A newsroom ‘detective’ reflects on helping the Washington Post win a 2018 Pulitzer

By | 2018-08-08T16:32:50+00:00 August 6th, 2018|

Alice Crites (center), a newsroom researcher for the Washington Post, holds the Pulitzer the Post was awarded for their investigation into Roy Moore.

(This article appears in the 2018 Summer/Fall Edition of Virginia’s Press.)

When Alice Crites does her job well, no one is supposed to notice.

But sometimes her work does get noticed, by a lot of people.

And this year, it was acknowledged with a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting category for her role in helping reporters and editors at the Washington Post research and fact check major pieces for their reporting on the Roy Moore scandal in Alabama. It was also some of her handy work that helped the Post foil Project Veritas and expose a sting operation setup against the paper.

“It’s detective work,” Crites said with a laugh. “Sometimes what I contribute is hugely beneficial. Sometimes it’s just a little thing that’s really helpful. I like the challenge and I love working with the reporters. It’s like the saying ‘the sum is greater than the parts.’ Together we do amazing work.”

Crites has been one of the Washington Post’s newsroom researchers for the past 26 years. It’s a position that has been eliminated by many organizations but also one that is widely regarded as critical for all things factual and historical– a fact-finding MacGyver that works in tandem with editors and reporters on big projects and remains unknown and unsung by many.

“I’m kind of an evangelist for researchers and news libraries,” Crites said. “They have been cut, cut, cut and I feel that we are a huge benefit. We’re cost effective. We’re expert searchers so we do it faster and cheaper than anyone else. We partner with everyone in the newsroom for a project. We not only get information, but also help avoid making mistakes.”

The mall and the YMCA?

Prior to this year, Crites had been on six Pulitzer-winning teams at the Post. But when she was brought into the mix with the Roy Moore scandal last year her task was one that she couldn’t help but think odd: find people that worked at the local mall and at the YMCA in Moore’s hometown.

“After I heard about the story, I was excited and ready,” Crites recalled. “I thought, ‘oh this will be great,’ but when they called me and told me to look for people that worked at the mall and at the Y in Etowah County Alabama in the 70s…”

It wasn’t what she had expected to be assigned, Crites said with some humor, but knew these facts could potentially lay the foundation for a much larger story.

But why the mall and the YMCA? This lead came about while Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen was in Alabama. She was being told by locals that Roy Moore, when he was younger, would hang out at the mall and the YMCA and prowl for teenage girls.

That was the beginning of the story and that’s when Crites was brought in to trace down these potential sources for the reporters. She dug in and instantly was met with some problems.

“It was a nightmare,” Crites said. “In southern small towns where everybody goes by a nickname, or middle name” it was difficult to find records on people, she said.

“It’s detective work. Sometimes what I contribute is hugely beneficial. Sometimes it’s just a little thing that’s really helpful. I like the challenge and I love working with the reporters. It’s like the saying ‘the sum is greater than the parts.’ Together we do amazing work.”

But she stuck it out. Once she had a list of workers from the Y and the mall, then the background checking began to make sure these potential sources did not have a checkered history with fraud or any other related activities.

Crites’ research knew no bounds. She used public records, social media and various other information avenues to confirm the background of these individuals.

The ‘Ah-Ha Moment’

After helping reporters find the two women that said Moore had approached them at the mall, Crites was bounced to another major piece of the Roy Moore mosaic. This piece of the puzzle would result in a major revelation that would garner the Post national praise and later help win the Pulitzer.

A source approached Post reporter Beth Reinhard and said she was impregnated by Moore at age 15 and had had an abortion. She wanted to meet Reinhard in person and tell her story.

Suspicion reigned over the situation, Crites said.

“We really weren’t getting a lot from her,” Crites said. “She [the source] was really sketchy on the details. Her number was untraceable, and she quickly wanted to meet with Beth [Reinhard].”

The Post team needed to know a lot more before committing to an out-of-state meet up that the source was requesting. When the source picked up on the Post team’s resistance, she said she would now be in D.C. and could meet there.

Reinhard met with the source and gathered more information from her. She divulged enough details during the meeting for Crites to get a foothold on her background.

And then the, the “ah-ha” moment—as Crites called it—happened.

After the meeting between Reinhard and the source, Crites started digging and found what confirmed the initial suspicions surrounding the source—a Go Fund Me page for the source that asked people to give her money so she could move to New York and work with a conservative media organization to “battle the mainstream media.”

“That was really the ‘ah-ha’ moment,” Crites said. “We were suspicious of this women but this confirmed that and changed the dynamic.”

Suddenly, Crites said, the story wasn’t that Roy Moore had impregnated a teenager but instead that Project Vertias, a highly-conservative media outlet, was attempting to plant a source to try and smear the reputation of the Post. It was a major revelation and safeguarded the Post and its reporters from an attempted smear operation.

Crites’ find had turned the story inside out and the Post came out the other side unscathed.

The right fit

When asked why she thinks she is good as a newsroom researcher, Crites said, that it is because in essence she—like any good reporter or researcher—is a problem solver.

“You look for the information in one way and if you don’t get that you try a variety of other methods,” she said. “I don’t give up on the first road block. I say, ‘well, let’s try it this way.’ You have to try to be creative and find other ways to find information.”

Crites, who originally worked at the Library of Congress, said she feels lucky to have the job she does.

“I don’t see myself doing anything different anytime soon,” she said. “It’s a great time to be in journalism.”

Often reporters and editors get the glory for a team’s work, but Crites said she has no issue with that because she enjoys watching everyone’s efforts culminate into a major story.

“I don’t think about it,” she said. “I think it’s like other people like copy editors. They work and make a big difference, but you don’t really notice it until something goes wrong. If you’re doing your job well, they often don’t notice you.”