Post and Courier special projects reporter Tony Bartelme was named as a finalist Monday for Journalism’s top honor, The Pulitzer Prize.
Bartelme was among three finalists for the award in the Explanatory Journalism category that went to the staff of the New York Times for its penetrating look into business practices by Apple and other technology companies that illustrates the darker side of a changing global economy for workers and consumers.
Bartelme’s year-long, series, “Storm of Money,” was named as a finalist in a category that the Pulitzer Board says must demonstrate “reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation, using any available journalistic tool.”
The other finalist was Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for his exhaustive examination of the struggle to keep Asian carp and other invasive species from reaching the Great Lakes and ultimately all of the nation’s inland waters.
Bartelme’s series detailed the mysterious world of property insurance and how and why homeowners are forced to pay such high insurance rates in South Carolina and many other states. The win further cemented the newspaper’s position as the state’s most honored news organization.
This is the second time Bartelme has been named as a finalist for journalism’s top honor. He was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in the feature story category for his series about a neurosurgeon’s work to teach brain surgery in Tanzania.
Bartelme’s “Storm of Money” series is a deft mix of narratives and data that exposed how insurance companies use fear, technology and political muscle to shortchange consumers. He revealed how insurance companies use “black box” computer programs to control the flow of billions of dollars in rates and claims with little or no scrutiny from government regulators.
The series explored the Byzantine world of re-insurance companies and how off-shore conglomerates are largely responsible for high home insurance premiums. It described the secret ways insurance companies manipulate software to boost profits at the expense of people who have been injured.
Bartelme’s work exploded a myth that insurers have long used to justify rate hikes – that South Carolina is a catastrophe magnet. The Post and Courier has done its share of storm stories that heightened readers’ fears about hurricanes, yet Bartelme’s work in Storm of Money was unusual in how it challenged alarmism instead of stoking it.
Like most good stories, Bartelme’s series began with a tip; in this case from a retired CEO named Daryl Ferguson, who spent two years of his retirement studying insurance and hurricanes and challenged The Post and Courier to explain why the state has some of the highest insurance premiums in the nation.
That challenge evolved into Bartelme’s revealing examination of how the insurance industry ticks in a surprisingly complex mix of money, science and medicine. The series showed that the industry often gets away with unnecessarily high price increases and unjustified claim denials because South Carolina insurance regulators typically have been asleep at the switch, or worse.
In perhaps the most illuminating part of the series, Bartelme crafted a suspense novel-like story called “The Insider,” about a high-level Allstate executive in Chicago who “tuned” a computer software program called Colossus so it spit out less money for people hurt in car accidents. The insider would suffer pangs of guilt and become a key whistleblower in consumer battles against the insurance industry’s pricing tactics and its failure to live up to its promise to make people whole when they suffer losses.
In addition to the stories, The Post and Courier developed new online search tools to help consumers better compare home insurance rates, something other state insurance departments have on their websites but our state lacks. The Post and Courier’s digital platform also had videos and interactive maps about insurance rates and the state’s historical vulnerability to hurricanes.
Helping readers understand an industry that lacks transparency was one goal of the series, but public service was another: to help lift the veil that shields the industry and to help improve consumer protection.
Until Storm of Money, property insurance wasn’t anywhere near the radar of most state lawmakers. In the wake of the series, South Carolina’s insurance department convened a panel of experts to examine the “black box” catastrophe models that affect rates.
Lawmakers held up the confirmation of a new state insurance director because of concerns about rates and the department’s hands-off role. The new director vowed to improve the department’s website and examine other home insurance issues identified in the series.
Lawmakers also introduced a new bill dubbed the “Competitive Insurance Act” to boost competition and lower rates. State senators formed a new insurance subcommittee. Retirees and real estate leaders formed a new grass roots group to address high rates. The series also generated follow-up stories in The Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune and in news organizations across South Carolina.
Because of clarity and impact of Bartelme’s “Storm of Money,” the series also won the South Carolina Press Association’s top award for public service.