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MHS grad awarded Pulitzer

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

A Marion High School graduate has won the third Pulitzer Prize of his career.

Dan Swenson, graphics editor at the New Orleans Advocate, was part of a team that won the newspaper its first-ever Pulitzer for a series on the impact of a state law that allowed juries to convict without a unanimous verdict. Swenson is a 1991 MHS grad and a 1995 graduate of Ball State University.

The multi-part investigation showed that non-unanimous convictions disproportionately sent black defendants to prison. After their reporting broke, Louisiana residents voted to change the state’s constitution to require unanimous verdicts in criminal cases.

The Pulitzer award committee called it “a damning portrayal of the state’s discriminatory conviction system.”

Swenson was responsible for crafting visuals to guide readers through the data the reporting team collected, including an interactive slideshow on the Advocate’s website.

Swenson said although he knew about the team’s nomination for the Pulitzer in the local reporting category, the win was still a huge surprise. The New Orleans newsroom had gathered around the TV to watch on Monday when the announcement was made.

“The whole newsroom just broke out (in cheers),” Swenson said.

He has won Pulitzers before, as part of teams at the Times-Picayune that won for their reporting on Hurricane Katrina in 2006. But he said this one was “a little sweeter,” in part because it was the paper’s first Pulitzer win.

“It’s a sweet victory to give to a newspaper that’s trying to pick up the slack, to give readers a newspaper that still delivers. … It’s an honor to be a part of it,” Swenson said.

At Marion High School, Swenson was a cartoonist for the high school newspaper. He said advice from his high school journalism teacher Phyllis Knost still comes to him as he works on stories to this day.

“She was very influential to a lot of us,” Swenson said.

“MCS is very, very proud of Dan and proud to be able to call him a Giant, and we look from afar with pride at what he’s doing to make a difference in the communities he works in,” said Patricia Gibson, director of communications for Marion Community Schools.

Links to the pieces in the Advocate’s Pulitzer-winning series and more details about the award can be found at www.pulitzer.org/winners/staff-advocate-baton-rouge-la.