Tampa Bay Times stands alone in Local Reporting category of the Pulitzers

No newsroom in America has won the category more times since it was introduced 15 years ago.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Kathleen McGrory, center, speaks at Poynter on Friday to current and former Times staffers at a celebration of the Pulitzer Prize she won with reporting partner Neil Bedi.
Published June 12, 2021|Updated June 12, 2021

When printed out, the federal lawsuit against the Pasco County sheriff measured about 2 inches thick.

Lawsuits can run the gamut from mind-numbing to riveting. This suit, brought by former deputies against Sheriff Chris Nocco, fell somewhere in between.

She read every page, which is what great investigative journalists do.

And as she combed through, Tampa Bay Times reporter Kathleen McGrory came across this passage on page 112 — a little more than a quarter through the stack of paper:

Defendant, JENKINS ordered Plaintiff, RODGERS to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue us,” referring to the weekly prolific offenders. He was ordered to visit these prolific offenders, their families and their associates at all hours, numerous times a day.

McGrory perked up.

There were other references to something called “intelligence-led policing.”

What exactly was going on in Pasco County?

McGrory was looking for her next project on the heels of an investigation she had done with reporter Neil Bedi about tragic outcomes at the heart surgery center inside Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Just a couple months earlier in 2019, their stories about the Heart Institute had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the Investigative Reporting category.

More importantly, their stories about Johns Hopkins had saved lives by exposing incompetence and institutional failures.

So now, McGrory found herself showing the Pasco County lawsuit to Bedi. Ultimately, they’d find that the Sheriff’s Office had targeted and harassed residents while relying on a computer algorithm that predicted who might commit future crimes.

Related: Read the entire Targeted investigative series

The degree of difficulty was immense. The Sheriff’s Office kept lists of targets that had never been made public. McGrory and Bedi obtained and analyzed those lists. And they spent months talking to people whose lives had been turned upside down once their names appeared.

One of the most surprising parts: So many children.

Residents, young and old, had been relentlessly monitored. Deputies had ticketed the targets and their relatives for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown weeds. More than 12,500 times, officers paid them a visit, often without probable cause or a warrant.

McGrory and Bedi also found the Sheriff’s Office had created a secret list of Pasco County schoolchildren who had gotten D’s or F’s or had some trauma in their lives. Those kids were considered potential criminals, according to the sheriff’s manual on intelligence-led policing.

McGrory and Bedi’s series rolled out in the fall and winter of 2020. It has sparked investigations, lawsuits and reform.

On Friday, they won the Pulitzer Prize in the Local Reporting category.

A small group met at McGrory’s house to watch the announcement live streamed. Her tiny newborn slept in his father’s arms through all the applause and speeches. (Her husband is Times editor Michael Van Sickler.) And the family beagle Susan became a social media sensation when pictures of her smiling broadly were tweeted out on the Times social media account.

Later that afternoon, journalists and company leaders gathered in the courtyard of the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times, to celebrate what McGrory and Bedi had done.

Celebrants arrived, hot and sticky, before the searing sun mercifully drifted below the roofline. They ate Publix fried chicken, shared a sheet cake, and toasted the winners with champagne.

The vast majority of McGrory and Bedi’s project was reported amid the pandemic, and the entire newsroom has worked remotely for the past 16 months. Many of the journalists who came together Friday had not seen each other in the flesh since then. Others met new colleagues, hired as far back as a year ago, for the very first time.

The Pulitzer announcement marked the 13th time the Times newsroom has won the most prestigious prize in journalism.

And no newsroom has won the Local Reporting category more than your Tampa Bay Times.

That says a lot about who we are and what we strive to be for our readers.

Our newsroom holds the powerful accountable and gives voice to the voiceless.

That may sound like a journalistic cliche.

It’s gospel to us.

Consider what Tracey McManus did when she showed how the church of Scientology had secretly gobbled up swaths of downtown Clearwater.

Or what Bethany Barnes did when she exposed how an armored trucking firm, which rolls through Tampa Bay, had cast safety measures aside, leading to one crippling accident after another.

Or what Barbara Behrendt did, revealing abuses inside a Pasco County nonprofit.

Or what Paul Guzzo did by uncovering thousands of erased graves across Tampa Bay.

Or what Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray did by shining a light on the alarming contamination of workers inside a Tampa factory, the only lead smelter in Florida.

This type of journalism is only possible thanks to our subscribers, our advertisers and donors to our journalism funds, who help fuel the passion burning inside us.

We thank you all. And we look forward to ongoing, and unending, service to our Tampa Bay community.