Former Miami Herald reporter latest alum to land a Pulitzer

Debbie Cenziper
Debbie Cenziper

Every morning on her way to work at The Miami Herald, Debbie Cenziper, JM 1992, noticed empty lots in Liberty City where developers promised affordable housing.

By tracking down developers and contractors who should have been working on the empty lots, Cenziper unearthed a corrupt system that cheated low-income families.

“I was very moved by these families,” Cenziper said. “These people work 60 hours a week and still can’t make enough to get by. The housing agency was supposed to be their lifeline and it failed to come through.”

She spent seven months reporting the seven-part series, “House of Lies.” As a result of her findings, 10 people lost their jobs and three faced fraud charges.

“From the start, she saw problems,” said Mike Sallah, Cenziper’s investigative editor at the Herald. “She was able to pick up spreadsheets and see gaps and inconsistencies.”

Sallah recalled Cenziper returning to work red-faced and teary-eyed.

She told the story of a woman whose two children slept on mattresses on a rat-infested floor. “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair,” Cenziper told her editor. The woman made enough money to buy an affordable home – if only the developers had fulfilled their promise to build them.

“I saw a righteous indignation within Debbie,” Sallah said. “In that moment, I could really see the drive and motivation pushing her to bring this to light. Debbie worked around the clock.”

At some point, the possibility of winning a Pulitzer Prize entered her mind.

“Well, every journalist has that on their mind,” Cenziper said, laughing. “We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t. But at the same time, we were just so busy with this piece, I didn’t really have the time to think about it.”

Cenziper won the Pulitzer for local reporting earlier this year. She’s the latest in a long line of alumni to win journalism’s most coveted prize. However, she said little has changed.

“Once you get past the surprise, you get back to work,” said Cenziper, former editor of The Independent Florida Alligator. “I mean, that weekend, I was still cleaning the house, you know?”

Last year, she was a Pulitzer finalist for a story on the breakdown of the hurricane-monitoring system, but lost out to David Finkel, TEL 1977 (see related story), who won in explanatory reporting for analyzing the U.S. government’s attempt to bring democracy to Yemen.

Cenziper recently became Finkel’s co-worker at The Washington Post, where she’s working on an investigative piece.

Karen DeYoung
Karen DeYoung

Another alum working at the Post, Associate Editor Karen DeYoung, JM 1971, won a Pulitzer for National Reporting in 2002 as part of a team for covering America’s war on terrorism.

“It didn’t change anything about my career or life, except that it seems to now be included in every speech introduction and anything written about me,” DeYoung said in an e-mail. “I’ve won a lot of prizes over the years, but this seems to be the one that everyone recognizes, so it becomes tied to your name.”

Judging photographs for the Pulitzer on two occasions put the prize in perspective for Prof. John Kaplan, a 1992 winner for his photographs, “21: Age Twenty-One in America.”

“The Pulitzer seems so glamorous,” Kaplan said. “But when you’re in this tiny room judging it with four other people, it’s not so glamorous because you have very little time to decide what makes the cut. It’s not really defining, because I think good journalists want to keep finding that next story. This was something I did, it’s not who I am.”

Some of the College’s  Pulitzer Prize winners:

1947: Howard Norton, JM 1933
1970: Prof. H.G. “Buddy” Davis, JM 1948
1987: F. James McGee, JM 1975 (part of a team)
1992: Prof. John Kaplan
2000: Stephanie Sinclair, JM 1998 (part of a team)
2000: Essdras Suarez, JM 1993 (part of a team)
2002: Karen DeYoung, JM 1971 (part of a team)
2006: David Finkel, TEL 1977
2007: Debbie Cenziper, JM 1992

This article was originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of communigator.