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.

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Journalism helps Melissa Dahl embrace awkwardness — and then write the book on it

Melissa Dahl ’07 (Journalism) didn’t necessarily go into journalism to break out of her childhood shyness, but when she’s working on stories such as what it’s like spending a week talking with strangers on the New York City subway – well, it certainly can’t hurt.

“I was a really shy kid,” Dahl said. “I recently read an essay about how having to go up and talk to people could make a difference. I read that and was like, I would love to be able to do that, because I was such a shy kid.”

Mission accomplished. Today, Dahl is the senior health and science editor at The Cut, a New York magazine section that focuses on human behavior and psychology. She’s also the author of the book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, which explores moments just like those that occur when a stranger approaches you on the subway. The book was published in February 2018, and Dahl returned to Sacramento State in the fall to speak about it.

Prior to working at New York, Dahl was a health writer and editor with MSNBC. She also worked at the Sacramento Bee and the Lodi News-Sentinel while attending Sacramento State, and was a member of the State Hornet student newspaper staff.

“At the Sacramento Bee, another writer gave me some advice: Find your niche. Find something you do better than anyone else,” Dahl said, adding that her focus at both The State Hornet and the Bee was feature writing. “I always was drawn toward stories about behavior, about why people do the things they do.”

When she became interested the concept of awkwardness, however, she was surprised to discover that very little research had actually been done on the topic.

“What I’ve always loved about this job is this idea that most questions I have about human behavior, I can just look in the literature and find stacks of papers on it,” Dahl said. “But these questions about, why do these things make me cringe, why does this make me feel awkward, what does that mean, what does that say about me, what does it say about other people and how other people are perceiving me – I could find satisfying answers to those.”

Dahl spent two years researching for the book, including meeting with neuroscientists in Germany. The “theory of awkwardness” referenced in the title, Dahl says, is that so-called awkward moments “illuminate the fact that there’s a difference between the way you think you’re presenting yourself to the world and the way other people are actually seeing you.”

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Sacramento State alum and New York magazine editor Melissa Dahl speaks on campus about her book, Cringeworthy, in October 2018. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Although it’s not unusual to hear someone – particularly a teenager or young adult – self-effacingly refer to themselves as “awkward,” Dahl’s book focuses on awkwardness not as a characteristic but instead as a feeling.

Consider Michael Scott, the bumbling boss on The Office portrayed by Steve Carell. Despite his constant inappropriate comments or actions, Dahl says, Scott never feels weird or self-conscious about what he has said or done. The awkwardness is how those words and actions make the people around him feel.

“I think we use the word as a stand-in for self-consciousness or social anxiety,” Dahl said. “I feel awkward all the time, but I don’t think I’m a particularly awkward person. I hope not.”

After moving frequently as a child, Dahl’s family settled in Sacramento when she was in high school. When it came time to apply for college, she chose Sacramento State in part because she wanted to remain in the area and in part because of the strength of its journalism program.

Joining The State Hornet her freshman year, she says, “changed everything for me.” It allowed her to put into practice all of the concepts she was learning in the classroom. It provided a collaborative environment in which she could grow and gain new skills. And it’s where she met people she still considers some of her closest friends.

The State Hornet, combined with her work at the Bee and the News-Sentinel, also provided her with the practical experience needed to succeed as a professional journalist.

“When I graduated, I already felt like, ‘I know how to do this,’ ” Dahl said. “I was 22 and I had worked in two newsrooms at that point. Right out of the gate, I felt like, ‘Oh, I got this.’”

For Sacramento State students aspiring to be journalists, joining The State Hornet is “mandatory,” Dahl said, and a way to not only learn about what you want to do but to actually start doing it.

“This is the place to make mistakes and try different things and hopefully, by the time you’ve graduated, you’ll have some experience under your belt.”

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.