News, On Campus

BC Alum, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Talks Story Selection

Will Hobson, BC ’06, was working as a police reporter at the Tampa Bay Times one night when he received a call from a homeless man who said that a local Republican fundraiser nicknamed William “Hoe” Brown was renting out squalid trailer homes. The next day, Hobson followed up on the tip and went to the trailer park to see the conditions for himself.

Brown, then the chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, was running the trailer park behind his office in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Tampa, said Hobson, who spoke to students and professors Monday afternoon.

“There was a flock house, a roach motel, right there, and behind his office, he had put a bunch of trailers—old, single, white trailers—split them in half, wired them—like pack wire for cable, electric, and water—and basically had a little crew of borderline-homeless employees that would put up signs around town, saying, ‘Do you have [Social Security Insurance]?’” Hobson said.

While reporting on the conditions of the trailer park, Hobson said he heard a rumor that a public agency was sending people there and covering their rents with tax dollars. He then learned that it was Homeless Recovery, a government program launched in 1989 in Hillsborough County, Fla.

“I think [Homeless Recovery] only paid six-something a month for a family of six or more,” Hobson said. “And if you only want to pay $600 a month, and you’re a family of six, there’s only a certain kind of landlord you’re going to end up dealing with.

“So, Homeless Recovery, basically for years had been subsidizing slumlords like ‘Hoe’ Brown across the city.”

Hobson reported on Homeless Recovery with fellow Times staff writer Michael LaForgia for six months, and they wrote a series of stories that were published from July to December last year. Both journalists were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting this April for their reporting on the illegal housing operation.

Hobson graduated from BC with a B.A. in English and has also worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Sports Network wire service, the Panama City News Herald, and the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Carlo Rotella, a professor within the English department who directs both the American Studies program and the Lowell Humanities Series, moderated the discussion. When asked by Rotella how he knew or recognized that there was a bigger story beyond the squalid trailer park, Hobson said that there were two factors: reading extensively and talking to other journalists about how they do their jobs.

“Story selection is one of the most important skill sets to develop eventually, because when you do try to do big investigative work or big magazine stories, you’re going to invest a lot of time in this thing,” Hobson said. “You want to know pretty early on that it’s going be a good story.

“If it’s not something that I would tell my friend at a bar about, I’m probably not going do a story about it,” he said. “You look for stories that engender outrage, stories that might piss people off—that’s something that I’ve gotten pretty good at.”

Rotella then opened the talk for questions from students and professors.

One student asked about the future of journalism.

“Newspapers are obviously not in great financial shape,” Hobson said. “I’m reasonably happy now in my work, but I obviously have concerns about the future of newspapers. Companies are trying out new models for journalism.”

Students interested in careers in journalism, he noted, also have new and different options available to them.

“I think it’s a great time to be where you guys are sitting, because papers like my paper, which used to be really hard to get a job at out of college, now, money is tight, and they’re hiring younger and less experienced [interns],” Hobson said. “Interns are coming to my paper everyday and writing front page stories on big, breaking news, and that never used to happen.”

Another student asked how young journalists with ambitious goals might be able to get past the general first step of entering into journalism working at small, local newspapers.

“You just need to accept that it’s not a 48-hour-a-week job,” he said. “But, any kind of journalism that you’re going to be doing, that’s going be the case … so, work hard.

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

October 29, 2014