What began with a brave college student and continued with a band of tenacious journalists resulted Monday in a Pulitzer Prize for The Salt Lake Tribune and its groundbreaking investigation of rapes at Utah colleges.
The award for local reporting marks the second Pulitzer for Utah's largest daily in its nearly 150-year history.
Paul Huntsman, the paper's owner and publisher, called the award a "great tribute to the professionalism and outstanding work of our staff."
"The world now knows the quality and commitment of The Salt Lake Tribune, something many of us have been aware of for some time," said Huntsman, who bought the newspaper last May.
The yearlong reporting project boosted awareness of sexual assaults and campus safety, while spurring reforms at Utah State University and LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.
Pulitzer judges said the paper's staff earned the prize "for a string of vivid reports revealing the perverse, punitive and cruel treatment given to sexual-assault victims at Brigham Young University, one of Utah's most powerful institutions."
Coverage began in earnest a year ago, when BYU student Madi Barney arose in a public forum to complain about the treatment of sexual-assault victims on the Provo campus. She said the school's Honor Code — with its rules on drinking, dress, premarital sex and other behaviors — scared off sexual assault survivors, preventing them from reporting attacks and sometimes revictimizing victims.
Barney's riveting and revealing story graced The Tribune's front page a year ago this week, on April 13, 2016. Eight months later, her courageous stance won her Utahn of the Year honors from Tribune editors.
Throughout the year, dozens of sexual-assault victims — women and men — at BYU and other Utah colleges also entrusted The Tribune with their stories. Reporters kept digging, unearthing public documents from reluctant agencies and exposing problems at campuses and law enforcement operations across the state.
The paper's dogged pursuit also resulted in criminal rape charges against a former Utah State University football star.
USU has fine-tuned its reporting system, and BYU has announced plans for a series of reforms, including an amnesty clause that would shield students from Honor Code penalties when reporting sexual assaults.
"People went through a lot talking to us for these stories," Erin Alberty, a leading reporter on the project, said soon after the Pulitzer news. "There is still a lot of pushback and victim blaming out there. This shows that their stories were true, newsworthy and right that they should be told."
The Tribune's campus rape coverage, steered by Managing Editor Sheila McCann, drew from staffers across the newsroom. Besides Alberty, reporters Jessica Miller, Alex Stuckey and now-digital-editor Rachel Piper led the way, with help from Matthew Piper, Benjamin Wood, Nate Carlisle and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Photographers Leah Hogsten, Chris Detrick and Francisco Kjolseth provided telling and touching images as words and visuals combined to tell the story of a campus crisis startlingly ever-present yet too often routinely ignored.
"Our size meant this took commitment from many staffers, and I'm so grateful to work in such a talented, collaborative newsroom," McCann said. "I hope this recognition for our staff is inspiring for other newsrooms our size."
McCann said The Tribune's team was "sobered throughout this work at how the experiences of the women and men who talked to us resonated through their lives, and their willingness to talk to us. I think we and they hope this contributes to continuing improvement in responses to sexual assault."
Miller, who said she was "kind of in shock," pointed out that the paper's "work is not done because we received this recognition. There are two pending lawsuits" and unresolved criminal cases.
The trial in Barney's case, for instance, is set to begin next month.
"What an incredible honor and well-deserved recognition," Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce wrote in a staff email. "Clearly, awards aren't why we do what we do, but they certainly are worth celebrating."
And celebrate, the staff did. Whoops and hollers echoed from all corners of the newsroom as staffers learned the news from the livestreamed Pulitzer announcement in New York. High-fives and fist bumps broke out. Hugs and tears flowed — along with sparkling wine and cider in plastic cups — followed by impromptu speeches from choked-up but beaming editors and reporters.
"I can't believe I'm not there to celebrate," said Napier-Pearce, who was traveling Monday. She credited the entire staff, Huntsman — the paper "would not be here without his intervention," she noted — and her predecessor, former Editor Terry Orme, for backing the project from the get-go and "embracing this kind of exceptional journalism."
"This project started well-before I took on the role of editor," she wrote in a recent column, "but I'm so honored to be able to continue to support it."
The Tribune's previous Pulitzer came in 1957 for its coverage of two airliners that crashed over the Grand Canyon. Longtime editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley was a Pulitzer finalist in 2014.
Other finalists for this year's local-reporting prize were The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
Jurors were Myriam Marquez, executive editor of El Nuevo Herald; Jeffrey Good, executive editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass.; Veda Morgan, news director of The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.; Deirdre Sykes, editor of The Record in Woodland Park, N.J.;Sam Davis, managing editor of the Baltimore Sun; Jennifer Berry Hawes, watchdog and public service reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.; and Michael Schaffer, editor of the Washingtonian, Washington, D.C.
The Pulitzer is hardly the first honor for The Tribune's coverage of campus rape. Earlier this month, the American Society of Newspaper Editors bestowed the 2017 Frank A. Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting on the daily. The paper's stories about sexual assault at BYU also won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.
Reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.