Timing critical for this Pulitzer Prize nominee

Posted5/3/2015 5:00 AM

"Timing, as they say, is everything.

Mike Riopell, our political editor, noticed the nearing of the 10th anniversary of the battle in Iraq that led to the loss of both legs of then-Capt. Tammy Duckworth. A perfect time to tell a compelling story, he thought.


Hers was a story that everyone knew, of course, so the challenge was to tell it with a level of detail and insight that would go beyond the campaign-stop, matter-of-fact retellings from Duckworth, last fall a well-known politician running for re-election to Congress.

Such a piece undoubtedly would cast Duckworth in a sympathetic, likely heroic, light, even though our mission was simply to tell a good story.

More fortuitous timing: The election was Nov. 4, 2014, and we launched the three-part series a week later, on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, which was a day before the anniversary of Duckworth's wounding. This was well before Duckworth announced plans to run for the Democratic nomination to challenge Mark Kirk for his U.S. Senate seat.

Politics aside, the result was a riveting narrative that provided intimate details of that day, not just from Duckworth, but from her National Guard crewmates, some of whom had never spoken publicly about it.

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Riopell's finished product, along with our series on heroin in the suburbs, were submitted for a Pulitzer Prize. They didn't win, but we're no less proud of the effort.

The Duckworth package was a three-day presentation, but the amount of work that went into it is no less impressive that the energies we've poured into the heroin series, which started last September and continues to this day. Riopell, who is based in Springfield and covers the capitol, traveled throughout the state to conduct interviews, recording hours of video and audio interviews on an iPhone, then working to devise a way to transmit massive data files with photo director Jeff Knox, who went to a local Walgreens and had 3x5 prints of all the photos made. They formed a stack two inches tall, and everyone involved in the project spent hours spreading them out on a conference room table to see how the presentation would look, said Diane Dungey, the principal editor on the project.

Riopell envisioned this as an important online presentation, so he enlisted the help of Tim Broderick, presentation editor, to create an interactive timeline, and digital editor Travis Siebrass did the online presentation.


"In the last few weeks," Dungey says, "I think all of us lived and breathed that story."

Oh, did I forget to mention Riopell was our main coverage guy in the incredibly contentious race for governor? Yes, that was on his plate, too, along with any other shenanigans that might have popped up in the General Assembly.

That is a source of pride for us. Similarly to Riopell, the reporters nominated for the heroin series, Marie Wilson and Jessica Cilella, have continued to cover their respective communities while turning over 13 important story packages about the people fighting the war on heroin addiction.

The value of such a series is pretty evident: It could possibly save lives and improve the quality of lives. Riopell's take-away from the Duckworth series was a little different, but no less poignant, as he learned a thing or two about heroism.

"Talking to the crew," he says, "gave me a deep respect for people who can face death with the calm and poise needed to get through it."

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