Post and Courier special projects reporter Tony Bartelme, whose penetrating look at the insurance industry helped readers understand the complicated issues causing their rates to go up, was named a finalist Monday for the Pulitzer Prize.
Pulitzer Prize winners
JournalismPublic service: Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.Breaking news reporting: The Denver Post StaffInvestigative reporting: David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab of The New York TimesExplanatory reporting: The New York Times StaffLocal reporting: Brad Schrade, Jeremy Olson and Glenn Howatt of the Star Tribune, Minn.National reporting: Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News, Brooklyn, N.Y.International reporting: David Barboza of The New York TimesFeature writing: John Branch of The New York TimesCommentary: Bret Stephens of The Wall Street JournalCriticism: Philip Kennicott of The Washington PostEditorial writing: Tim Nickens and Daniel Ruth of the Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.Editorial cartooning: Steve Sack of the Star Tribune, Minn.Breaking news photography: Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, Khalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen of the Associated PressFeature photography: Javier Manzano, free-lance photographer, Agence France-PresseLetters, Drama, MusicFiction: “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam JohnsonDrama: “Disgraced” by Ayad AkhtarHistory: “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam” by Fredrik Logevall (Random House),Biography: “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo” by Tom Reiss (Crown)Poetry: “Stag’s Leap” by Sharon OldsGeneral nonfiction: “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King (Harper)Music: “Partita for 8 Voices” by Caroline Shaw, recording released on October 30, 2012 (New Amsterdam Records)Source: pulitzer.org
Bartelme was among three finalists for the award in the Explanatory Reporting category that went to the staff of The New York Times for its look into business practices by Apple and other technology companies. The reporting 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. 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 in 2011 for his series about a Medical University of South Carolina neurosurgeon’s work to teach brain surgery in Tanzania.
“Storm of Money” detailed the mysterious world of property insurance and how and why homeowners are forced to pay such high insurance rates in South Carolina and other states. Bartelme used a deft mix of narratives and data that exposed how many insurance companies use fear, technology and political muscle to shortchange consumers. His reporting 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 reinsurance companies and how offshore 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 also exploded a myth that insurers have long used to justify rate hikes — that South Carolina is a catastrophe magnet.
“We are proud of the work Tony has done, and for him to be recognized as a finalist speaks to the breadth of this series,” Post and Courier Publisher P.J. Browning said. “This is not something that just happens. It takes long hours of research and lots of conversations to dig through an issue this big.
“Through his coverage he has given this issue the kind of attention it needs to gather steam and push insurance reform through that will benefit our residents.”
Executive Editor Mitch Pugh said, “This is a tremendous honor for Tony and the entire Post and Courier. Tony’s work in one of the most competitive Pulitzer categories truly stands out for how clearly he explained the complex factors leading to South Carolinians’ outrageous insurance bills. Better yet, legislators were listening and his important work may lead to meaningful change.”
Like most good stories, Bartelme’s series began with a tip, in this case from retired CEO Daryl Ferguson, who spent two years of his retirement studying insurance and hurricanes and challenged the newspaper to explain why the state has some of the highest insurance premiums in the nation.
Ferguson said Bartelme’s award is wonderful because the series “truly changed history in the state” where there was no realization of the insurance problem. After the series, he said, “it went viral.”
That challenge evolved into Bartelme’s revealing examination of the insurance industry’s 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 newspaper 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 newspaper’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. The series recently won the S.C. Press Association’s top award for public service.
Until “Storm of Money,” property insurance wasn’t anywhere near the radar of most state lawmakers. In the wake of the series, the S.C. Department of Insurance 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. And retirees and real estate leaders formed a new grass-roots group to address high rates.
The series generated follow-up stories in The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune and in news organizations across South Carolina.