Mountain State Spotlight co-founder Ken Ward Jr. is one of six local reporters from around the country who have been selected as the inaugural members of the ProPublica Distinguished Fellows program.
The program will fund the reporters’ salaries and benefits for three years as they produce important investigative projects from their home newsrooms on topics affecting their communities.
An outgrowth of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — which since 2018 has similarly funded local accountability reporting projects for one year across more than 40 local newsrooms to date — the longer-term Distinguished Fellows program will enable reporters to pursue a broad range of stories while deepening ProPublica’s relationship with the partner newsrooms and their communities. These partnerships will start on Jan. 1, 2021, and run through Dec. 31, 2023.
“We couldn’t be happier with the inaugural group of ProPublica Distinguished Fellows, who are among the top journalists in America,” Charles Ornstein, ProPublica managing editor/local, said. “ProPublica has worked with all of them before, either through the Local Reporting Network or as longtime reporting partners, on deep investigative projects that have held power to account. We’re thrilled to continue these relationships over the next three years.”
As part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, in 2018 Ward led a series about West Virginia’s natural gas industry, and in 2019 and 2020 an investigation of the business empire of the state’s governor, Jim Justice. His work with the Local Reporting Network won the Online News Association award for explanatory reporting.
Before helping to found Mountain State Spotlight earlier this year, Ward spent nearly three decades reporting for The Charleston Gazette-Mail on the impacts of coal mining, chemical manufacturing and natural gas drilling on West Virginia’s people and environment.
Ward is recipient of the 2018 MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “Genius Grant”), a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting, and a 2000 winner of the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
The other selected reporters are:
Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News, where he covers politics, villages and public safety. Before joining the Anchorage Daily News in 2005, he worked for small-town newspapers across Alaska, and has worked as an investigative reporter for the NBC affiliate KTUU-Channel 2 in Anchorage. For the past two years he has worked as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, writing about the epidemic of sexual violence in Alaska and failures in the public safety system statewide. That project, “Lawless,” won the 2020 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.
Molly Parker is a reporter for the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, Illinois. She has worked as a reporter for about 20 years at various newspapers in the South and Midwest, joining the staff of the Southern Illinoisan in 2014. As a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in 2018, Parker spent a year investigating failures in government oversight of public housing and documenting the consequences for the families and communities that depend on it. In her continuing work in partnership with ProPublica, Parker plans to focus on challenges facing the diverse rural communities that make up the Mid-South Illinois region she calls home.
Rob Perez is an investigative reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He has been a journalist for more than 40 years, working for newspapers in Hawaii, California, Florida and his native Guam. As a participant in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network this year, he is investigating the decadeslong failure of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to return Native Hawaiians to ancestral lands. Among other honors, Perez has been awarded with the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, the National Headliner Award and Best of the West Awards.
Jennifer Smith Richards is a reporter at the Chicago Tribune who has exposed abusive educators, government misspending, sexual abuse in schools, flimsy police accountability and the mistreatment of students with disabilities. Her work has led to new state laws, the prosecution of school officials and the creation of child-protection units in school districts and state education departments. She has also written about education at newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia; Utica, New York; Savannah, Georgia, and Columbus, Ohio. Most recently, for “The Quiet Rooms,” a reporting collaboration with The Chicago Tribune and ProPublica on the illegal use of isolated timeout in Illinois schools, she won the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics, the Online Journalism Association’s Award for Investigative Data Journalism, and the Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting, among other honors.
Wendi C. Thomas is the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom in Memphis focused on poverty, power and public policy. Previously, she was metro columnist and assistant managing editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and has also worked for The Charlotte Observer, The Tennessean and The Indianapolis Star. A participant in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network for the past two years, her “Profiting from the Poor” series, which exposed the predatory debt collection practices of the largest health care system in Memphis, won the Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting, the Gerald Loeb Award for local reporting, and the Association of Health Care Journalists award for business reporting. The series also tied for first place for the Investigative Reporters & Editors Award for print/online. Thomas was named the 2018 Journalist of the Year by Journalism and Women Symposium and was inducted into the Scripps Hall of Fame for commentary in 2008.