Two Chicago nonprofit news startups win Pulitzer Prizes

Two Chicago South Side nonprofit news startups brought home the highest honor in journalism Monday, winning Pulitzer Prizes.

A collaboration between City Bureau and Invisible Institute won the local reporting award for “Missing in Chicago,” a seven-part investigative series focused on how police mishandling of missing person reports disproportionately impacts Black women and girls.

Co-authored by Sarah Conway of City Bureau and Trina Reynolds-Tyler of Invisible Institute, the exhaustive two-year study analyzed over 1 million police records and interviewed more than 40 sources to identify systemic failings in the Chicago Police Department’s handling of missing person cases.

“They found that across the city, this is a consistent issue, that the cases, depending on your ZIP code, determines how much effort they put into finding you, as well as how much your family is allowed access to be a part of the investigation,” said Morgan Malone, who joined City Bureau this year as its first executive director.

Published in November, “Missing in Chicago” has already led to a review of police accountability by the Chicago Inspector General’s office.

Invisible Institute also shared a second Pulitzer for audio reporting partnered with USG Audio for “You Didn’t See Nothin,” a podcast series about the 1997 hate crime committed against 13-year-old Lenard Clark, a Black youth severely beaten by a group of white Bridgeport teens.

The Pulitzer committee called it a powerful podcast and “a fluid amalgam of memoir, community history and journalism” revisiting a racially charged Chicago hate crime that continues to resonate nearly three decades later.

The limited series began airing in February 2023. As of late last year, the podcast had over 600,000 downloads.

“We’re a pretty small organization and we really emphasize long-term, patient investigative work and storytelling, looking at criminal justice, especially police departments,” said Andrew Fan, executive director of Invisible Institute.

Both City Bureau and Invisible Institute are small, low-budget organizations based on the South Side, part of a flourishing nonprofit news ecosystem that has sprung up in Chicago during the new millennium.

Launched in 2015, Bronzeville-based City Bureau started as a nonprofit journalism lab, with programs that included reporting fellowships and Chicago Documenters, where community members are trained and paid to cover government meetings. There are five full-time employees on the editorial staff, including Conway.

City Bureau’s annual budget is $6 million and is mostly funded through foundations, Malone said.

Conway joined City Bureau in 2016 and became senior reporter and special projects manager in 2021. She is a graduate of New York University’s Arthur L. Carter School of Journalism and a social justice news fellow at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

She jumped at the opportunity to spend two years working on the missing persons project with Reynolds-Tyler.

“It’s been the most important work of my life,” Conway, 37, said Monday. “I’m really grateful for the recognition for us and hope that this just lends more weight to the stories and the experiences that families have been saying all along.”

Also started in 2015, Invisible Institute was founded by noted Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven, whose reporting on the 2014 fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald brought national attention to the city and the need for police accountability.

Based in Woodlawn, Invisible Institute has about a dozen full- and part-time journalists on staff and an annual budget of about $1.6 million, Fan said. Most of the money is raised through foundations, individual donors and some earned revenue from the work, he said.

Reynolds-Tyler, 31, a South Side native who has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, joined Invisible Institute in 2016 and serves as data director.

“My parents do not know what a Pulitzer is, many members of my community don’t actually know what a Pulitzer Prize is,” Reynolds-Tyler said. “It feels so incredible that I was able to attain this kind of recognition. I’m mostly deeply grateful for the opportunity for more people to read the work.”

It is the first Pulitzer Prize for City Bureau and the third for Invisible Institute, which shared an award for national reporting in 2021 for a series on police dog bites.

In the category of biography, Chicago historian Jonathan Eig won for “King: A Life,” his 2023 biography of Martin Luther King Jr., a bestseller recognized for its monumental scope and new findings. Some previous King biographers called Eig’s work the new definitive history of the civil rights leader.

The Pulitzer committee cited Eig’s book as a “revelatory portrait” and one that “draws on new sources to enrich our understanding of each stage of the civil rights leader’s life, exploring his strengths and weaknesses, including the self-questioning and depression that accompanied his determination.”

Christopher Borrelli contributed.