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.
“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.
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.