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Paths to the Pulitzer

How IUP Roots Led to Journalism’s Top Prize

It was clearly a joke, but Susan Snyder ’85 knew it was proof her life had changed.

She was having dinner with friends a few years ago, and one poked fun at her, saying that if the group drove off a cliff that night, the next day’s headline would read, “Pulitzer Winner, Others Perish in Crash.”

All kidding aside, that’s what life is like for journalists who are fortunate—and talented—enough to win the Pulitzer Prize, the profession’s top national award. The words “Pulitzer winner” will forever precede their names.

It is the Oscar, the Everest, the gold medal of journalism. And four IUP alumnae have been part of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams. 

When Paula Reed Ward ’96 was named a winner in April for her part in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s coverage of the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, she became the latest member of the IUP family to be honored.

“The day of the award ceremony in New York City ranks up there among the top days of my life,” she said.

Snyder had the same sentiment when she and her colleagues realized they had won in 2012. “It was my most exciting moment as a journalist,” she said, “perhaps the best day of my life.”

For Alysia Burton Steele ’97, the 2007 Pulitzer was something more existential. “It was like an out-of-body experience,” she said.

Madelyn Ross ’71 can certainly relate to the experiences of her fellow IUP alumnae, but in triplicate. During her 34-year career in the newsroom, Ross was part of teams that won the Pulitzer three times.

“It was a validation of our journalism,” she said. “Those three stories changed things in the world around us.”

While the alumnae followed different paths to the award, their journeys began at the same place.

“Having four of us is a credit to IUP and the way it prepares its graduates,” Snyder said. “It’s where we got prepared and our dreams were nurtured.”

Paula Reed Ward

Paula Reed Ward ’96 during the Pulitzer awards ceremony in New York in June (Courtesy of Paula Reed Ward)

Many of the skills Ward has today were instilled in her at IUP. She credits Bob Russell, a former journalist who retired from the faculty in 2005, with giving her an honest look at the profession.

“He didn’t tell us just his huge success stories,” Ward said. “He also told us about the mistakes he made. For me, it was like a road map of what to look out for.”

Ward took her diploma and jumped right into a newspaper career. After working at the Pottsville Republican (1997-99) and then the Savannah Morning News (1999-2003), she landed her dream job with her hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, covering a spectrum of topics over the next 15 years. 

But even she couldn’t imagine the events she would cover one Saturday last October. She was getting ready to take her kids to soccer practice when she received a text message about an active shooter in a Squirrel Hill synagogue. For Ward, the following weeks flew by with little sleep and much anguish.

Reporting on the shooting, in which 11 people were killed and six others injured, took an emotional toll, but Ward held true to her journalistic training and got through it.

Ward spoke at the IUP Journalism and Public Relations Department’s commencement ceremony in May. (Jennifer Bush)

Ward spoke at the IUP Journalism and Public Relations Department’s commencement ceremony in May. (Jennifer Bush)

“I think that’s how it was for the whole city,” she said. “There was shock, sadness, and grieving. But as journalists, it’s what we do every day. We had to set aside the emotions and make sure the community was well informed.”

Six months later, Ward was cleaning her house and admittedly had forgotten the Pulitzer winners were being announced that day—until a text message came. This one, about the Post-Gazette’s victory, she was elated to receive.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “It’s a point of pride. It’s a great celebration for the journalism world.”

Alysia Burton Steele

Alysia Burton Steele ’97 during her book tour in 2015 (Bobby D. Steele Jr.)

A photo editor at the Dallas Morning News in 2007, Steele also worked through a tragedy.

She was at her desk the night Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and began to intensify. Steele’s job was to assign photographers to major stories, and she sent hers after the hurricane.

“I was unable to sleep at night because the images would bombard me,” she said. “I remember many days at my desk when I would just burst into tears.”

The emotional price she paid was somewhat tempered the following spring, when the Pulitzer winners were revealed. Steele, who was off that day, received a text from her boss summoning her to the office. When she arrived, the flow of champagne told her right away there was very good news.

“I could not believe I was part of the process,” she said. “I was so proud of the work our photographers had done and the stories they told.”

But it wasn’t all joy.

“You never want to see people suffer,” she said. “You don’t want to win because of other people’s agony. But journalists, we’re a different breed of people. It’s about telling the story and being honest.”

Steele with Paula Reed Ward during an IUP-hosted media summit (Courtesy of Alysia Burton Steele)

Steele with Paula Reed Ward during an IUP-hosted media summit (Courtesy of Alysia Burton Steele)

That’s a lesson she learned during her days at IUP, she said, when she developed close bonds with her professors, especially Patricia Heilman M’83, D’87, who retired from the department six years ago.

After leaving the newspaper business, Steele became an author and an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, where she passes along pointers she learned at IUP.

“It’s not lost on me,” she said. “I hope that I can have just a fraction of the influence that Pat had on me. I love her dearly and respect her so much.”

Susan Snyder ’85 (Keith Boyer)

Susan Snyder ’85 (Keith Boyer)

Snyder also formed close bonds with her professors at IUP in the 1980s. 

“I had some great ones,” she said, specifically mentioning Heilman and Randy Jesick, who still teaches after 50 years at IUP. “They prepared us for the real world. They emphasized quality and accuracy. I thought I wanted to be a journalist when I got to IUP, and they confirmed it.”

Today, Snyder covers education for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The skills she honed at IUP came in handy in 2011, when she and her colleagues began work on a series about violence among students in the School District of Philadelphia. 

The following spring, they watched on Twitter as the Pulitzers were announced. When the Inquirer was revealed as a winner, the room erupted.

“We had been hearing that we were likely to win or to be near the top,” Snyder said, “but there’s nothing that can prepare you for the moment when you hear you’ve won.”

She immediately felt gratitude, not just toward her coworkers, but toward the people back at IUP. 

“Randy taught me so many things,” she said. “Plus, he’s such an interesting person to talk to. And Pat had this passion for journalism. She loved the work, and I admired that. I’ve always wanted to do good work because I wanted her to think highly of me.”

Snyder and her Philadelphia Inquirer colleagues after hearing the news of their Pulitzer win in 2012 (Courtesy of Susan Snyder)

Snyder and her Philadelphia Inquirer colleagues after hearing the news of their Pulitzer win in 2012 (Courtesy of Susan Snyder)

Snyder has returned to IUP several times, including once as the Journalism Department’s commencement speaker. She’s also had the opportunity to teach a week in Hong Kong, speak about her experiences at several conferences, and twice be a judge for the Pulitzers.

But, she said her life did not change as much as one might think.

“I still have to take my turn working weekends,” she said. “I still have to do the day-to-day work. But it gave me a sense of personal satisfaction and fulfilment, and I continue to feel that.”

Madelyn Ross

Madelyn Ross ’71, right, with reporter Mary Pat Flaherty, after the Pittsburgh Press won its first Pulitzer in 1986 (Courtesy of Madelyn Ross)

Journalism was not yet a major when Ross was at IUP, but her hands-on experience as a student complemented what she learned in journalism classes in the English Department.

For three years, she was editor of the Penn, IUP’s student newspaper, working under the guidance of English faculty member Craig Swauger ’42. And in professor David Truby’s classes, she got the foundation for what would be a remarkable career. (Swauger, now deceased, retired from the Journalism Department in 1991 and Truby in 1996.)

“My journalism experience at IUP was more experiential than anything,” she said. “The experience that I had at the Penn was critical to virtually everything that happened to me afterward in my career.”

Ross was a student during one of the most turbulent times in America, with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement dominating headlines. 

“We had to inform but not to inflame,” she said. “We were hard-pressed to have journalism students supporting the war. But we were so cognizant of the other side, and we had to get that represented in the paper. We had to provide balanced coverage.”

Ross, far right, and her Pittsburgh Post-Gazette colleagues awaited a winner between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the wee hours after the November 2000 presidential election. They changed the front-page headline four times and finally went with “Too Close to Call,” Ross said. (Courtesy of Madelyn Ross)

Ross, far right, and her Pittsburgh Post-Gazette colleagues awaited a winner between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the wee hours after the November 2000 presidential election. They changed the front-page headline four times and finally went with “Too Close to Call,” Ross said. (Courtesy of Madelyn Ross)

Ross’s career took off after she graduated. Within 12 years of earning her bachelor’s degree, she became managing editor of the Pittsburgh Press. When the paper folded in 1992, she joined the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the same role and continued to guide her staff to find and report on the news that mattered.

Her reporters won back-to-back Pulitzers in 1986 and 1987. The first was for coverage of violations and failures within the organ transplant system and the second for the Federal Aviation Administration’s lack of safety standards for pilots. In 1996, one of her photographers, Martha Rial, won a Pulitzer for illustrating the plight of refugees during the Rwanda and Burundi genocides.

“These were important stories,” said Ross, who left the newspaper business in 2005 and became an associate vice president at the University of Pittsburgh, a position she retired from in 2013. “The organ transplant protocol was changed [so the sickest, not the richest, would get organs first]. Airline safety as a whole was overturned. That story made flying safer for all of us. And Rwanda was a story that was pretty much hidden until after that. Martha’s win showcased that tragedy.”

There are many common threads in the stories of these four journalists. They were all persistent in their efforts, righteous in their judgment, and accurate in their reporting.

And they achieved journalism’s top honor with roots planted firmly at their alma mater.

“All of us are dedicated to our craft and worked hard to get where we are,” Ward said. “The education I got at IUP led me down that path.”

It was a path that changed their lives and, eventually, the world around them.

“My experience at IUP,” Snyder said, “was transformational.”