When John Archibald started looking into a tip about local policing, he had no idea it would eventually lead to him sharing a Pulitzer with his son.
The AL.com columnist had just returned from a journalism fellowship and was questioning the worth of opinion pieces. All he wanted to do was write straight news. The opportunity to do that came when someone suggested he look into Brookside, a tiny town just north of Birmingham, Alabama. Archibald started digging and found that half the town’s revenue came from fines and forfeitures.
“There’s moments in this business where you look at something and you see it, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up,” Archibald said. “And it happened when I saw that budget.”
That was when the story broke open. Throughout 2022, Archibald; his son, data reporter Ramsey Archibald; investigative editor Ashley Remkus; and investigative editor and reporter Challen Stephens delved into the Brookside police department’s aggressive use of ticketing to boost city revenue. Their reporting earned John Archibald, Remkus and Stephens their second Pulitzer Prizes and Ramsey Archibald his first.
The team was apart when they found out Monday that they had won the Pulitzer in Local Reporting. However, the Archibalds had set up a video call with other family members to watch the Pulitzer announcements. In the middle of the broadcast, John Archibald stepped away to take a phone call. That’s when Pulitzer Prizes administrator Marjorie Miller announced that the AL.com team had won.
“My wife and kids were on Zoom, watching with me, and they were all yelling at me to shut up and get off the phone,” he said.
Ramsey Archibald said that when he heard his name, he had a hard time believing that it was happening. He had known from an early age that wanted to be a writer. His parents had met at the University of Alabama’s student paper, The Crimson White, and growing up, he developed both a “healthy” respect and fear of the industry.
The Brookside investigation was not the first time Ramsey Archibald had worked with his dad on a journalism project. Three years ago, the duo collaborated on a cartoon video called “The History of Alabama.” It was filled with inside jokes and silly puns — “so kind of different tones between these two projects,” he said.
“It’s funny because this is my dad’s second Pulitzer Prize. So following in his footsteps into journalism, that’s something that you’re sort of aware of,” Archibald said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t call it a rivalry — we save our rivalry for the basketball court — but it’s really amazing to be able to do it with him.”
Remkus said this Pulitzer Prize was a particularly special one for her and Stephens. The pair had previously worked together on an investigation into K-9 units and the damage that police dogs cause. They, along with the staff of The Marshall Project, the IndyStar and the Invisible Institute won a Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting in 2021. However, that prize was credited to “AL.com.” This year, she and Stephens were recognized by name.
More meaningful than the recognition is the knowledge that their reporting has had such a swift and tangible impact, Remkus said.
During their reporting, the AL.com team found that Brookside police had collected in a single year $487 in fines and forfeitures for every resident in the city. Police used racial slurs, publicly shamed people on the department’s Facebook page and made up laws to stack counts. Some of the people who were pulled over by police fell into debt due to steep fines and court fees.
Because of AL.com’s reporting, Brookside’s police chief resigned, the town judge was disbarred and had to agree to never serve as a judge in the state again, Alabama’s legislature passed several bipartisan laws and the state conducted an audit into the city.
“The list of results, honestly, is still a little bit overwhelming to us,” Remkus said. “It really makes every bit of it worth it, to know that we can use our voices to have that kind of impact.”
Hearing people say that they got their life back and getting to share that experience with his son has been especially meaningful, John Archibald said.
“When people come to you and say that they feel heard for the first time in their lives, I mean, that’s as good as money,” John Archibald said. “He (Ramsey Archibald) got joy out of that, and I got joy from seeing him get joy out of that.”
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