In an epic news year that included stories about Russian meddling into U.S. presidential elections and political upheaval such as the scandal involving embattled Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, The Star series was named the only finalist in public service. It was surpassed only by The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine, which shared the Pulitzer gold for their combined body of work on Miramax film producer Harvey Weinstein and workplace sexual harassment that ignited the #MeToo movement.
The judges recognized The Star’s series “for courageous, revelatory journalism that exposed a state government’s decades-long ‘obsession with secrecy,’ intended to shield executive decisions and suppress transparency and accountability in law enforcement agencies, child welfare services and other sectors of the government.”
The Star has won eight Pulitzers, but this is the first time it has been recognized in public service. It is the newspaper’s first finalist in any category since 1996, when The Star was a finalist in explanatory journalism for its series on the impact of spreading suburban growth.
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“Being honored by the Pulitzers in this category is a wonderful reminder: This is what we do. And this is who we are,” said Mike Fannin, The Star’s editor. “We are here to serve the public, to be an essential part of our community.”
The six-part Star series, the work of a team of reporters, revealed how Kansas’ state government had become one of the least transparent and most secretive in the nation, and how it had only grown worse under then-Gov. Sam Brownback.
Prior to Monday’s announcement, “Why So Secret, Kansas?” this year had received five other national journalism honors. Government response to the series, published in November, was swift, changing laws to allow greater public scrutiny of government actions and altering the race for Kansas governor virtually overnight. It made public transparency a foundational issue.
“The brave reporting in The Star’s series has made the government more responsible to the governed,” Fannin said. “Our stories have prompted real and meaningful change. I’ll never forget what our determined team accomplished here.”
The focus on Kansas transparency was devised by editor Chick Howland and reported and written by Laura Bauer, Judy L. Thomas, Max Londberg, Kelsey Ryan, Bryan Lowry, Andy Marso, Steve Vockrodt and Hunter Woodall. Photojournalist Jill Toyoshiba, growth editor Leah Becerra and artist/designer Neil Nakahodo also worked on the project.
The entry also included two editorials written by Dave Helling.
More than two dozen bills or legislative proposals have been introduced since the series’ publication. In February, Brownback’s replacement, Gov. Jeff Colyer, signed executive orders to open up government records such as official correspondence and data.
“We want to start letting people know what's happening in Kansas government," Colyer said at a news conference. "We want to respond because I think as we have more information, we can actually get things done, and that's what this is about."
Another bill, signed by the governor into law Monday, requires those who try to influence officials in the executive or judicial branches to register as lobbyists. Two other measures, one to allow family members to view police body camera footage and another allowing the state’s Department for Children and Families to release information after the death of a child, are under consideration.
Cheers and applause erupted in The Star’s newsroom on Monday. The Pulitzers were announced at 2 p.m.
The judges’ announcement capped a year in which work at The Star has been honored nationally at journalism’s highest levels.
“Why So Secret, Kansas?” received first-place honors in the National Headliner Awards (public service), the Scripps Howard Awards (First Amendment) and the McClatchy President’s Awards, as well as finalist honors from the American Society of News Editors and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards.
In other awards, Missouri political reporter Jason Hancock this month won first place for political coverage in the National Headliner Awards for his work on Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and the culture of secrecy surrounding his administration, including its use of an app that automatically destroys messages after they've been viewed.
In March, editorial writer Melinda Henneberger won a Scripps Howard Award for a range of opinion writing with what the judges called “a portfolio of work that is a revealing look at the people and political issues driving conversations in the heartland.”
Also in March, Helling was named the winner of The American Society of News Editors’ 2018 Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership. The award recognized writings that called into question the way Kansas City's government handled contract negotiations for a $1 billion air terminal being planned at Kansas City International Airport.