The best reporter I know

It’s rare to find people who are at once kind, smart, hard-working and generous. It’s even rarer to find that combination being rewarded, particularly when that person is a reporter at a newspaper today. This is a story about bucking that trend.

I rarely pay much mind to the Pulitzers. The New York Times will win something, along with a few of the other quasi-national papers, a small-town surprise, and there are also non-newspaper prizes, apparently. I usually just rely on Jim Romenesko to tell me who’s going to win, but this year, even that well was running dry.

So, I am a bit embarrassed to say that it was nearly a day before I realized someone I know was a finalist — Alexandra Zayas of the St. Petersburg Times, for her tremendous series investigating unlicensed religious children’s homes in Florida. This is someone who has written far and wide with empathy, clarity and authority for nearly a decade on the types of stories that can be difficult, uncomfortable and, frankly, not always appreciated.

But here’s the thing — when I saw she was a finalist, I wasn’t surprised. Alex has, to my mind, long been the best reporter I know, and if she wasn’t quite there back when we were cub interns in 2005, I still already knew she was going to be a force. And, for once, I was right. That is the last time I’ll brag about me instead of her.

Why did I think this of her? Well, I met a lot of amazing people in Minneapolis that summer, but one of the first was Alex, who was one of the few of us unafraid to email-blast all the other interns months ahead of time to say hello. That email is lost to my memory, but I do remember the friendliness combined with a determination to make the most of the summer ahead. Then, in completely unrelated coincidences, four of us ended up in the same apartment building, with three of us in the same hallway.

The first person I hung out with, I believe, after arriving in Minneapolis (and having a cabbie try to hold my phone hostage after I left it in his cab from the airport), was Alex. We went to some festival in the area, had some beer, ate some food, saw a cover band and got free beer thrown to us by them, and then saw the same woman on the bus back as we did going out, which was weird.

I digress — the point is, would I have taken that imitative? Not as likely. It was a great time, a great introduction to the city, and spoke to her initiative and kindness. We were both fortunate to be grouped with like-minded interns that summer, and I have everlasting fond memories of work and play with those people.

Now, she could have turned out to be a terrible reporter who just happened to be nice. That happens. But one night on the copy desk, I was assigned one of her stories. I have no clue what it was — probably some feature that had “for the intern” written all over it. But it was not just clean copy — what copy editors really care about most of the time — but it was also good copy, a compelling story. Probably better than the subject deserved. Moreover, it was better than most anything else I’d been editing that week, and there were, and are, tremendous, talented, wonderful writers on staff at the Star Tribune. I’m sure I edited a few more of her articles, and again, my job was made easy — don’t screw up the work.

I don’t know if I told Alex that summer how talented I thought she was (is). I think I did. I hope so. Either way, it was clear she was going places. And over the years, whether it’s checking up on what news she’s breaking in the Tampa area or logging on one night in the newsroom to and discovering she had a photo leading the home page (this one), I’ve always felt lucky to know such a journalist, even from afar. The fact that she’s done all this while spending so many years in print media — in newspapers, for God’s sake — without losing her mind is even more impressive.

I’m glad that, now, much more of America knows her brand of reporting.

I don’t have much else to say — go read the damn series. Alex, congratulations. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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