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University alumnus wins Pulitzer Prize with Louisville reporting team

Ben Tobin is part of the Louisville Courier-Journal team acknowledged for its investigation of former Kentucky Governor’s controversial pardons

Tobin served as a copy editor, sports columnist, assistant managing editor and managing editor for The Cavalier Daily during his time at the University.
Tobin served as a copy editor, sports columnist, assistant managing editor and managing editor for The Cavalier Daily during his time at the University.

One year after graduating from the University and serving as an editor for The Cavalier Daily, alumnus Ben Tobin became part of the team that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in the breaking news category. On May 10, the Louisville Courier-Journal was honored for their coverage of the controversial pardons and commutations of former Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Ky.

The Courier-Journal was chosen above The Los Angeles Times’s coverage of a California boat fire that killed 34 people and The Washington Post for its reporting on back-to-back mass shootings.

Tobin was part of a team of reporters who wrote dozens of pieces — ten of which were nominated for the Pulitzer — surrounding Bevin’s controversial pardons. The original story was reported by Joe Sonka and Andrew Wolfson, who were the first to look into the pardons. 

The coverage developed quickly, and Tobin was drafted to go to Corbin, Ky. to look into the pardon of a person convicted of reckless homicide in 2014 whose family had been found to have donated over $21,000 to Bevin. Although Tobin was unable to interview the family of the person pardoned, he spoke to the mother and older sister of the victim, who gave him the headline quote, “Matt Bevin can rot in hell.”

“I feel very lucky to have been part of the group that won it and so proud to be part of The Courier-Journal newspaper and just a powerful outlet of local journalism,” Tobin said. “I work with such caring, compassionate and truth-telling journalists that really care about shedding light on issues that otherwise wouldn’t be covered.”

Tobin graduated last year from the University as a Jefferson Scholar double-majoring in political honors and media studies with a minor in Spanish. When he entered a career in journalism, he never expected to win a Pulitzer Prize. 

“When I was reporting on this article originally, as part of the project, I knew we had a powerful piece of journalism on our hands, but I did not know that it would be honored by the committee that has one of the highest honors in all of journalism,” Tobin said. 

Tobin described his experience since the announcement as “surreal” noting how he was taken by surprise and that he is still processing the honor. His professors, friends and colleagues have been reaching out with kind messages to him this past week, which has been “overwhelming in the best possible way.” 

According to Tobin, his education at the University prepared him to begin his professional career and his shift from Charlottesville to Louisville. 

“I think that critical thinking skills are essential to journalism because journalism is, in some ways, kind of like the ultimate puzzle,” Tobin said. “You don’t know all the details necessarily of every story, especially kind of like the one we [the Louisville Courier-Journal] were working on. But I think that a lot of my classes at U.Va., both political science and media studies, were focused on how to make sense of things from the facts that you have in front of you.”

Specifically, Tobin talked about Prof. Anna Katherine Clay who has been his mentor since he took her Sports Journalism course during his third-year. 

“She’s not only a top-notch journalist but equally a top-notch professor,” Tobin said. “She has such a wealth of knowledge and really pushes you and really takes the red paper to your paper and makes sure that you think critically about how you can improve and become a better interviewer and everything ... She really built up my confidence.” 

As a member of The Cavalier Daily, Tobin served as a copy editor, sports columnist, assistant managing editor and managing editor. According to Tobin, his roles on the newspaper gave him the opportunity to engage with many different groups on Grounds, which mimicked his future role at The Courier-Journal. 

“I think they [The Cavalier Daily] gave me a great journalism education,” Tobin said. “There is no journalism school at U.Va., but The Cavalier Daily is a journalism school.”

Although he entered his first-year considering attending law school, his experience at the University, on The Cavalier Daily and in his internship at USA Today in 2018 pushed him to pursue journalism, despite the industry’s financial realities. 

According to Tobin, he chose to enter the journalism industry because of the need for reporters. He noted how essential newspapers are — especially local news — and the responsibility they have to “serve as a watchdog” and inform the public. 

“I feel really fulfilled by journalism itself and the mission of journalism nationwide and especially locally, that’s why I decided to do it, and I haven’t looked back since then,” Tobin said.

Tobin noted that he encourages any student thinking about a career in journalism to follow their passions as best as they can. The newspaper industry needs young journalists, Tobin said, and he believes everyone who is interested should at least give it a try. 

“At the end of the day, you have to do something that leaves you with as little regret as possible,” Tobin said. “Don’t make a decision out of fear, make a decision out of what you would enjoy and feel fulfilled the most.” 

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