Courier-Journal editor draws inspiration from 2020 Pulitzer Prize win

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Jul 1, 2020


Standing alone in his basement drinking champagne out of a plastic Kentucky Derby cup was not the Pulitzer Prize celebration Rick Green had dreamt of. But the Louisville Courier-Journal’s executive editor was no less elated and inspired when he learned his newsroom had won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. The Courier-Journal is a member of NNA.

Originally scheduled for Monday, April 20, 2020, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced on May 4 via video stream after the COVID-19 pandemic caused a disruption in the judging process, Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy reported in a news release.

Green and other senior editors in the USA Today Network, of which the Courier-Journal is a member, learned the Courier-Journal had won for breaking news as they huddled in their respective home offices, connected via Zoom while watching a live feed on various devices as Canedy made the award announcements.

As it turned out, Green was among the last to know his team had won because his phone connection faltered, dropping the live feed just as the Courier-Journal was named.

“I had my phone on the keyboard and I’m watching the beginning of the Pulitzer announcements, and just as they announced the category for breaking news, I lost the connection,” Green said in a recent phone interview.

As he fumbled with his phone to reconnect to the announcements, he could see the faces of his colleagues spread out across the Zoom grid. They were cheering, holding their arms in the air, and applauding.

“I was like ‘oh my God, this is great; someone must have won or is a finalist or something,’” Green said. He called Amalie Nash, Gannett’s vice president for local news, who informed him the Courier-Journal had won.

“So, we’re on the phone, and I’ve got a goofy look on my face,” he said, laughing. “I sent an email to our newsroom that said ‘OMG, we just won a Pulitzer, and a reporter texted back and asked if someone had hacked my email.’”

Green recalls Dec. 2, 2019, as the day his newsroom got a tip that then-Governor of Kentucky Matt Bevins was slated to pardon and commute the sentences of more than 600 people who had been convicted of a variety of crimes, including child-rape and murder.

“For more than three weeks, we lived that story, through the end of 2019 and even into 2020,” Green said.

He has dubbed his style of coverage “breaking investigative reporting” and describes it as devoting 12-15 members of a news staff to swarming the story, working hard to get it right and making sure accuracy trumps all other aspects of it.

“There was no way we were going to get beat on that story,” he said. “We were all focused on the fact that it was a story of great magnitude, and we had to tell it well, tell it accurately, and tell it first.”

In an article the Courier-Journal published on May 9, a week after the Pulitzer announcement, Green described the high stakes reporting. He emphasized that he was willing to roll the dice in favor of accuracy over speed in releasing a key detail of the story.

While going through a stack of Bevin’s campaign finance reports, a reporter discovered that someone named Eric Baker and his family had raised $21,500 during a 2018 fundraiser they held for Bevin at their home. Patrick Baker, who had been sentenced to 19 years in prison in 2017, was one of the inmates whose sentence Bevin had commuted.

This fact threw the newsroom into quandary, the Courier-Journal reported. Was the Eric Baker who hosted the fundraiser the brother of inmate Patrick Baker, or was it a coincidence that they had the same last name?

Reporters had one source saying they were siblings, but Green and the newspaper’s political editor Rob Byers refused to publish the accusation of family ties unless they could be absolutely sure. The print deadline was just 30 minutes away.

"We’ve got to get it right,” Green said. He insisted that his newsroom should hold the story.

“If we don't have it tonight. We'll come back at it in the morning," he said.

As the clocked ticked down, reporters found two additional sources to confirm the Bakers were brothers. The story hit the press and the website.

Over the holiday season, Green’s team maintained its dogged pursuit of the facts.

“It was nose to the grindstone with hardly a relenting hour,” Green said.

The Courier-Journal, a 152-year-old daily newspaper, once owned by the storied Bingham family, is now part of Gannett. Green, who had just completed a stint as editor of the Des Moines Register, reported to the newsroom as editor on Memorial Day in 2018. He recalled an inspiring walk along the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize wall his first day on the job.

“When you walk by, there’s a sense of awe in being part of an organization that has prized quality journalism for as long as the Courier-Journal has,” he said. “Walking by that wall is inspiring to me, and I feel a sense of responsibility to the Commonwealth here and the readers of the Courier-Journal.

The newspaper now has 11 Pulitzer Prize awards, including six given to individual writers and photographers. Its first Pulitzer went to editorial writer Henry Watterson in 1918 for editorials about World War I. In 1967, the Courier-Journal won the Pulitzer Gold Medal for its coverage of Kentucky strip-mining.

The 2020 award was Green’s first Pulitzer.

The Courier-Journal publishes daily. Its weekday circulation is 78,419 and Sunday circulation is 99,068, according to a listing in the Kentucky Press Association’s membership directory. Green runs a newsroom with 62 employees.

Since winning the Pulitzer, Green and the entire newspaper has been feeling the love from readers and supporters who are demonstrating their gratitude through their pocketbooks.

“The greatest thing for me is after we won the Pulitzer, I wrote a couple of columns and just talked about the importance of our readers and how we couldn’t produce the kind of journalism that won a Pulitzer without their loyal readership and their subscriptions. I told them that I need their help,” Green said.

He let his readers know the newspaper had proven its commitment to investigative journalism by winning a Pulitzer and implored them to continue to support the Courier-Journal.

Then the checks started arriving in the amounts of $500, $300, even $10 from people who told Green they want to help and they want to see meaningful journalism to continue to happen in Louisville.

“When people send you a personal check and say thank you for doing journalism, that makes a difference at a time when we are being portrayed by some politicians as the enemy of the people,” he said, growing emotional.

“It’s one thing to offer your support in an email or a phone call, but it’s another thing when you tell me you are so thankful for journalism that I’m writing you a check,” he said. “There’s no greater affirmation in the work we are doing than someone giving me their own personal money to invest in investigative reporting.”

Now embarking on his third year at the Courier-Journal, Green says he told his staff that they now stand on the shoulders of the reporters, editors, editorial writers and cartoonists who preceded them.

“Just like the first day when I walked by that wall of Pulitzers and every other day I walk past it, I think to myself, ‘if that doesn’t inspire you and challenge you professionally, then nothing will,’” he said.

Teri Saylor can be contacted at