In 2008, Chris Hamby was a journalism major at the University of Richmond. In 2014, he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism for his series "Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine," a year-long investigation into lawyers and doctors who denied benefits to coal miners who have black lung disease.
Last week, Hamby earned BuzzFeed News its first Pulitzer citation as a finalist for international reporting for his series on the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), “a parallel legal universe, open only to corporations and largely invisible to everyone else, helps executives convicted of crimes escape punishment.”
Hamby, RC ‘08, talked exclusively with The Collegian about his recent Pulitzer Prize nomination for investigative journalism, life at BuzzFeed, his time working for The Collegian, the purpose of journalism today and the earrings he wore in college.
Claire Comey: What about your time at the University of Richmond helped prepare you for a career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist?
Chris Hamby: I learned from Nash and Mullen and Spear how to be a reporter. I learned basic ethics. I learned how to put together a story. I learned how to write like a reporter … how to really write and synthesize information and dig up information and even to have fun in doing it. Ask Mullen about my run-in with Bill Janis in the legislature where he told me to turn off my tape recorder and lectured me because I was asking some unpleasant questions. I was kind of being a punk kid, aggressively interviewing him, shall we say, about an abortion bill that he had introduced into the state legislature and he didn’t appreciate it. ... There was no question that [Professor Mullen] had my back on that and that was probably my first experience with unhappy sources trying to screw with you and having a good editor to stand up for you.
CC: Professors Mullen and Spear talk about you all the time. Did you know Professor Spear is retiring in the fall?
CH: Is there going to be any sort of lifetime achievement award for him? I remember sitting in class with him, and I remember him, but I remember more Mullen’s impression of him.
CC: Why did you choose journalism as a college major and then, later, as a career?
CH: I came to journalism really because I always loved writing. As a kid I would write these horrible short stories with all this ridiculous stuff and all these ideas for the next great American novel. ... [In high school I worked] at the Alternative Daily Paper in Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up, and I loved it and I ended up growing that into a summer internship and then a summer internship the next summer. So I’d done that before I applied to college. And I thought that I wanted to do journalism, so I just started immediately taking the classes as soon as I got to UR and I loved it.
CC: What was your time working for The Collegian like?
CH: I was a reporter for a while, then I did some work editing as an assistant copy editor, then I was head copy editor or whatever the title was. It was obviously a lot of work, as you know. I liked it. … I appreciated trying to improve the copy and it’s kind of fun doing something that you would put out and it was something that people on campus would pick up and read, and talk about, and it was useful. You’re writing for your community and you’re trying to be some sort of public service to them and that’s sort of the essence of journalism. You’re doing that in sort of a microcosm of the real world and it’s great.
CC: What do you see as the purpose of journalism?
CH: I think it’s interesting because my answer might have been a little bit different two years ago. … Having good public policy, and ultimately constructing a society that works well for people, depends on having a basis of pretty much agreed-upon facts. I think we can debate on what the proper policy outcomes should be to address those facts, but what I see right now is that we don’t even agree on the facts. … I think, as journalists, we need to recognize the limits of what we can know but also realize that there are some things that are probably true and untrue, and that it’s our job to point those things out and fearlessly put those in front of the public as a service, to serve as a foundation for making the kind of policy, and building the kind of society, that we want.
CC: Can you describe the feeling of winning a Pulitzer for the first time for your "Breathless and Burdened" series?
CH: Back in 2014, it was something that I never thought would actually happen to me. It’s something that people at the New York Times who are much more experienced and better journalists than I am win. It was surreal. It meant a lot to me at that time, and it still does, because of how much I cared about that project. The announcement of the actual prize itself — it was somewhat eerie — that it fell on the exact day of the fifth anniversary of the death of the coal miner who I featured in the first story. It was sort of an emotional time.
CC: Was the feeling after your most recent recognition any different?
CH: Yeah, it was. I mean obviously it feels different to be a finalist than it does to win, but honestly I was incredibly surprised to even be a finalist for this. It was nice, it was really nice. And I think one of the reasons that I was so surprised is that this is an incredibly complex and esoteric subject that I was writing about … this random secret dispute settlement process that no one’s ever heard of. It was also a big thing to see BuzzFeed on there because that was the first time that BuzzFeed had been on that list of finalists or winners for the Pulitzer and it was very gratifying to see people tweeting stuff like “the next time someone says BuzzFeed is only cat gifs, show them this link.” BuzzFeed does real, hard-hitting investigative journalism. Just this week, one of my colleagues on the investigative team got someone out of prison because of a process she did proving that he was wrongfully convicted.
CC: U.S. senators crafted reform legislation and members of Congress called for a federal investigation after your black lung stories were released — how did it feel to see the problem you identified being addressed on a national level thanks to your work?
CH: It was incredibly gratifying. … To point out problems and have someone actually try to fix them — that’s ultimately what we want to do as investigative reporters. Most of the time you put stuff out there and it just dissipates into the ether and not a lot happens, but with this one, it was very encouraging for me as a young journalist to see that sometimes people do care and sometimes people do really want to do the right thing. I think part of being a journalist is just realizing that definitely the vast majority of the stories that you do, even if they are really good, are not going to have the impact that you think they should. But if you don’t do those stories, you won’t know which one it is that will break through and change someone’s life for the better so you just keep doing it and you hope that this is that one.
CC: Was your ISDS series challenging to report and write? How does one begin a story of such magnitude?
CH: I realized I needed to learn a lot about the basic structure of this system. So I read books, and academic journal articles, and there is quite a bit of academic literature on this, which is quite dense. So I read a lot and I talked to a lot of people and got a pretty decent idea of how the system was supposed to be working, but no one really had a good idea of how the system was actually working, largely because it is almost entirely confidential. Because of that, no one person had a really good view of the whole picture and it wasn’t like there was some master database so you kind of just had to call a lot of attorneys involved in this and piece together what was going on. … I ran into a wall trying to report from Washington so my editor said, “Well, sounds like you need to go El Salvador, you need to go to Egypt, you need to go to Indonesia.” So I did. Each one was [an] incredible experience onto itself. And then coming back and working with translators — Spanish and Arabic and Indonesian. That was a mammoth task. And actually writing the thing was incredibly difficult and time-consuming because it is such a complex subject and we didn’t want to turn off readers but we also didn’t want to over-simplify.
CC: What is it like being a journalist in our nation’s current political climate, with such toxic rhetoric surrounding news media today?
CH: It’s an unprecedented time. I haven’t been around for that long, but I’ve certainly never seen anything like this in my lifetime. I think there’s a general mistrust of all established institutions, and that unfortunately extends to the press. … What I have noticed is that there seems to be an atmosphere where everyone is very concerned about saying anything to the press, and [we’re in] an atmosphere that was at times previously a combination of being sort of begrudgingly collaborative, but somewhat tense, between the government and the press, has just become — at least at the political level — just out-right combative, which I think is not healthy.
CC: How do journalists work to combat this?
CH: It’s a time for having a really rock-solid backbone, and not playing the access game, and being willing to say things and deal with criticism.
CC: What do you wish you could have told yourself when you were a college student at UR?
CH: I guess for starters, take that damn earring out of your ear when you go to interview people. I had shoulder-length hair and earrings. I don’t know, I think just sort of chill out, don’t be so self-important. Just relax and realize you’re doing this on behalf of other people. My advice to myself in general looking back is just chill out.
CC: What advice would you give to a young journalist looking to do meaningful investigative journalism as a career?
CH: Learn the basics of reporting because that will serve you well and you could apply that to any sort of speciality you could do within the field. I wouldn’t overlook the importance of having a love of writing as well. … Journalism is a great field for people who are kind of naturally inclined to freelance and do their own thing and look for great stories. So I would say just look. Spend your extra time looking for great stories that you care about and are important to you. Make time for that. And then, of course, also, you know, chill out.
Contact editor-in-chief Claire Comey at firstname.lastname@example.org.