UConn’s journalism department has the rare honor this fall of being augmented by two winners of the news profession’s highest honor. Mike Stanton, a veteran investigative reporter for the Providence Journal, was part of the team that won that paper’s Pulitzer Prize in 1994, for exposing corruption in the Rhode Island court system. Steven G. Smith, a visual journalist with experience ranging from professional hockey to natural disasters, was part of the Rocky Mountain News (Colorado) photo team that won the 2003 breaking news photography Pulitzer for their coverage of devastating wildfires. Both men look at joining the UConn faculty as an opportunity to help shape the future of journalism, an industry that seems to change by the day.
Providence is a “theme park for journalists,” Mike Stanton says, and for two decades he had the run of the place as a member of the Journal’s award-winning investigative team. Stanton tackled everything from the Rhode Island banking crisis of the 1990s to the colorful, crooked tenure of former Mayor Buddy Cianci, who was eventually convicted in 2002 of a federal racketeering conspiracy charge. Stanton’s book, The Prince of Providence, details the rise and fall, and rise and fall again of the famous mayor, who’s rumored to be considering another run at the city’s top job.
But when Stanton arrived in Providence, he came as a sportswriter, covering Big East basketball. He started covering sports for the Daily Orange newspaper at Syracuse University, where he received his undergraduate degree. He worked for the Associated Press after graduation, and then got his master’s from Northwestern University.
After another stint with the AP, Stanton came to Providence to cover the scrappy, dynamic Friars basketball team, among other assignments. It was the collapse of a private deposit insurance company called the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corp. that pulled Stanton off the basketball beat, he explains.
“I had a news background, and so I got pulled into the banking crisis because it was just such a huge story,” he says.
After that, Stanton was detailed to the paper’s investigative team, which soon found another major scoop in digging up corruption in the Rhode Island courts.
“We had a source who came to me and complained, which is usually how those stories get started,” he says. “This source happened to be complaining about patronage in the court system. We pursued it, and wrote a series of stories that played out over a year or so.”
By the end of the run, two high-ranking officials had resigned, and the team had done the work that won the Journal its most recent Pulitzer.
Leaving all that behind was not an easy decision for Stanton, who has a poster on his Oak Hall office wall for a production of “Buddy Cianci: The Musical.” “To leave downtown Providence and the newsroom,” he says, “that was the hardest part.”
But coming to UConn gives him an opportunity not only to impart his accumulated wisdom and expertise, but to help shape the future of journalism, which is radically different from the days when he started in Providence.
“There’s been a sea change in the physical delivery of the news, obviously, but the human appetite to know what’s going on goes back to the cave paintings,” he says.
The fundamentals of journalism – fairness, accuracy, the urge to uncover something new – transcend any individual medium, says Stanton, who hopes to be able to take UConn journalism students on reporting trips, perhaps as far afield as the Arctic.
“We’re on this bridge between the past and the future,” he says. “This generation in college today is going to be the future, and I’m excited to see what they discover.”
Steven G. Smith
The journey that eventually took Steven G. Smith to journalism’s top honor came at an inauspicious time: the conclusion of a dispiriting road trip for the Colorado Avalanche hockey team, which Smith was covering for the Rocky Mountain News.
“I had just gotten back to Denver after the Avs lost, and I got a call from the assignment desk saying, ‘We need you to cover a fire,’” Smith remembers.
That turned into a summer spent photographing wildfires across Colorado, in one of the state’s worst-ever seasons for the blazes. When it was over, the EW Scripps chain, which owned the News, asked the photographers who had worked on the story to compile a portfolio, which went on to win the Pulitzer.
“It was nice to have the accolades of our peers, but it wasn’t something you could celebrate, really, because it had been such a devastating time for Colorado,” Smith says. “We wanted to tell that story in the most powerful way possible, and I think we gave it our best shot.”
Smith, who graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in photography and graphic design and earned his master’s from Ohio University, got his start when being a news photographer meant shooting black-and-white pictures and developing them in a darkroom.
That changed in the mid-90s, when he got his first digital camera from a newspaper: it cost $17,000 and had 1.3 megapixels, less powerful than cameras that come standard in $100 cell phones today.
“The quality was brutal, but I could see the future, and so I kept my finger on the pulse,” he says.
Today, digital photography has completely changed visual storytelling. There are more photographs in the world than ever, but not necessarily more good photographers. The elements that go into making photojournalists remain the same as in the days of the darkroom, Smith says.
That ranges from technical skills like knowing how to use light and how to edit, but it also includes an ability to relate to the subject of a photograph, he says.
“I always felt as a photojournalist that I had to keep my emotions in check, but I also had to feel for people,” he says. “If I allowed myself to become hard or calloused, I knew I was not going to get as good a photograph as I wanted.”
In an era when visual journalism means video, graphics, and other elements alongside still photography, Smith sees not a threat to the profession, but a new era.
“With multimedia, the skill set has converged,” he says. “In some ways, this is one of the most exciting times to be a storyteller.”