Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Bringing Pulitzer prizes home

David Umhoefer of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times have some striking similarities. Both are distinguished journalists and University of Wisconsin alumni, and both were announced winners of Pulitzer Prizes in journalism earlier this month.

But each reporter crafted his own path from UW to one of journalism’s highest forms of recognition.

“Not everybody enjoys this kind of work, but I do,” said Umhoefer, who spent six months working on an investigation of county employee pensions as the Journal Sentinel’s local government investigative reporter.


Umhoefer’s work revealed that Milwaukee County had improperly given special benefits to employees in at least 200 cases, at a total estimated cost of $50 million. In reaction to his reporting, the county confessed its actions to the Internal Revenue Service and promised to fix the problem.

“I’m proud of the story, and I’m proud of the paper for giving me time to do it and do it right,” Umhoefer said.

The reporter first clued into a possible story about pensions while previously working on the county government beat when he noticed a special benefit that a local parks director was receiving.

“Her pension just didn’t seem to add up, and it was because of this special benefit she got,” Umhoefer said. “From that point on I was real curious about how many people got this and who qualified and was this done correctly.”

Umhoefer “chipped away” at the story when he found the time, and after joining the investigative team in January of 2007 he was able to work full time compiling a database of information about the special benefits.

James Baughman, director of UW’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said he was pleased Umhoefer’s local reporting was awarded a Pulitzer.

“I think it’s nice that the Journal Sentinel won, as opposed to another award for the Washington Post or the L.A. Times or something like that,” Baughman said. “I’m glad that they recognized a heartland newspaper.”

While Umhoefer tirelessly compiled data at a local level, Bogdanich investigated poisonous pharmaceutical ingredients that had killed more than one hundred people in Panama. He traced the ingredients back through Europe to their source in China. As a result of Bogdanich’s investigation, the Chinese government permanently shut down the chemical company that was selling the deadly pharmaceutical ingredients without a license.

“I tried to answer the question, ‘How could someone sell poison, (and) label this a safe pharmaceutical ingredient?'” Bogdanich said. “Why did they do that, and why didn’t regulatory agencies along the way stop it?”

As a producer with 60 Minutes, Bogdanich had reported on a similar case in Haiti more than a decade earlier, but no positive changes resulted from the findings.

“I just figured that if some other story like [the one in Haiti] came around again, I would be very aggressive in pursuing it,” Bogdanich said.

A story did appear again with the mysterious deaths in Panama. Based on his previous experience in Haiti, Bogdanich guessed the deaths were linked to China, and The New York Times sent him to Panama to follow up on his hunch. He worked on the investigation for a year and a half in collaboration with Jake Hooker, a young reporter with whom Bogdanich shared the Pulitzer Prize.

Although Bogdanich is now a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he never thought of journalism as a career before attending UW.

Umhoefer, on the other hand, was interested in the field from an early age.

“I’m one of these Watergate journalists,” Umhoefer said, explaining how he watched the Nixon scandal unfold and saw the subsequent film based on the event, “All the President’s Men,” as a kid.

“When I saw that, I was kind of hooked,” he added.

After graduating from UW in 1983, Umhoefer started at the West Bend News just north of Milwaukee and soon moved to the Milwaukee Journal, which later merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel. He has worked at the paper for 23 years, covering local and county government before becoming part of the investigative team.

Things weren’t as smooth for Bogdanich as a still-wet-behind-the-ears UW graduate in 1975.

“I wanted to be a journalist, and unfortunately nobody would hire me because I didn’t have any real background,” said Bogdanich, who earned a political science degree.

After Bogdanich earned a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State University, his career quickly took off. In addition to his position as assistant investigations editor at The New York Times, Bogdanich has done award-winning work for The Wall Street Journal and served as an investigative producer at 60 Minutes and ABC News.

“The journalism school (at UW) can’t claim Walt — we’d love to,” Baughman said. “It’s a reminder that you don’t have to major in journalism to do well.”

Bogdanich never thought as a student that he’d be where he is today.

“Never in a million years!” Bogdanich said, laughing. “I didn’t think I was particularly good. I really didn’t know what I was doing.”

Umhoefer shares this view.

“You write these stories, and you hope just to lay out the facts, and you hope people notice and things change,” Umhoefer said. “I suppose deep down everybody dreams of a Pulitzer Prize, but you never really think of yourself as winning it.”

As a result of Umhoefer and Bogdanich’s exhaustive work, plenty of things did change. Umhoefer’s story put a spotlight on corrupt practices in Milwaukee, and after the poisoned medicine fiasco, the United States and China signed an agreement in which China promised to better regulate its chemical companies.

“Awards are nice,” Bogdanich said. “But achieving some kind of reform, fixing some kind of wrong, means more to me.”

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