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Grinding out a Pulitzer in W.Va.

| Saturday, April 22, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. (Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

Eric Eyre always thought reporters had to write something like a nine-part series to win a Pulitzer Prize. It turns out all he had to do was keep grinding.

Eyre, 51, figures he writes about 250 stories a year as a statehouse reporter for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette-Mail newspaper, circulation 37,000. He files a story almost every day, and another for the Sunday edition. Once a month, he works the night cops beat.

A couple of stories Eyre wrote in December changed the pace of his work, for now.

With the help of pro bono lawyers, Eyre filed a Freedom of Information Act request and worked through the legal system to compel the state attorney general to release U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency data showing exactly how many opioid pills had gone to specific West Virginia pharmacies over six years.

Drug wholesalers had sent 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to the state. In just two years, nearly 9 million pills had gone to one pharmacy in Kermit, a Mingo County town with 392 residents.

The data lined up with prescription opioid overdose deaths. Over the six years, 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on opioids. Mingo County's rate for such deaths ranks fourth in the nation.

As soon as Eyre reported his findings, national news outlets and readers all over the country reached out. Hundreds of people — local residents, former West Virginians, recovering addicts everywhere — emailed questions and comments. He has tried to answer every one.

“I've done stories like this throughout my career and I've never had something happen so crazy,” Eyre told me.

Then the awards started coming. I met Eyre in Cincinnati, where he received a Scripps Howard award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment. Two days earlier, the Pulitzer committee had recognized him for investigative reporting. Eyre hadn't watched the Pulitzer announcement. His newsroom hadn't prepared for a party. He found out when a former co-worker called to congratulate him. The newspaper's owner ran out to a Rite Aid to buy bottles of Korbel champagne .

That night, Eyre's wife, Lori Dubrawka, made spaghetti for dinner. Her family lived in Coraopolis when she was born, and she graduated from North Hills High School. He's from Ambler, Pa., in Montgomery County. They met at Penn State.

Since the Pulitzer, it's been hard to get any work done with all of the distractions.

Eyre won these awards for his relentless, grind-it-out efforts. But he also represents a lot of other hardworking journalists who do not always get the same attention. These people work at large national media companies, at tiny community newspapers and in statehouse bureaus and municipal buildings across the country. Eyre sees that too.

“Every year you think you may have a shot and then you see the competition and it's overwhelming,” he told me. “There's so much good stuff done every year.”

Days after winning the awards, Eyre said he's still struggling to comprehend all of the attention.

“I'm still overwhelmed. I want to get back to reporting.”

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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