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Pulitzer-winning journalist and Vassar alumna Alexandra Berzon discusses her work and the current state of journalism, November 16, 2009.


POUGHKEEPSIE, NY - Following a year of exhaustive reporting for the Las Vegas Sun about fatal construction working conditions on the famed Las Vegas Strip, lead reporter alumna Alexandra Berzon (Vassar class of 2001) was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service last spring. In addition to the Pulitzer, this series of over 50 combined stories and editorials garnered the Scripps Howard Award for Public Service Reporting, and several regional awards.

On Monday, November 16, Berzon will speak about her journey to the Pulitzer in the lecture at Vassar College: "Reporting the Local News: How a Vassar Grad Won the Pulitzer Prize in an Era of Newspaper Decline." The program will begin at 5:30pm in Sanders Classroom Spitzer Auditorium (room 212). This Urban Talk is presented by the Urban Studies Program at Vassar College and is free and open to the public.

In a recent interview that appeared in the fall 2009 issue of the Vassar Quarterly conducted by fellow alumnus and Pulitzer-winner Matthew Brelis (Vassar class of 1980), Berzon discussed the increasing trend of reporters having to do more in less time, due to economic pressures and the need for immediacy driven by the Web. "I think good local news is threatened. What I get most concerned about is not the big national investigative piece or an ongoing series like what we did, but the everyday local reporting." She concluded, "It is the daily investigative beat reporting that seems really threatened to me."

However Berzon did not discourage prospective reporters from entering the industry: "My advice is not ‘Don't do it,' but ‘Know what you are getting into.' It is such a fun profession, but of course it's a very bad time for the industry."

Journalist Berzon, a Berkeley, CA native, left the Las Vegas Sun this year to join the Los Angeles bureau of the Wall Street Journal. In 2001, she graduated from Vassar College with a degree in urban studies. While a student at Vassar, she joined the student newspaper the Miscellany News, becoming the news editor. In her discussion with Brelis, she noted that the collaborative work environment and the impact of the stories on the community is "what drove to me to go to graduate school to become a journalist."

Berzon graduated from the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2006, and worked for the Anchorage Daily News, San Antonio Express-News, and Red Herring Magazine, before joining the Las Vegas Sun as a business reporter in 2007.

Sociology professor Leonard Nevarez, director of Vassar's multidisciplinary Urban Studies Program, continues to use Berzon's senior thesis in urban studies, "‘City within a City'? The Implications of Community-Based Art in the Mission District, San Francisco," as a reference for urban studies students.

"Alexandra always had a sense of vision about her work and a really sophisticated understanding of the kinds of arguments and evidence she'd need to make a strong, passionate claim," Nevarez noted. "I was a reader on this thesis, so the fact that the excellence in writing I witnessed eight years ago has developed into something extraordinary is particularly gratifying to me, as well as the rest of the urban studies students and faculty."

The Pulitzer website noted that the prize was, "Awarded to the Las Vegas Sun, and notably the courageous reporting by Alexandra Berzon, for the exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip amid lax enforcement of regulations, leading to changes in policy and improved safety improved safety conditions."

Nine construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip had died in 16 months, as casino companies undertook a $32 billion building boom, including the largest private commercial development in U.S. history. Berzon's stories, beginning with "Pace is New Peril" on March 30, 2008, described how the rush to build quickly led to safety shortcuts that contributed to the deaths. Three more workers died before others walked off the job in June 2008, calling for improved safety. Congressional hearings followed, and the Nevada Legislature has proposed mandates for safety training and proper oversight by government agencies.

Two other Vassar graduates are also recipients of Pulitzers for achievements in journalism. In 1987, Matthew Brelis (Vassar class of 1980), like Berzon, was awarded the Pulitzer in Public Service, and in 1971, Lucinda Franks (Vassar class of 1968) was awarded the Pulitzer for National Reporting. Brelis recently profiled Berzon in the fall 2009 issue of the Vassar Quarterly.

The Urban Studies Program is designed as a multidisciplinary concentration in the study of cities and urbanization. Students examine the development of cities and their surrounding regions; the role of cities in the history of civilization; the social problems of urban life; the design of the built environment; and past and present efforts at planning for the future of urban societies.

This Urban Talk is co-sponsored by the Departments of English and Sociology, the Programs in American Culture and Media Studies, the Alumnae & Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC), and the Dean of Faculty's office.

Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations or information on accessibility should contact Campus Activities Office at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space and/or assistance may not be available. Directions to the Vassar campus are available online at www.vassar.edu/directions.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, October 16, 2009