Pulitzer Prizes Come with a Surprise Inside

While awards stalwart New York Times won in three categories, the most unexpected award went to first-time winner Insider for illustrated reporting for a comic about Xinjiang internment camps

Often, the winners of Pulitzer Prizes learn of their awards early through informal industry leaks, but Insider senior editor for data Walter Hickey was caught completely off-guard when his team won in the illustrated reporting category for their comic on the internment camps in Xinjiang. When he spoke to The Fine Print on Monday, he was still jittery, overwhelmed by the adrenaline and excitement, and having trouble finishing his sentences. This was after he’d had a chance to collect himself a little bit. He’d recently reviewed a video of the moment when he learned they had won. “I basically seem to melt. I am a human form on the couch, and then I immediately dissolve into liquid,” he said. “I had absolutely no idea that we would win. It continues to be one of the craziest things that has ever happened to me. We had no clue.” For Insider global editor-in-chief Nicholas Carlson, his publication winning its first Pulitzer was “an out of body experience.”

The prizes were unusually equitably distributed this year. There were strong showings by old stalwarts: 104 years after The New York Times won its first Pulitzer in 1918 — “For its public service in publishing in full so many official reports, documents and speeches by European statesmen relating to the progress and conduct of the war,” read the citationThe Times won three awards, including one for its debunking of U.S. government claims about who the military had killed with its drone strikes in the Middle East. The Washington Post won the big prize for public service for its coverage of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. But perennial Pulitzer heavyweight The Wall Street Journal had a surprise shutout, leaving staff, according to Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources, “shocked and confounded that the ‘Facebook Files’ report wasn’t even cited as a finalist.”

Insider wasn’t the only first-time winner. The staff of science magazine Quanta, founded by former New York Times science writer Thomas Lin in 2012, won for explanatory reporting for coverage of NASA’s Webb telescope. Writer Natalie Wolchover, who the board had singled out in its citation, struggled to grasp that she’d won while laid up with Covid.

The Atlantic won its second Pulitzer since the board made magazines eligible in 2016 in feature writing for Jennifer Senior’s story on the 20 years of grieving after her brother’s former roommate’s death on 9/11. (The Fine Print spoke to Senior about her piece last September.) The Kansas City Star won in commentary, its first Pulitzer since 1992, for Melinda Henneberger’s columns advocating for justice for the alleged victims of a former Kansas City police detective accused of extorting and sexually preying on Black women. After spending a decade at The New York Times, Henneberger worked at AOL before joining The Star’s editorial board in 2017, and this week started as a columnist at The Sacramento Bee, another McClatchy paper. “I really don’t know what to say except that this is extremely humbling and, as I may have mentioned a few hundred times before, that it’s past time for the FBI to show up with some handcuffs,” Henneberger told her former paper.

“Holy shit, right?” Carlson could be heard saying when someone walked into his office in the middle of a call on Monday. Insider had been experimenting with comics since Carlson had the idea to illustrate the Mueller Report. He’d been fascinated with comics since he was a kid. “As soon as I was able to spend my allowance on comic books at the grocery store, I did,” he said. “I read Wizard magazine, and I was a Batman reader.” When he proposed the idea to the newsroom, Hickey, a comics obsessive since college who still picks up his weekly packet at Midtown Comics, immediately volunteered. Hickey went to Comic-Con looking for collaborators and came back having connected with Anthony Del Col and Josh Adams, who he’s worked with since, including on the comic that won them their Pulitzer. “We started making comics, and we did one about Trump’s impeachment. We did one about the Coronavirus and how it was sort of ignored within the Trump administration. We’ve done several, but they’ve gotten better every time,” Carlson said. “It’s hard to tell a story journalistically in a comic book because it requires scenes and one of the things we stuck with throughout all these is they need to be true and then you’d have sources for the details we have. So we struck upon the idea of an as told to where someone tells us their story, and we’re very upfront about ‘This is their story, this is what happened to them, and we’re sharing it with the world.’”

The internment camps in Xinjiang seemed like they could benefit from illustrated coverage. “An issue with the coverage of Xinjiang has been that photography is just not really a part of it. It’s very hard to get access to imagery of this. You’ll notice that so many of the stories that cover this critical issue all are using some of the same photography, audacious, bold, wonderful photography, but just by the very nature of repressive government, you’re not going to be able to get the kind of visual features that you otherwise normally would,” Hickey said. “We just thought that this was uniquely suited for the medium.” Hickey and Del Col connected with Zumrat Dawut, who had survived the camps, and along with artist Fahmida Azim, colorist Rebecca Good, letterer Taylor Esposito, and art director Josh Adams, set about adapting her story. “Zumrat has so much courage, and her willingness and ability to come forward and talk to us and really just explain these intricate and devastating details of her life, and what she had to endure,” Hickey said. “I am just so happy that the story finally gets the audience that it really deserves.”

They’re far from done with comics and this story, which they’re translating into Uyghur and Mandarin and adapting into a video version that they’re planning to submit to festivals. “While personally, I’m a writer, and I have no skills in the area of visual arts, I am a huge believer that a story will graft itself to someone’s memory far quicker and more emotionally with images than they will with words,” Carlson said. “I actually think we have a lot of innovation to do. I mean, this was great, and we’re really happy, but we actually can break the form even more and push it even further. And that’s what we plan to do. Maybe we’ll submit it for another Pulitzer next year.”