Paige awarded Pulitzer

In journalism, winning a Pulitzer Prize is one of those “often sought – rarely achieved” moments that marks a high point in a career.  An SIUE Mass Communications graduate stands at the top of her field, Pulitzer Prize award in hand.

On Tuesday, April 19, Paige St. John was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.  According to the Pulitzer Prize web site, St. John was awarded the prize because of “her examination of weaknesses in the murky property-insurance system  vital to Florida homeowners, providing handy data to assess insurer reliability and stirring regulatory action.”

“St. John did something no one had done before — followed the Florida insurance dollar, as it was paid out by consumers, shipped offshore to reinsurers, or turned into secret profits with accounting risks,” Herald-Tribune Executive Editor Mike Connelly said in a nominating letter according to a Wall Street Journal article.

SIUE alumna Paige St. John, Pulitzer Prize winner for Investigative Journalism. photo courtesy of The Bradenton Times.

St. John, who has been writing for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald Tribune since 2008, penned a series of articles she refers to as “Insurance Nightmare.”  The articles examined the condition of Florida’s property insurance market, which according to St. John has been shredded.

“The ‘Insurance Nightmare’ series focused on Florida’s deadly dance with hurricanes, which has shredded the state’s property insurance market. Carriers have fled, rates have soared, and after five years without storms, the state seems no better able to assure that claims get paid when the next big one strikes,” said St John.

St. John stated that before the Herald-Tribune began their investigation the debate on insurance issues in Florida centered around how high the rates could go.  St. John said that when the Herald-Tribune began an investigation to answer why the market was in such turmoil, they found that homeowner premiums were being mishandled, to the detriment of state run insurance carriers.

“The Herald-Tribune found that homeowner’s premiums were being pumped offshore, or diverted into side ventures, producing large profits for the recipients but further draining state resources,” said St. John.

Since the stories were published, the debate has shifted to focus on carrier solvency, the climbing cost of reinsurance, and the perception of hurricane risks, according to St. John.  She also stated that homeowners now have a tool that will allow them to check the financial strength of the own insurer.

SIUE played a big role in St. John becoming a journalist.

“I came to SIUE because it was our family school–my father literally helped build it–and in his footsteps as an engineer, I pursued the sciences.  It was a happy accident that I lucked into a Journalism 101 class, and from that moment on, I was addicted,” stated St. John.

St. John said Professor Emeritis Bill Ward played a pivotal role in her development at SIUE.  She stated the single word answer to the classes and professors that influenced her career is “Ward.”

“There wasn’t a student who came through the program who was not imprinted by Professor Bill Ward, and he continues to inspire many of us to this day. He assembled a remarkable team of teachers, and every class with them–from photojournalism to constitutional law–was critical to helping me develop as a journalist, to learn to see the world, and inspiring me to reach for the sky,” said St. John.  “Especially wonderful were the lab classes, where theory met reality. The biggest challenge about journalism is that you often wake up not knowing what you’ll encounter that day, and those labs showed us how to adjust to a constantly changing environment.”

The inspiration that St. John gained from her classes at SIUE has translated into her successful career.  St. John sees thinking and critical thinking as imperative lessons for new students in journalism to learn from their courses.

“Hopefully [students] come into the program with curiosity about the world, but critical thinking is the essential tool for all journalism.  Otherwise, it’s just stenography,” said St. John.

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