Alumnus and former State Hornet reporter wins Pulitzer Prize

Russ Buettner ’90 (Journalism), along with fellow New York Times investigative reporters David Barstow and Susanne Craig, spent 18 months digging into the complex finances of the family of President Donald Trump.

Russ Buettner“We didn’t do anything else during that period of time,” he said. “There were at least two times when we thought we might be finished and we were going to make one more round of contacts, and each of those times when we thought we were finished those additional reporting contacts we made yielded more results that required more process and analysis and then circling back to what we had done before.”

That hard work paid off last week when Buettner and his colleagues were awarded journalism’s most prestigious honor: the Pulitzer Prize. The award, given in the Explanatory Journalism category, was one of two for the Times this year and a first for Buettner. It also marks the second year in a row a Sacramento State alum has received a Pulitzer: Hornet graduates Derek Moore, Jim Sweeney and Martin Espinoza earned the award last year for their coverage of the 2017 Sonoma County wildfires in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

While a student at Sacramento State, Buettner spent two semesters as a reporter for the State Hornet student newspaper. He joined the Times in 2006 after working on investigations teams at the New York Daily News and New York Newsday, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles highlighting abuse, neglect and deadly mistakes in New York’s system of caring for developmentally disabled people.

Below, Buettner discusses his Pulitzer-winning work and his time at Sacramento State (interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity).

What was your reaction upon learning you had received the Pulitzer Prize?

It’s a very exciting moment. I’ve been doing this a long time and have gotten close before. But it’s kind of a pure excitement that you share with your colleagues. You feel good about what you’ve accomplished. You feel very good about the work that you did, that kind of reinforcement and recognition from that particular body. This means a lot in journalism.

Pulitzer Day - Speech
Russ Buettner addresses the New York Times newsroom following the announcement that he and his colleagues had received a Pulitzer Prize. (Photo courtesy Russ Buettner).

Why did you feel this story was important to report?

When somebody is president of the United States, getting to the truth of their lives and what they’ve done that led them there is always going to be important. Some of the ways that Donald Trump is very different than other presidents is that most often in modern times, by the time they get to the point when they’re running for president, most of their life has been thoroughly vetted before. People have gone through it, looked at all the relationships they’ve had, connected the dots that need to be connected, and there’s kind of an extensive public record on all that. Donald Trump had been a public figure for decades, obviously, but never had been taken seriously in that kind of way before. So it was worthwhile to go through that and test, basically, his origin story that he’s always told about himself, that he told during the campaign as to why his ideas should matter and why he was the best person to be president.

How do you feel Sacramento State prepared you for a career in journalism?

I owe almost everything to Sac State. It was a place I could afford to go and a place that welcomed me, so those were two things that I’ll be forever grateful for. It was place that taught me both new ways to think critically, which is everything in my work, and to believe in myself that I was capable of doing that at a fairly high level. I learned to write when I was there. There was a professor there named Jeanne Abbott who worked closely with the Hornet, and when I wrote something, a longer thing to try and get it in the paper, Jeanne would spend hours with me giving me feedback, helping me to massage it into something that was publishable at what seemed like a professional level. Writing is a particular kind of skill. There are some people I’m sure who can just get it and nail it first time they try. I wasn’t like that. I had ideas and talent but I needed to do a lot of work to perfect it for a large audience. All the journalism staff and the English Department at Sac State really moved me along in that direction.

What lessons from Sacramento State do you use most today?

No matter where you’re from, and I don’t mean Sacramento, I just mean from no matter what the economics or cultural background is of your family, you can find a path to get to a place that is mentally satisfying and will challenge you throughout your life. You can feel like when you see your friends going off to huge prestigious universities, that it must be true that your fate is determined when you’re 17 years old and you’re as good as you’re ever going to be when your 17 years old. Sac State shows you that that’s not true. It’s just all a big journey and you just keep learning and keep digging, and you’ll find the life for you that is the best use of your skills and talents and the most rewarding. The lesson for me about Sac State is that it’s a big door opener to the world.

What advice do you have for current Sacramento State journalism students?

Dream big and never quit learning. Realize you got there and you had some skills and some talent and you learned about things you wanted to do. You made a lot of progress. But you are literally not going to stop making progress if you keep working hard on that same pace for your entire life. I know that’s true in journalism. That’s one of the best things about it, you’re just constantly learning and being exposed and being challenged in new ways. And I think that’s true in most fields today. The world is constantly changing underneath our feet and that’s a wonderful thing and wonderful process, and just embrace it and go forth.

Advertisements

Hornet alums well represented in Sacramento Business Journal’s ’40 Under 40′ list

The Sacramento Business Journal‘s annual “40 Under 40” list is out and, as usual, there are plenty of Hornets to be found.

In fact, the whopping 12 Sacramento State alums included make up more than a quarter of the list.

The list recognizes 40 young professionals in the Sacramento region who “excel in their workplaces and in their communities.” They will be honored at an event Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for The Arts (aka “The Sofia”).

Sacramento State alums on this year’s list:

    • Bindu Jaduram ’00 (Strategic Management), regional manager, Tri Counties Bank
    • Brenda Forman ’02 (Marketing), vice president and managing director, Merlot Marketing
    • Sarah Pollo ’06 (Government-Journalism), MA ’15 (Government), president and CEO, Pollo Communications, Inc.
    • Lucas Frerichs ’06 (Government), Davis city councilman and director of State Policy at The Nature Conservancy
    • Shawna Fitzgerald ’09 (Finance), CEO, Creating Answers
    • Ashley Mellot ’09 (Marketing), chief operating office and chief of staff, Webconnex
    • Anne Descalzo ’11 (Journalism), assistant vice president, SAFE Credit Union
    • Christine Mahon ’10 (Public Relations), associate vice president for marketing and communications, Associated General Contractors of California
    • Devin Lavelle ’11 (Public Policy and Administration), senior researcher, California Research Bureau
    • Michael Lynch ’14 (Public Policy and Administration), co-founder and CEO, Improve Your Tomorrow (Read our Made at Sac State profile of Lynch)
    • Nicholas Haystings ’16 (Mechanical Engineering), president and executive director, Square Root Academy
    • Shawn Dillon, ’08 (Finance), corporate counsel at Ethan Conrad Properties Inc.

Sacramento State alumni have a knack for standing out when it comes time to compile the 40 Under 40 list. Nine alums were recognized in 2017 and in 2016, and a record 12 Hornets made the list in 2015.

To view the full list and read profiles of each honoree, visit https://www.bizjournals.com/sacramento/news/2018/10/05/photos-meet-our-40-under-40-winners-for-2018.htm (subscription required).

Pair of Hornet journalists receive lifetime achievement awards

Two Sacramento State alums have received lifetime achievement awards for their work in the journalism industry.

Cheryl Dell ’82 (Communications), who retired last year as publisher of the Sacramento Bee after 30 years in the industry, on Sept. 11 received the Ralph D. Casey/Minnesota Award, a top accolade for newspaper and news media publishers. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the nonprofit Inland Press Association, and given to publishers who bring about positive change “while exemplifying the finest in journalism and community service.”

A native of Modesto, Dell served as publisher of the Tri-City Herald and The News-Tribune in Washington State before returning home in 2008 to oversee the Bee. Sacramento State awarded Dell an honorary doctorate in 2017.

High honors also are being bestowed upon Sacramento State alum and NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who in December will be awarded the 2018 Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism. The award recognizes the “outstanding career achievements of journalists whose work has made a lasting impact serving citizens in our democracy.”

Holt began working at NBC news in 2000 following nearly 20 years in local television, in 2015 becoming the first African-American solo anchor of a weekday network nightly newscast. The Rancho Cordova native studied government at Sacramento State, received an honorary degree in 2015, and returned to Sacramento in early 2017 as the first stop in his “Across America” series.