Former Alibi Staffer Wins a Pulitzer
From the party floor to the top of journalism’s heap
By Dennis Domrzalski
When I first met Angie Drobnic she used to sleep off benders atop a dirt- and booze-encrusted carpet in a tiny newsroom on Wellesley.
She was my kind of gal, and I loved her for it.
She doesn’t booze heavily anymore. The former Alibi news editor has a nice house and a decent bed, complete with a husband.
The woman who began her journalism career in 1994 as a circulation intern at the startup Alibi (then NuCity) is on top of the journalism world.
Angie, now Angie Drobnic Holan, won the Pulitzer Prize.
She and a team of reporters and editors at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida's largest newspaper, won journalism's highest honor last week for a revolutionary idea in some circles: delivering unbiased news and holding election-cycle players accountable for the claims and promises they make.
The team won the Pulitzer for the paper's website Politifact.com, which dissected statements and promises made by candidates in last year's presidential primaries and election. Using a “Truth-O-Meter,” the crew determined whether those statements were truthful or blatant distortions and lies.
“During the primaries, we were checking everybody on every side—the candidates, the Republican and Democratic national committees, advocacy groups and chain e-mails,” Drobnic Holan explains. "We researched the claims, and then, based on that, labeled them True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, and if they were outrageously false, Pants on Fire.”
The core group of six reporters and editors, led by St. Petersburg Times’ Washington, D.C. reporter Bill Adair, sifted through nearly 900 statements of supposed fact during the campaign, including allegations that President Obama wasn't born in the United States.
“The ideal of objective journalism is something that people don't believe in anymore. It's important to have journalists who are fair-minded and call things the way they see it.”
Angie Drobnic Holan
The site was an immediate hit with St. Petersburg Times readers, many of whom called and e-mailed their tips about what came out of the mouths of presidential candidates and off their news releases.
“I think this was the most fun project I've ever done in journalism," she says. "I really believed in the project and have a lot of respect for Bill Adair. It was his idea.”
The project offered more than the fun of letting a babbling politician or their PR flack know that they were full of shit, she says. It was the thrill of practicing journalism the way many people think it's supposed to be done: unbiased and without taking sides.
“We felt we were making a contribution about what was going on in politics and giving people information from a source that did not have any skin in the game,” Drobnic Holan says. “The ideal of objective journalism is something that people don't believe in anymore. It's important to have journalists who are fair-minded and call things the way they see it. It's important for people to get information from sources that don't have a stake in the outcome—an honest broker who gives people a good take on what the facts are.”
Politifact.com was revolutionary in another way. The journalists published first to the Web before putting reports into the print edition. The Internet made it possible for Drobnic Holan and her truth-obsessed colleagues to reach a worldwide audience. It also made the project possible in the first place, while showing how and why journalism has changed.
“We could not have done this project eight years ago,” Drobnic Holan explained. “The Internet is what made it possible. In the olden days you'd have to get on the phone, and people would have to mail you documents, and by the time you got it all together, it would have been weeks. Thanks to the Internet there is so much access to primary sources and experts."
Drobnic Holan came to NuCity at age 21 after getting a liberal arts degree from the University of Texas in Austin. It was 1994, two years after Chris Johnson and Dan Scott founded Albuquerque's alternative rag—a paper that immediately shook up the city. It offered outrageousness, satire, silliness and bold attacks on politicians, and it was the perfect antidote to the city's dominant, but smug, boring and often demented newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal.
The staffers were young and wild, and they were having a blast.
“We didn't know what we were doing,” Drobnic Holan recalls with a laugh. “It's like we all got together and said, Hey, let's put out a paper! We did some crazy things, did a lot of stupid things, and people forgave us for our lapses in judgment.”
The Alibi did a lot things right, though. It went after stories and issues the Journal didn't care to touch.
“We wrote about the proposed road through the Petroglyph National Monument, the Green Party, (former Gov.) Gary Johnson wanting to decriminalize pot—just a whole lot of things.”
And she remembers—vaguely, though—the carousing.
“Yeah. I would sleep under my desk. They've got a picture of me sleeping with a magazine over my face. The bars were all our advertisers and they would let us in for free, and well ... ”
Drobnic Holan left the Alibi in 1998 to study journalism at Columbia University. She got her degree, worked for some newspapers in the Southeast and landed at the St. Petersburg Times. She's cut down on her alcohol intake.
“I no longer drink heavily,” she says. “Turning 30 does something for a person's tolerance for hangovers, no joke.”
And as for winning a Pulitzer Prize just 10 years out of the Alibi, Drobnic Holan says:
“Kids can grow up and make good.”
Has she ever.
Dennis Domrzalski took over as news editor at the Alibi when Angie Drobnic Holan left in 1998.
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