It’s unlikely there was much money riding on Jeff Gerritt to win the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing. His newspaper, the Palestine Herald-Press in Texas is tiny: daily circulation about 3,500. Gerritt was relatively new to the newspaper and the town, having moved there just two years before he wrote his winning work. And his editorials centered on a subject that often has to fight to get attention: the high rate of deaths in Texas county jails.
Even Gerritt figured he was the longest of shots. He went out for a cup of coffee as the Pulitzer announcements rolled out.
But Gerritt came to the Palestine paper toting a few decades of journalism experience and an impressive list of previous awards — a string he added to as soon as he landed in Texas. He spent 17 working as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer at the Detroit Free Press, and was deputy editorial page editor of the Toledo Blade. He often wrote about prison and criminal justice reform. His biography also notes extensive foreign travel, including an interview with Yassar Arafat in 2001, and a pre-newspaper career as a professional drummer.
Gerritt’s Pulitzer work included 10 editorials under a series called “Death Without Conviction.” He focused on the high rate of deaths — averaging 100 a year — among people being held in the state’s 250 local jails. Because these deaths occurred before trial, the victims were still considered innocent under the law. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Sandra Bland’s death continues to be controversial five years after died in the Waller County jail, in the Houston area, in 2015. She was found hanged to death in her cell three days after she was jailed following a traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide, but the county and Texas Department of Public Safety agreed to a $1.9 million wrongful death settlement with Bland’s family.)
Palestine, population 18,000, is a two-hour drive southeast of Dallas. Gerritt set the tone for his work three days after he joined the Herald-Press as its editor in May 2017 by writing an editorial about a “big, strong, healthy” man’s death in the local county jail.
“Getting pertinent information to a community is what newspapers should do,” Gerritt wrote. “Withholding such information is not how government, at any level, ought to operate.”
According to a Texas Monthly profile of Gerritt, the local county sheriff responded by refusing to communicate with Gerritt and by cancelling his subscription to the newspaper. Six months before the editorial was published, the sheriff had been reelected to a fourth term in a landslide. Last year, at the age of 59, the sheriff announced his retirement.
Gerritt’s win for a small newspaper drew lots of attention. He told the news service of CNHI, the Alabama-based chain that owns the Herald-Press: “I couldn’t win the Pulitzer in nearly 20 years of winning everything else (in Detroit). I never thought I’d do it at a tiny paper in East Texas.” And in an interview with National Public Radio, he admitted he had, a few years earlier, blown a chance to write editorials for a major masthead. When he took the job as editor in Palestine, he thought the high points of his career were behind him.
We were interested in what journalistic skills and attitudes Gerritt brought to his editorials in Palestine, how writing editorials differs from straight news reporting, and what advice he had for reporters who might want to try their hand at opinion. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
You wrote your first editorial about a death at the Anderson County Jail three days after you started at the Palestine newspaper, which means you had no insider knowledge or go-to sources. As an editorial writer, does it help being new to a place?
I think it helps in the sense that you have a fresh set of eyes to see the issues, problems that other people don’t see.
But there is a cultural gap, especially when you come from a city like Detroit in the North to a small Southern town. It takes a while for people to trust you. I know the sheriff, for example, was mistrustful of me right from the start. I heard him talking to my city editor, saying things such as, “He’s another Northern liberal coming down here to bring his nonsense with him.” That’s before he even met me. He never did get to trust me.
How is reporting for editorial different from reporting for a news article?
I don’t think it is. I have always considered myself a reporter. I started as a reporter at the Detroit Free Press for five years before I went to the editorial board. I was an investigative reporter in Green Bay, Wisconsin, before that. I was in prisons. I was in shelters. I was talking to addicts. I think you have to do the same thing as an editorial writer or columnist. You have to dig for information. You have to fight to get sources. You have to be able to get people to talk to you. You have to FOIA (requests for information through the Freedom of Information Act) your documents. Well-reported columns that had a lot of independent reporting became a signature of mine. I was always proud of that. I have always considered myself a reporter first, although I really love editorial writing.
What’s your relationship with the news reporter who might be reporting the news that you’re writing an editorial or a column about?
In Detroit and Toledo, it wasn’t that I just would look at stories and write editorials on them. I would actually break the news first. I was always aggressive about that. In Detroit sometimes, especially if I knew the beat reporter well, I would call him or her before I started my reporting and ask some questions.
With this series about deaths in jails, we did write some news stories — not just editorials. As editor, what I would do is tell the reporter, who was usually William Patrick, “This is what the story is going to be about today. This is the information I want you to get. These are the people to call.” Normally an editorial writer or a columnist would not have that kind of dialogue with a reporter.
Does an editorial writer have to be sure of themselves, since they are always giving their opinions?
I think he or she does. I think you have to have a little bit of swagger to write with authority. You need more than a news reporter does because, in a lot of cases, you are taking on the conventional wisdom. You have to be confident to take a position that’s unconventional or unpopular. I have covered the criminal justice system for so long that I can write with authority. A writer not writing with authority is couching their words. They’re being ambiguous in their language. But the only way you can be sure of yourself is to know what you’re writing about. If you try to fake that, you’re going to get in trouble.
If you’re not sure of yourself then you probably have to do more investigating. The answer is not to write around things. It’s to roll up your sleeves and make more calls. Talk off the record to people who know the subject. I do that a lot. I’ll say, “Look, you may not agree with this, but it is this crazy position to take?”
Your Pulitzer Prize bio says that you played drums professionally for three years. Do you still play?
Occasionally, yeah. The last time I played was at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in a prison. I sat in on the drums for a couple of songs.
I think rhythm is very important in writing. Drumming has helped me with that, and knowing music. There’s a certain rhythm to language that can be improvisational like jazz or it like hip–hop in some ways.
How does that make it’s way into your writing process? Are you thinking of rhythms as you write, or is it more subconscious?
It’s subconscious. I don’t specifically look for rhythm when I write, although I can feel it and see it when I rewrite. I may change some things on a second or third rewrite to make it more rhythmical or to get that beat or that tempo or that pace. On a first draft, I’m not thinking, “Let’s be rhythmical here.”
The agony of writing is when you have a ton of notes in front of you and a bunch of interviews and a blank screen. But once you’ve got a framework, then you go back and polish things up. That to me is fun. Usually, I can drop 30 percent of my words on second or third read. I’m pretty good at getting the excess words out and making it powerful.
What advice do you have for journalists who are interested in writing editorials?
Become a good reporter first. Don’t start out thinking, “I’m going to write editorials and opinion.” I’ve been in a hiring position a few times, and I would not hire an editorial writer who was not a good reporter first. You’ve got to base your opinions on something. You just can’t type it out of your skull. Also while you’re becoming a good reporter, do the hard work of becoming a good writer. Read the best writers. Go over Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and implement that in your writing. When you’re a good reporter, you get a lot of details that you would not get otherwise. The link between good reporting and good writing is direct.
And what about the reporters on the other side of the fence? Everybody’s multi-tasking as newsrooms shrink. What about the person who never wanted to write opinion and now has to do it? What would your advice be to them?
They’re being pushed into it, when they don’t want to be? You’ve asked a tough question because when they offered to cross-train me on the Free Press editorial page, I was so eager to do it. But when I first started, one of my weaknesses was that my editorials and columns lacked strong opinion and read like well–reported feature stories. My editor said, “Just spit it out, man. You got an opinion. Spit it out.” My advice is to give it a chance. You don’t have to give up your reporting skills. On the contrary, you might find that once you combine that reporting skill with commentary, you really like it.
Is there anything that you’d like to tell other editorial writers?
Whether or not newspapers survive, journalism will survive. No matter what platform you’re on, the content is what matters. Everybody’s got an opinion on the web, but not everybody can report and write. That’s what’s going to distinguish you in this information age. This is work that matters and you can get better if you try. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school and I was a C-minus student. I was in remedial English when I got to college. I welded myself into this with hard work and determination.
Editorial writing is important because you can make a difference in the world. You can make a difference reporting, too, but you can make more of a difference as an editorial writer, especially if you’re uncovering stuff as you’re doing it. You should feel privileged to do this work.
Madeline Bodin is a freelance environmental and science journalist based in Vermont.