Mississippi Today, reporter win Pulitzer Prize for investigation into $77 million state welfare scandal

Published 2:41 pm Monday, May 8, 2023

by Mississippi Today
May 8, 2023

Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for her remarkable investigation “The Backchannel,” which uncovered the depth of the sprawling $77 million welfare scandal, the largest embezzlement of federal funds in the state’s history.

The investigation, published in a multi-part series in 2022, revealed for the first time how former Gov. Phil Bryant used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars — money intended to help the state’s poorest residents — to benefit his family and friends, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.

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Mississippi Today’s entire staff and several supporters gathered at Hal & Mal’s in downtown Jackson for the announcement on Monday afternoon and erupted in celebration when the news was announced.

“Anna Wolfe deserves this for so many reasons,” said Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief at Mississippi Today. “The late nights she spent poring through spreadsheets, the sheer number of roadblocks she faced from state officials, the thoughtfulness and care she put into her writing, the passion she always has for helping Mississippians — it’s been the absolute honor of my life to get an up-close look at how hard she works and how much she cares about our state.”

Wolfe, a 28-year-old Washington state native who has worked her entire professional journalism career in Mississippi, reported for more than five years on what would become “The Backchannel,” logging thousands of hours of source work and interviewing for the project. When she heard that she’d won the Pulitzer — broadly considered the nation’s top journalistic achievement — she focused her thoughts on the Mississippians she’s covered.

“This award not only recognizes underdog reporting in an under-resourced part of the country,” Wolfe said. “It says to Mississippians who have long been subjected to systemic government corruption that their experiences are valid and they deserve better.”

READ MORE: Mississippi Today’s complete “The Backchannel” investigation

Before national news covered the welfare scandal, Mississippi Today exposed it first.

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Mississippi Today joins a growing number of nonprofit, online newsrooms to win the award over the past decade. Notably, Mississippi Today’s Pulitzer Prize this year is just one of a handful of Pulitzers awarded to a nonprofit newsroom focused on local news as compared to outlets focused on single-topic or national issues.

“Today’s win belongs to everyone who has supported our nonprofit newsroom since our 2016 launch,” said Mary Margaret White, CEO at Mississippi Today. “We would not be celebrating a Pulitzer Prize without the support of thousands of Mississippians who share our belief that an informed Mississippi is a stronger Mississippi. My sincere gratitude and respect goes to Anna Wolfe and the team at Mississippi Today for their dedication to truth and accountability, and to all of the grant makers and donors who steadfastly champion the impact of local journalism.”

The 2023 Pulitzer for Mississippi Today is the seventh awarded to a Mississippi news outlet in the history of the prizes. It is the first awarded to an online-only newsroom in the state’s history.

The Sun Herald won a Pulitzer in 2006 for its coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the Clarion Ledger won in 1983 for its successful campaign supporting Gov. William Winter in his legislative battle for public education reform; Hazel Brannon Smith of the Lexington Advertiser won in 1964 for a series of powerful local editorials; Ira B. Harkey of the Pascagoula Chronicle won in 1963 for a series of editorials about the state’s school integration crisis; the Vicksburg Sunday Post-Herald won in 1954 for its coverage of a devastating tornado; and Hodding Carter II, esteemed editor of The Delta Democrat-Times, won in 1946 for a group of editorials published on the subject of racial, religious and economic intolerance.

“I hope this Pulitzer Prize recognition serves as a reminder that we at Mississippi Today are here to serve this state for years and years to come,” Ganucheau said. “We are Mississippians who love this beautiful, complicated state and care deeply about its future. We’re proud to champion all the good of our state, and we’re emboldened to provide the accountability journalism that our state needs and deserves. We take seriously our responsibility to be the eyes and ears of taxpayers who may not have the ability or access to ask big, critical questions. We will always press our elected officials to ensure they’re living up to their responsibilities and using their platforms for good and not for corruption. We’re fearless, we’re resilient, and we’re here for the long, long haul.”

The Pulitzer Prize is the most prominent award earned by Mississippi Today, the state’s flagship nonprofit newsroom that was founded in 2016. The newsroom and its journalists have won several national awards in recent years, including: two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting; a 2022 Sidney Award for its thorough coverage of the Jackson water crisis; a Collier Prize for State Government Accountability; and the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award.

Mississippi Today and its staff have also won dozens of regional and statewide prizes, including dozens of Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Awards; several Mississippi Press Association awards for excellence, including a Bill Minor Prizes for Investigative Reporting; and the 2023 Silver Em Award at University of Mississippi.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.