Malvern Alum Will Hobson ‘02 Receives Pulitzer Prize For Local Reporting

Malvern+Alum+Will+Hobson+%E2%80%9802+Receives+Pulitzer+Prize+For+Local+Reporting

Jack Marchesani

Will Hobson, MP'02
Will Hobson, MP’02

Hobson’s reports on corruption led to change for Tampa’s homeless community.  He shared his experience and insight with the BFC.

One of the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching is solidarity. Defined as a care and love for those around us, we are called to exemplify this principle both on and off the Malvern Prep campus. For many, the lessons learned in such matters carry on after graduation, into the workplace and beyond.

Malvern Prep Alum, Will Hobson ‘02 has demonstrated solidarity through his work as a police reporter in Tampa Bay. He and his team were recently awarded a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for his investigative work surrounding injustices in the Hillsborough County Homeless Recovery (HCHR).

[button link=”http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2014-Local-Reporting” newwindow=”yes”] See the series of articles that earned Hobson and LaForgia the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.[/button]

The Pulitzer Prize, an award for achievements in newspaper and online journalism, literature, and musical composition in the USA, is any journalist’s dream. Working out of Columbia University, those who ran it reached out to the Tampa Bay Times in order to reward Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia for “their relentless investigation into the squalid conditions that marked housing for the city’s substantial homeless population, leading to swift reforms,” according to the Pulitzer website.

Working as a police reporter, Will was tipped off by a homeless man that William “Hoe” Brown had been running a housing center for the homeless under horrible conditions. At the time Brown was a member of the Tampa Bay Port Authority board (appointed by both Gov. Charlie Crist and later re-appointed by Gov. Rick Scott) and a Republican fund raiser. As leader of the HCHR, he was running a housing project with the funds from the HCHR out of 5 unsanitary trailers behind his office and in a motel across the street.

Will Hobson and investigative reporter, Michael LaForgia, teamed up to dig further after an original report in July. In a series of six pieces in the Tampa Bay Times, the two (backed by a strong team) uncovered horrible social tragedies hidden under a government agency.

Many in the Tampa area who had been turned away from other sources of shelter found themselves facing homelessness. Some found themselves in the hands of Brown. Many were allowed to stay in bug-infested trailers and apartments at a discounted price as part of the HCHR. This was paid for out of the $600,000 paid to Brown by the HCHR, which on top of this paid Brown a salary of up to $60,000 annually.

Hobson’s and LaForgia’s investigations would prove that the housing was unfit for living. The homes were incredibly tiny, filled with bugs, and extremely unhygienic. The neighbors included the likes of the mentally unstable, crack and meth dealers, and prostitutes. All the while, Brown was serving as a public official, collecting his salary, and channeling tax dollars into these projects.When the residences were found unfit and the tenants evicted, Brown attempted to pay them off to avoid fines.

Over a period of 6 months, from July of 2013 and December 2013, Hobson and Laforgia exposed the situation for what it was. The HCHR was put in the hands of non-profits that would attempt to provide better living conditions for the homeless

Through their tireless and often dangerous reporting on this case, Hobson and LaForgia helped to put many in better conditions and most likely saved lives.

We here at the Blackfriar Chronicle had the opportunity to talk with William Hobson and discuss his journey towards becoming a reporter, his investigation of the HCRH case, what it means to be a Pulitzer Prize Winner, and his plans for the future.

JM: How early on did you know you wanted to be a part of this line of work? What drove you forth into becoming a journalist?
WH: I definitely knew by my junior or senior year of college. I think that back in high school I wanted to do something creative. I knew that I enjoyed reading and writing so something in that realm. I wasn’t a big fan of authority figures (laughs), so I wanted a line of work where I could set my own agenda as much as possible. In college I started realizing the best industry for what I wanted to do was probably journalism and newspapers.

JM: Did Malvern in any way shape you towards having a career in journalism? Did they have the BFC back when you were in school?
WH: I think that we did, and that answer should tell you that I wasn’t a part of it.
I’d say Malvern’s contribution to where I am today is through the education that I got in English, reading, and writing. Mr. Kindon was a great English teacher along with Mr. Roper. Those were two of the best English classes I’ve ever had. Moral Theology and Philosophy classes helped me as well. Dr. Oechsle was a great teacher. They all did a great job in teaching me how to think and how to formulate arguments and support your beliefs.
As journalists, we try not to let our belief systems in our work, but we certainly keep that in mind. We look for things that are going to inform the public.

JM: How did you originally find out about the HCHR case? Can you explain where it went from there?
WH: We had received a tip in our newsroom on a prominent Republican fundraiser (Brown) who was also a public official, the chairman of the Port Authority. We had a tip that he was basically a slumlord on top of his real estate interest. He own very squalid property where he operate rentals for poor and disadvantaged folks. He actually had his office out front. I was shocked that he was so flagrant about it. He had his campaign signs to board up the smashed in windows on the property. I went out there with a photographer to document what we saw and we did a few stories. The outcropping of those stories was that he resigned from all of his public positions. The city condemned all the properties and towards the end of that third week we heard from some folks on the property that there was actually a public agency that had been sending people there and covering their rent with tax dollars. It took us a few weeks to figure out what agency it was and we eventually narrowed in on this small county agency with a million dollar annual budget that had been sending people hundreds and thousands of dollars there for years.

JM: From an emotional standpoint, what about this case in particular drew you in?
WH: At the end of that first week the idea that the there would be an agency sending people to live there, for a reporter, that was a pretty big thing to nail that down. From an emotional standpoint, homelessness is an issue everywhere, but it’s constantly an issue down in Tampa. The water is nice so the homeless naturally drift here. There’s always the debate as to what to do with the homeless. Families with small children could have been sent by this organization to live at that property. As a reporter, when I went there after nightfall, I felt unsafe. I couldn’t imagine being the father of an infant and going to the government for help and being sent there.

JM: Can you describe to us what it was like going into these residences and interviewing some of the tenants? Does this remind you at all of your service and social justice studies at Malvern?
WH: It was an emotional and heartbreaking experience. In one of the trailers was an old mentally handicapped man, living on a mattress soiled with his own filth. He was sharing this trailer with vermin and bugs. This was a man who belonged in an institution with someone taking care of him. This was solely because the landlord could have a steady cut of his social security check. There’s that right alongside a mom with two young boys. While interviewing her, the two boys were so eager to show me their Spiderman doll and their toys. In this tiny unit they slept on the floor. Next to them you have drunks, drug addicts, and, from what we heard from crime report, prostitutes. It was an emotional experience. The response from those folks when the stories came out was rewarding.
There were a lot of folks who thought about this guy [Brown] as taking advantage of the poor, and people are looking the other way. Brown is still a wealthy man, and he’ll be fine, but I think to see him in the newspaper in that light was affirming for a lot people that lived there, and also restored their faith in the system.
In terms of what I learned at Malvern, there’s a tie. Candidly, it can be a bit of a bubble sometimes, because most of the kids there come from means, so I think it’s hard for the social justice folks to hammer into the kids what life is outside of the campus. It’s been a long time. We did do some good. I remember going out to a nursing home in the area. I’d encourage the folks at Malvern to get the kids out more. Take them down to Philadelphia, to Chester, after dark. Go see how the other half lives. It’s certainly an eye opening experience.

JM: How do you view solidarity, the care for one’s neighbor? How do you think it affected this report?
WH: You’ve got to remember that in journalism we’re trying to report from an unbiased perspective. It’s not to be informed by our own personal beliefs and priorities. We do look for stories that are in public interest, that inform people how our society works and potentially could be improved. I think how the community responded to the stories highlights more how the community views solidarity. When the stories came out, folks in power at the county said that this needed to change. They made sure that they had not shirked their responsibility in helping the community. They seemed to be forthright in trying to improve it. It’s certainly something that they care about.
There are communities in this country that don’t have programs like this whatsoever. We had discussed that if the county didn’t have this agency they wouldn’t be getting these negative reports. If they had just turned their backs on the homeless it would’ve been different. The agency tried to help but they didn’t try very hard.

JM: Both you and Mr. LaForgia have stressed that this was not just your doing, but instead a major collaboration of the Tampa Bay Times. Can you expound upon this?
WH: First off, any time you do any story you’re not the only one involved. You’re story is going to be editted first off by your editor who is going to be talking to you throughout the story, and asking you, “Have you checked this?” “Have you thought about this?” “Have you checked with this organization?” Your direct editor will be looking at the copy and asking you to look for more stuff that the story is missing. You have your photographer who is going to be out there taking pictures that are going to be bringing the story to life. In this case we actually had a videographer too who was videotaping the interviews. You have designers who create the layout of the story on the page and making sure the story looks good on the page. You have copy editors who are the third and fourth read to make sure there are no type errors, typos, or stray commas. Any story you do for an ongoing project like this is a big undertaking by the whole staff. Things like this can’t happen in a vacuum.

JM: What does it feel like to be a Pulitzer Prize winner? Was this a goal of yours when you set out?
WH: I don’t really know. I feel pretty much the same. I don’t think it will really sink in for a while. I still help my wife to do the laundry and the dishes and everything. It feels good that we worked really hard on this and the work that caused us a lot of stress rewarded.
As for if it was a goal of mine, every person who goes to work for a newspaper in this country has in the very back of their head that it’d be nice to win a Pulitzer Prize. That’s sort of like saying every kid who picks up a baseball mitt would like to start in the World Series. I wouldn’t say it was a goal, because it seemed so far out of reach. I’m glad that the work was rewarded, but I think that it serves as a message that you don’t need to be a 45 year old esteemed reporter to get this kind of recognition. You can be a younger, determined, hard-working reporter who just works the story hard.

JM: What plans do you have for the future in your career?
WH: I don’t know. I like newspaper and I like journalism. It’s an industry that’s going through a transition right now. Our newspaper is still around and still well staffed. I plan to keep doing journalism that I enjoy. Work that I find rewarding. Stories like this don’t happen everyday and they don’t happen every year. If you’re a journalist you need to make sure to be doing work that you enjoy. This isn’t an industry in which you’re necessarily going to get wealthy, so you need to enjoy it. I’m going to keep doing journalism that I enjoy, that keeps me happy, and that gives me the opportunity to do something like this.

JM: What advice do you have for any current Malvern students who seek to be journalists like yourself?
WH: The first thing I’d say is look for journalism you enjoy reading. Read it. Try and reverse engineer it. Figure out who the reporter is, how they got there, and see how they put it together. You need to see how they told the story. You only get better if you keep exposing yourself to new writing and techniques. That includes reading literature. Keep your dramatic voice in mind. Ideally, you want a story to be like a documentary. You want memorable scenes and you string them together with exposition and fact that the people need to know.
For kids in newspapers in college, get into a real newsroom. College newspapers are nice, but you need to reach out. You can do an internship and that’s great but it’s difficult to get. You can also just email a journalist and ask them to go for coffee and talk to them about their job and how it’s done. Journalism is a line of work unlike any others, in that a lot of it you need to learn on the job.