Jeffrey Gerritt, editor of the Palestine, Texas, Herald-Press, Monday won journalism’s most prestigious award, the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.
Gerritt received the prize for a series of editorials unmasking medical neglect of county jail inmates in the tiny Texas paper’s hometown Anderson County and other county jails across rural Texas.
He was awarded journalism’s top prize by the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University in New York from among three finalists nominated by a journalism committee of Pulitzer judges. The other finalists were Jill Burcum of the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, and Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star.
The Pulitzer Board awarded the prize to Gerritt for “editorials that exposed how pre-trial inmates died horrific deaths in a small Texas county jail -- reflecting a rising trend across the state -- and courageously took on the local sheriff and judicial establishment, which tried to cover up these needless tragedies.”
The winner of several other national journalism awards for editorial writing, Gerritt said he could not believe the news he'd won the Pulitzer Prize. His publisher, Jake Mienk, informed him in the paper’s parking lot Monday afternoon, shortly after the announcement, as Gerritt returned from running errands.
“I just broke down and fell to the ground,” he said. “I never thought this would happen to me, and I always pretended it didn’t matter. But now I know just how much it matters. I’m happy I could bring this honor to the Palestine Herald-Press and to CNHI (owner of the paper).”
Gerritt noted he worked for several years at the metro Detroit Free Press and “I couldn’t win the Pulitzer in nearly 20 years of winning everything else there. I never thought I’d do it at a tiny paper in East Texas.”
He added: “I’m glad I could do it with a project that involved jails because advocating for people caught up in the criminal justice system, and other forgotten people, has always been my signature.”
Gerritt thanked his boss, who he described as “a gutsy small town publisher who’s not afraid to shake things up, and Bill Ketter, who encouraged me to enter this project in the Pulitzer competition and who has provided invaluable guidance during my two years at the Herald-Press. Without Mr. Ketter’s encouragement, I never would have submitted these editorials for the Pulitzer competition.”
Ketter, senior vice president for news at CNHI and a former Pulitzer Board member, said Gerritt deserved the prize for his knowledge of the subject, persistence in getting at the facts of inmate negligence and death through public records requests, and disclosing the problem in clear, forceful editorials.
The series of editorials were labeled “Death Without Conviction,” and were written in the highest journalism tradition of seeking to right a wrong, said Ketter. They were accompanied by a series of stories by reporter William Patrick that documented the local sheriff’s and other officials defiance of the problem.
“To quote Peter Finley Dunn, the Irish American writer of Mr. Dooley fame, Gerritt’s editorials ‘comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable,’” said Ketter.
Publisher Mienk said everybody at the paper of 3,500 circulation was euphoric over the recognition of Gerritt’s exceptional journalism honor. He said the Pulitzer shows that small town newspapers can make a big impact with local journalism.
“Few papers of this size get an opportunity to celebrate an editor winning a Pulitzer,” said Mienk. “It is a wonderful feeling. Jeff has a truly amazing talent for editorial writing. He’s not afraid to take the road less traveled to get the answers our community needs.”
Earlier this year, Gerritt won the news industry’s national Headliner Award for the county jail editorial series, and on Sunday he learned he had also won the coveted national editorial award from the News Leaders Association, an organization that represents the merged American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Managing editors.
Gerritt’s career includes two decades at the Detroit Free Press and later serving as deputy editorial page editor of the Toledo Blade in Ohio. He joined the much smaller Palestine Herald-Press more than two years ago because he wanted to be a newspaper editor.
“God bless him for picking Palestine,” said Ketter.