This week’s Q&A is with Virginian-Pilot watchdog/investigative reporter Tim Eberly. Eberly has had a crazy last couple of weeks. He was named the 2017 Outstanding Journalist of the Year at VPA’s annual awards banquet and then the following week he was announced as a Pulitzer finalist in the Investigative Reporting category.
Eberly talks about the stories that won him the aforementioned awards and his main interest outside of investigative reporting—surfing.
To start, can you give us a little background on yourself—who you are, where you’re from, where you’ve worked, where you currently work and what you do there?
I’m an investigative reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. I came here in 2013 from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, and had previous reporting jobs in Fresno, Calif., Rock Hill, S.C. and Havre, Mont. I’m originally from Bethesda, Md., and graduated from the University of Maryland.
Congratulations on being named a Pulitzer finalist in the Investigative Reporting category and on also being named the 2017 Outstanding Journalist at this year’s VPA awards. How did it feel to have your work acknowledged and to receive these honors—one being the highest achievable in journalism and the other being one of the top honors at the state level?
Thanks very much. It was an honor and a surprise. I can’t honestly say that I thought I had a realistic chance of the Pulitzer recognition. So that took a little while to sink in. Still is, to be quite honest. But it has definitely been an interesting past couple of weeks.
I’m sure it has been. It’s basically as good as it gets as far as journalism honors go. We’ll get to the series that won you the honors in a minute but I have to wonder ask: When you were writing these stories did you ever think, “I think these might be the ones that make me a Pulitzer finalist”? Did you even know that you had been entered into the competition?
No, I don’t think I ever thought that was an option while I was reporting and writing the story. The first time my editor mentioned something to me about submitting the stories in the Pulitzer contest was when the parole board started granting parole to the three-strikers. And, yes, I knew that my work had been submitted into the competition. To be honest, I did the lion’s share of throwing the submission together. But I didn’t really think I had a legitimate shot at it because the investigative piece ran at the end of the year, in mid-November. By the time the Pulitzer deadline rolled around, it had only been a couple months and only a dozen or so of the three-strikers had been affected by the changes. If our story ran at the start of a calendar year — and we had time for dozens or hundreds of inmates to be released — then I think we would have felt more optimistic going into the Pulitzer announcements.
For those that don’t know about your series, can you take a minute to explain what it is that you uncovered?
The investigative piece examined the state’s 1982 three-strikes law and the effect that it had on inmates statewide. Basically, in interviewing more than 40 inmates for the story, we found that first-time offenders had been tagged as three-strikers despite having never set foot in prison before. Most of these inmates weren’t the career criminals that three-strikes laws generally target. Most didn’t injure anyone in their crimes, yet were serving sentences that were significantly longer than the typical first-degree murderer. And more often than not, their three ‘strikes’ were committed in a single crime spree in their late teens or early 20s. But because of the way the three-strikes law was written — and interpreted by the state — these men were serving prison terms that amounted to a life sentence.
“I don’t think either of us thought it was ‘big’ until what happened after it ran. Once the parole board announced that it was changing its interpretation of the three-strikes law, things moved pretty quickly. Every week, I was hearing from different inmates who were getting paroled — or getting their parole eligibility restored. I still am.”
How did you first discover the story? And at what point did you know that you had something big?
My editor and I had decided that I would scrutinize the state parole board, in search of possible investigative story ideas. So I started tracking down attorneys who deal with the board. And one of them told me about the three-strikes law. He said offenders who had never been to prison before could become three-strikers. It definitely caught my attention. So I started looking a bit more into the three-strikes law while also poking around the parole board. A week or two later, after briefing my editor on what I learned, we decided to focus exclusively on the three-strikes story.
I thought it was a strong investigative piece, with several compelling components to it. So my editor and I were happy with how it turned out. But I don’t think either of us thought it was ‘big’ until what happened after it ran. Once the parole board announced that it was changing its interpretation of the three-strikes law, things moved pretty quickly. Every week, I was hearing from different inmates who were getting paroled — or getting their parole eligibility restored. I still am. I had a great conversation a few days ago with one of the main three-strikers I profiled in the story. He just found out he’s been granted parole. He’s overjoyed. Having those conversations has been the best part of all this.
I read in your Pulitzer bio that you’re an avid surfer and that you try to start each day in the ocean. How long have you been surfing and what got you into it? Does it play into your work as a reporter in anyway—possibly giving you some level of zen that other journos might not be getting without a hobby that drops them in the middle of the ocean?
I wish I could start off each day in the ocean. Unfortunately, because I’m dependent on ocean swell, tide and wind direction, I get out there one to two times a week when those conditions are right. I started surfing in college, when I spent a couple summers at beaches in Maryland and Florida. Then I interned at Surfer Magazine during my senior year of college, thinking that I wanted to be a surf writer. I ended up going in a different direction, but continued surfing whenever I could. Once I got to my fourth newspaper job — in Atlanta — I decided that I wanted surfing to be a bigger part of my life, not just something I did on vacation. So I convinced my then-wife to move to coastal Virginia. And I’m so glad I did. I live a few blocks from the water in Virginia Beach, and paddle out whenever I can. I never have a bad day when I start it off surfing. Riding waves does something for me that nothing else can.
What’s next for you—without giving too much away? Have you got your sights set on another big story?
I just finished an investigative piece on our region’s Habitat for Humanity organization, so I’m currently looking for the next story. I’ve got a few possibilities, but none have surfaced as the clear choice yet. I’m hoping I’ll figure that out in the next week or so. Fingers crossed.