No Pulitzer for heroin coverage, but these reporters truly are prized
Alas, we did not win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
The most prestigious award in journalism this past week went to the Los Angeles Times for stories about California's massive drought. In that same feature-writing category, our nominees included city staff reporters Marie Wilson and Jessica Cilella for their ongoing series, "Heroin in the Suburbs: Though Their Eyes." The Pulitzer Committee's account of the Times' illustrious effort -- "nuanced portraits of lives affected by the state's drought, bringing an original and empathic perspective to the story" -- struck me as a description that also could fit our submissions.
True, the topic of heroin is not new, but one could argue it's more insidious than ever. When DuPage County shattered a record for heroin deaths (46 in 2013), we were sure the topic needed further airing. DuPage Editor Bob Smith and the reporters decided the best way to accomplish this was through first-person accounts of the people directly affected by heroin.
We started the series in September with a raw, gritty story about a South Elgin man who started using heroin at 17 and how he struggles with the addiction to this day. We've followed this with 11 more comprehensive reports, most recently this past Monday by profiling a mother from Medinah who lost her son at age 24 to a heroin overdose. She now channels her grief through a foundation created in her son's name and estimates she has spoken to more than 30,000 people at schools, churches and community centers about the ravages of heroin. We've talked to people leading the fight in the coroner's office, law enforcement, nonprofit agencies, politicians, clergy and more parents.
Perhaps our most dramatic story was one that evolved before our eyes. As Marie was interviewing a Schaumburg couple in their 60s caring for their grandchildren while their daughter battled heroin addiction, the daughter made one of her sporadic visits home. She discussed her struggle with Marie. Yet, the lure of the drug apparently overwhelmed her yet again. Two days later, she was gone, as was the family car and all the money in the house.
Similarly, Felicia Miceli recounted in our Monday story how heroin drove her son Louie uncharacteristically to steal from her. Today, she speaks tirelessly to local groups, saying if her efforts save "one precious Louie in someone else's life, we're doing what we need to do."
It's hard to tell if Felicia has been successful. Same for the counselor, priest, teacher, DEA agents and others we've encountered. Maybe even harder to say whether our efforts at publicizing their efforts have been helpful.
We hope and pray so. In the application we sent to the Pulitzer Committee, we included a few testimonials from our sources. One, from the leader of a parent-focused nonprofit in Naperville that works with addictions, was so simple and nondramatic, but it underscored why we do what we do. "Truly, seriously, I am so appreciative of the work you put into this article. Registrations are coming in already this morning."
So, while Marie and Jessica weren't honored with journalism's biggest prize, we couldn't be prouder of how they brought an original, empathic -- and helpful -- perspective to a problem that still deserves our attention.