Established in 1917 in honor of pioneer journalist and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the Pulitzer Prize aims to honor exceptional journalistic achievements. Over the last 100 years, it has remained one of the most prominent and acclaimed awards for journalism.
Stephen Beard, Matt Berry and Erika Espinoza all belonged, at one point in time, to the journalist community. Without knowing each other individually, a few distinct aspects unite them: All three attended Ball State University and have been a part of Pulitzer Prize-winning projects.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Stephen Beard, Muncie native and Ball State 1997 graduate, has been a part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. Before becoming an award-winning graphics journalist, he expressed to his professor his desire to get involved with a campus media organization.
“I took an Introduction to Communications class with Dr. Randall Kahn, and he told me that if I wanted to get involved with the newspaper, the best thing to do would be to just walk in and ask them to give me something to do,” Beard said. “I did, saw where I plugged in, took off running and made so many friends in the Daily News newsroom.”
Beard was a member of the Daily News staff throughout his college career. During his senior year, he served as a senior staff writer and designed for his practicum, an alternative to student internships to provide students with work experience in their field of study.
After graduation, Beard began working for the Crawfordsville Journal Review in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he started as a general news reporter but expanded his horizons and acquired a newfound ambition for graphic design.
For Erika Espinoza, her Ball State journey began well before she received her admission letter. During her time as a student at Columbus North High School, Ball State’s annual Journalism Day was something she looked forward to every year.
“[Journalism Day] was my first exposure to Ball State and journalism workshops, and since I wanted to pursue visual journalism after high school, it just felt like a very natural school to choose,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza earned her bachelor’s degree for journalism in 2017, and she went on to earn her master’s for emerging media and design development in 2019.
During her time at Ball State, Espinoza said she was heavily involved with Ball Bearings Magazine and served as the design director her senior year while also occasionally lending her skills to The Daily News for graphics reporting.
Espinoza said Jennifer Palilonis, Ball State George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of multimedia journalism, was her first mentor. Palilonis was Espinoza’s graphics professor and oversaw her creative project.
“Even today, I still think about everything that she taught me,” Espinoza said. “She was definitely a huge influence in my career, and a lot of the things that I did and a lot of the people that I met were because of her.”
Matt Berry picked up his first camera at 5 years old, and from there, the rest was history. Berry was born and raised in Patoka, Indiana, and his love and passion for photography was ever-growing as he engaged in summer photography classes and his high school newspaper and yearbook staffs. But, he credits his drive for photography and photojournalism to his hometown newspaper, The Evansville Courier and Press.
“That newspaper had an amazing photography staff,” Berry said. “They consistently won awards at the national level — they’re just fantastic and to this day still are that. My childhood hero, Denny Simmons, was even still working there when I was on my internship at The South Bend Tribune, and I got to work with him on an assignment.”
Berry attended Vincennes University in 2002, where he earned an associate degree in photojournalism in 2004 before transferring to Ball State to earn his bachelor’s degree in 2006. While at Ball State, Berry was a member of The Ball State Daily News for a year and served as both assistant and chief photography editor. He went on to work as a teaching assistant in journalism classes while also freelancing for The Star Press.
During his 14-year stint with The Indianapolis Star, Beard was involved with The Arizona Republic’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning project for Explanatory Reporting, “The Wall: Unknown Stories, Unintended Consequences,” an in-depth report on the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“The whole project came about from the 2016 primaries,” Beard said. “[Former President Donald] Trump had been making noise about building this wall, and so, The Arizona Republic set out to answer the question, ‘What does that look like?’ My part was to create 3D diagrams and animations of the different types of walls.”
Even though the project was completed almost entirely remotely due to contributors being spread out over the country, Beard and fellow Ball State graduate Espinoza had no idea they were working on the same project, at the same time.
Espinoza was in her first year of working toward her master’s degree when she reached out to her former boss from an internship at the Phoenix Design Studio, Tracy Collins, looking to get involved with more digital projects. She, alongside one of her mentors, Suzanne Palma, joined the social and digital media team for “The Wall.”
For Espinoza, working on “The Wall” meant more than adding to her portfolio or putting her skills to the test because she also felt a deeper connection to the stories of those impacted.
“I was undocumented for a long time,” Espinoza said, “so reading those personal stories about how the wall was going to impact not only the wildlife, or the people living around the border, but also the people entering the border … it did create a personal connection to that project.”
Beard was also involved in another Pulitzer Prize-winning project. In 2021, he was a team member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning project for National Reporting for The Indianapolis Star’s year-long investigation of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s (IMPD) K-9 unit. The investigative series, “Mauled: When Police Dogs are Weapons,” came together in partnership with The Marshall Project, AL.com, and the Invisible Institute.
Beard said he worked on the project with a reporter and a photographer, while he was designing graphics. The reporter — Ryan Martin — had just started in Indianapolis and was looking at incidents with a high rate of dog bites on K-9 units. Katrice Hardy, their editor at the time, said a friend of hers from the Marshall Project was also working on something about K-9 unit dog bites.
“It led to some conversations that ultimately led to all of us getting together and pooling our resources to make a much bigger story,” Beard said.
In 2017, The Cincinnati Enquirer generated the idea for their Pulitzer Prize-winning project for local reporting, “Seven Days of Heroin.” The project followed the stories of families, first responders and addicts and the implications of the heroin epidemic across Ohio and Kentucky in real-time for an entire week.
Berry was one of more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers who worked on this project, capturing the intimate and hard-hitting moments of the epidemic.
Berry said he remembers one instance of meeting a young girl in her foster home whose mother suffered from addiction. Listening to her talk about her experiences while he worked, he tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible to capture photos in a tiny little bedroom and try not to cry.
“Being able to tell a story like this — this in-depth, this broad — with this many aspects to it to be able to show people the depth of the issue,” Berry said. “I think you can read a story a day for 10 years and maybe not quite understand the full scope of the problem, but when it's presented in a way like this, where you're seeing something for almost every hour of every day for seven days, it really drives home.”
WHERE TOMORROW LEADS
The reporting is done, the articles have been published, awards have been presented and life keeps moving. Beard continues his career as a graphics journalist for USA Today, Espinosa is a product designer for American City Business Journal and Berry left his journalism days behind as he’s now an e-commerce content specialist at Restaurant Equippers, Inc.
Despite winning a Pulitzer Prize, Beard believes journalism means much more than a shiny medal or a new addition to a resume.
“I'm always looking forward to the next project,” Beard said. “I’ve gotten past thinking about awards — I look ahead. The real reward is seeing change after the award. Laws get enacted and institutions change what they're doing because of something we did, and that's such a special feeling.”
Contact Samantha Lyon with comments at email@example.com.