows
Davis left the Tampa Bay Times to become vice president of investigative reporting at the USA Today Network in 2016, opening up his former slot for LaForgia. Now, it’s LaForgia who gets to experience that vicarious thrill, though he describes his approach to the new job as a sort of hybrid position — part reporter, part editor, “something more like a player-coach.”
And while he’s very comfortable in the editor’s chair, LaForgia also remembers what it was like to be a reporter celebrating that first big prize, which he shared with Davis, fellow reporter Will Hobson and the rest of the staff.
“It was funny, after I won the first Pulitzer I felt some anxiety,” he says. “I felt like was supposed to manage a quote-unquote career, or make a plan or something, in a way that I hadn’t really ever thought about. But then I thought, you know what? All I’ve ever cared about was the story, and that’s worked for me so far. I just need to do that, go find good stories, and everything else will follow.”
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