Ask A Pro
Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune
Why did you become a journalist?
I've always been curious about the world and how it worked. When I finally thought I understood parts of it, then I was eager to share that knowledge with others.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a series about alcohol abuse and its impact in the Great Falls community?
Over the years, we have seen the results of alcoholism in our court records, accident reports and news stories, but we had never seen the ramifications lumped together in one place. And we had no idea of the magnitude of those ramifications.
We found, for instance, that half of our welfare recipients are estimated to be alcohol-impaired and that 90 percent of our state prison inmates need alcohol and drug dependency counseling. Finally, we estimated that the state of Montana spends at least $135 million annually on the hidden costs of alcoholism. That's even more than the state spends on educating our college-bound youngers. We spent $120 million a year on our university system.
How difficult was it to convince sources to go on the record and talk about such a painful, potentially embarrassing topic like alcoholism?
It was hard to get people to share their darkest secrets with 100,000 readers. But I told them that their stories could help other readers. To be believable, however, we had to use their names and show their pictures.
It took a lot of courage, but one man told me how he had been fired from his job for drinking. Another told me how she had passed out on a date and been raped. And another woman told me she had been drinking heavily during her pregnancy and gave birth to a baby whose breath reeked of alcohol.
How much research and reporting did you do before you wrote the story's first paragraph?
I spent six to eight months tracking down reports and scholarly articles before the series began. By the time it was over, I had three big boxes of research materials and notebooks.
Do you ever get writer's block?
Sometimes, I find it easier to gather more material than I do to write it. Unfortunately, that just makes the writing harder.
Is it easier to writer a short story or a longer series?
Short stories are much easier. A long series requires a lot of research, many interviews, inspired organization, a torment of writing and then a misery of rewriting. I need to set up photos and get the statistics for our graphics editors to make graphs.
How much editing did the series undergo?
We had story conferences to make sure the stories contained the right material. One editor suggested major changes and another fine-tuned the copy.
How closely did you work with photographers, graphic artists and copy and page design editors?
Very closely. I met with each of them individually several times before each story in the series was printed.
How many staffers work in the newsroom? How did you pull off such a big project with a relatively small staff?
We have roughly three-dozen editors, copy editors, reporters and photographers, so this project was a huge commitment. I estimate that it took half of my work year in 1999. And it took a lot of time for other staff members.
We accomplished it by prioritizing our news stories and concentrating on the most important.
How has being a Pulitzer Prize winner affected your career?
I've been invited to speak to journalists and medical professionals all over the country. And I'm finding it very rewarding to share my enthusiasm with my colleagues.
How can readers outside Montana read your series?
See this link. Also, an expended version of it will be published by the Hazelden Foundation as a hardcover book called "Alcohol: Cradle to Grave."
What are you working on now?
I'm just about to begin a big series on troubled teens. It will focus on increasing rates of emotional and mental illness among adolescents, examine some social causes, and explore some solutions around the nation.