(Editor’s note: Full-length version of story.)
The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners in explanatory reporting are UMaine alumna Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times for their five-part series, “Big Burn,” exploring the growth and cost of wildfires. Boxall, a Times reporter since 1987, covers natural resources and environmental issues in California and the West. She graduated from UMaine in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
When did you decide you wanted to become a journalist?
I was editor of my high school newspaper and majored in journalism at UMaine, so I had an early interest in the field. When I graduated that seemed like a natural course to follow. But I did not grow up with a burning ambition to become a reporter.
Who were your mentors at UMaine and what advice did they give you that still resonates?
He was not a mentor in the classic sense. But my most influential teacher was geology professor Stephen Norton. I took introductory geology from him in a big lecture class. On both the exams and field trips, he demanded that his students think rather than regurgitate information. The facts were just the foundation for critical thinking. That was a valuable lesson to learn as a journalist.
Best scoop as a student reporter?
In college I was more interested in photojournalism than reporting. I worked for the yearbook rather than the student newspaper and earned enough money to buy my first car chronicling campus life with a Nikon.
In addition to “Big Burn,” what are the three most memorable stories you’ve written?
It is not so much individual stories as beats that stand out in my career. I covered criminal courts in Passaic County New Jersey for two years. The cases and court testimony offered a fascinating, at times disturbing study in human behavior. I often felt as though I was writing soap opera scripts. In the early 1990s, I covered gay rights in California, just as gay marriage and other issues were bubbling to the surface, signaling profound social shifts. More recently as a state and environmental reporter, I’ve traveled all over the West. I once spent a week rafting through the Grand Canyon — on assignment.
What did you learn about wildfires that you didn’t know before your 15-month investigation?
Fighting wildfires has become such big business that one Nevada rancher described it as the new cash cow for the rural West. A fire-industrial complex has developed, funneling taxpayer money to private businesses that provide federal firefighters with an astounding array of often very expensive services. My colleague and I were also struck by the degree to which politics plays a role in firefighting. We documented a number of instances in which commanders called in costly aircraft at the behest of politicians–when the commanders knew the tankers or helicopters would not be effective.
How important is investigative journalism and do you worry about its future?
The best investigative journalism is a check — on government, on business, on power. In an age of sound bites and endless spin, it is more vital than ever for journalists to probe beneath the surface and go beyond transcription. But the demands of the Internet and the crumbling economic model for newspapers are pushing reporters in the opposite direction. I think there will always be an appetite for investigative stories, but I do worry that journalists will not be given the time and resources to pursue them.
The way we receive our news has changed greatly. What are the pros and cons of such change?
With the Internet, stories can reach a worldwide audience in an instant. The print circulation of newspapers is crashing, but if you count the web audience, our readership is exploding and our reach is arguably broader than ever. At the same time, the Internet is fracturing the advertising market into a million pieces, destroying the newspaper industry’s revenue base. Without revenue, you can’t pay reporters and without reporters you don’t have real news. Most bloggers, indeed most radio and TV outlets, aren’t doing original reporting. They are repeating and reacting to what they read in newspapers.
How did you celebrate word of the Pulitzer?
With too much cheap champagne.
Who would you want to write your biography – and why?
I’m a typical reporter. I would rather do the writing than be written about.
Words of advice for aspiring journalists?
Don’t use college as a vocational school. Expose yourself as much as possible to different kinds of knowledge and experience. Don’t run with the pack.
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Fall 2009
Image Description: Bettina Boxall