When Robert Byers (BSJ, 1991) arrived on West Virginia University’s campus in 1987 for freshman orientation, he was racing toward his future—literally, down a hallway so he wouldn’t miss signing up for journalism classes.
With a love for the outdoors, Byers had planned to enter the forestry program at WVU but when he saw the class list, he realized the math and science requirements weren’t for him.
“In retrospect, I think it was a pretty good decision,” said Byers, who has worked nearly 30 years as a journalist and recently received one of the industry’s highest honors – a Pulitzer Prize.
Byers is part of the Louisville Courier Journal team who received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for their coverage of the pardons and commutations of prison inmates given by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin during his final days in office.
As the newspaper’s senior local news editor, Byers manages a team of reporters covering politics, local and state government, education and business. In 2019, his team discovered that family members of a recently pardoned convicted murderer held a political fundraiser for Gov. Bevin. The news team broke the story and worked straight through Christmas that year to investigate, discovering that the Governor had issued more than 400 pardons since the Nov. 5 election.
“Often, a project will win numerous awards in the run up to the Pulitzer,” said Byers. “This time around, though, our pardons project won zero awards prior to the Pulitzer. Those of us involved — all working from home because of the pandemic — weren’t even watching the awards announcements online. So, it was kind of shocking to win, really.”
Prior to joining the Courier Journal, Byers worked for the Charleston Gazette in Charleston, West Virginia, advancing from a reporter to assistant city editor, Sunday editor, city editor and eventually, executive editor. In 2015, Byers helped oversee the combination of Charleston’s two longstanding newspapers, the Gazette and the Daily Mail, and became executive editor of the combined Charleston Gazette-Mail. In April 2017, the Gazette-Mail received the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting following a project on the role of drug wholesalers in the state’s opioid crisis.
While at the Gazette and Gazette-Mail, Byers had the opportunity to make reporting trips to Pakistan, South Korea and Tanzania. He’s covered floods, fires, local government and even the food scene, but his most memorable project is from a series of stories called “Talk of the Town,” where he reported from all 55 West Virginia counties on issues specific to those towns and the people living there.
“The one that always stands out to me was called ‘Leaving Dehue,’” said Byers. “We were there as this once-bustling coal town took its final breaths, with the last few families moving out of the old company houses before the remnants would be demolished and the town would go the way of so many other Southern West Virginia towns that have all but vanished.”
For Byers, journalism is more important to our democracy than ever, which is why he offers his expertise and stays involved with the College of Media as a member of the Visiting Committee and as a mentor for students, for whom he has an important message:
“We need you. The nation needs you. Democracy needs you. In times when social media — and all the misinformation that can live there — dominates, the country desperately needs journalists to get to the facts and tell us what it all means. It’s easy to be dissuaded when you read about the industry and its struggles. But if the idea of a profession that has ‘truth-seeker’ in the job description appeals to you, don’t let anything hold you back.”