VCU alumnus oversees Pulitzer Prize-winning black lung investigative series

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Ronnie Greene, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, was project editor for "Breathless and Burdened," a series of articles for the Center for Public Integrity that last week received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

The investigative series, by reporter Chris Hamby, revealed "how some lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease, resulting in remedial legislative efforts," according to the Pulitzer citation.

Greene, who received a degree in journalism from VCU and a master's degree in nonfiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University, recently spoke with VCU about the investigation, his career path and his advice for aspiring investigative journalists.

Please tell me about "Breathless and Burdened." How did this investigation come about? And could you share a little about what being project editor entailed?

"Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine" is a three-part, 25,000-word series written by my colleague, Chris Hamby, detailing how lawyers and doctors working for the coal industry helped beat back miners’ claims for modest health benefits. This project had its roots in earlier reporting by Chris, detailing a surprising resurgence in black lung disease afflicting coal miners in Appalachia. As Chris reported that story, he heard tales about a federal benefits system that, essentially, was plaguing miners a second time – often refusing to pay them benefits for their suffering. Chris wanted to know why, and his reporting trail led him to some surprising locations, including the nation’s top-ranked hospital.

I am co-editor of the Center for Public Integrity’s environmental reporting team. As such, my fellow team leader, Jim Morris, and I worked with Chris over his year of reporting – ensuring he had the time to do this story right, and serving as sounding boards during his many months of groundbreaking reporting. We were also, of course, writing other investigative stories ourselves.

As project editor of "Breathless and Burdened," I edited every word of the 25,000-word series, going over each story time and again, and working with Chris to ensure we produced a project that was as powerful as his reporting. Chris not only uncovered groundbreaking material, he wrote a compelling narrative. My job was to be the final edit on the project. On a story this important, I enjoyed every minute of the editing process. The honor announced last week, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, speaks to the power of his work and the significant impact it has triggered.

Did you always want to be an investigative reporter and editor? What led to that interest?

I turned to journalism in high school, and, at first, thought I would be a sports reporter. As a kid, I would watch baseball games – my team was the Boston Red Sox – and then write stories, just for myself, about the team and its competitors. As a teenager, when my youthful career as an athlete came to a close, I opened the notebook once more and started writing for an audience. I came to VCU to write sports, and became sports editor of The Commonwealth Times at the end of my freshman year.

But several journalism professors – one in high school, and some in college, including VCU’s Joan Deppa – urged me to broaden my horizon to news. As a sophomore at VCU, I switched to news and have not turned back.

My hunger has always been to find and write stories that fly under the radar; in the best world, as in "Breathless and Burdened," to help spotlight cases of injustice and let the power of your reporting point the way to reform. Over the years, I have written about abuse and enslavement of farmworkers in Florida, deadly air cargo plane crashes nationwide, and questionable green energy spending by the federal government, among other topics.

Before you joined the Center for Public Integrity in 2011, you were a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor at The Miami Herald. Could you talk a little about your career path?

I spent 19 years overall at The Miami Herald, many of them as an investigative reporter and editor. At The Herald, I was fortunate to work with reporters who both dig deep and write with power and passion. Several times, projects I was a part of were honored, as you mention, but it was always as part of a team.

Most of my career was spent in South Florida. I could not imagine a more invigorating place to launch a career.

In 1986, I started at The Palm Beach Post, driving the 16 hours from Richmond to West Palm Beach the day after graduation and soon starting as a general assignment reporter for that quality daily newspaper. The news, literally, never stopped and back then, newspapers were seemingly everywhere, the competition intense. I covered City Hall, County Hall and investigative projects, writing about substandard housing for Haitian-Americans, a religious cult’s firebombing of a neighborhood, and misspending at local public housing authorities.

I joined The Miami Herald in 1989, spending seven years as a reporter in Broward County – covering government, legal affairs and investigative stories. I helped cover Hurricane Andrew, co-wrote an eight-part series about crime but lack of punishment in South Florida, and wrote about public corruption and cases of injustice.

In 1996, I moved to the Baltimore Sun, but the pull of South Florida brought me back to The Miami Herald in 1998. I spent nine years on the Herald’s investigative staff in Miami before moving to editing in 2007. By 2010, I was the paper’s investigations and government editor; the last project I worked on as an editor, “Neglected to Death,” exposing unpunished deaths in Florida group homes, was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Public Service Reporting.

In 2011, I moved to D.C. to my current position.

In what ways did your time at VCU prepare you for your career?

VCU was a great laboratory for an aspiring journalist, and I urge students to step out of their seats and see your stories first-hand. While at VCU, I wrote about campus crime, interviewed inmates at a maximum security prison and described how public and private institutions discriminated against people with AIDS. These stories – all set in an urban setting – helped prepare me for my career. I also worked with quality professors, including June Nicholson.

VCU also helped my career in a tangible way. The summer after my junior year, after urging from several professors to apply, I served a Dow Jones copyediting internship for The Palm Beach Post. That internship introduced me to South Florida, and I returned to The Post after graduation the next year.

What advice would you give to journalism students at VCU who are interested in pursuing a career in investigative journalism?

Leave your seat and see the people and places you are writing about first-hand. The best journalism mixes an analysis of public records with on-the-ground reporting with real people. At the Center for Public Integrity, I have researched stories in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Ohio and Connecticut, exploring issues ranging from deaths among commercial fishermen at sea to polluted air in a Native American community. Each time, I studied what the government did or didn’t to regulate industry, and how industry’s actions impacted residents – reporting threads can entail thousands of public records. But the heart is always in communities, whether around the corner or across the state, when you sit down with people in their homes and hear their stories.


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