Ken Armstrong · 2018
Ken Armstrong began his college career as a computer science major.
For two weeks.
The Purdue University student switched to political science, to prepare for a law career. He dropped out of the University of Chicago’s law school after a year to enter the Peace Corps — which he abandoned after four months.
“In those days, journalism welcomed dropouts,” Armstrong wrote recently, describing the 1980s. “I became a journalist.”
Beginning with his time at Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, where he was editor-in-chief and opinions editor, Armstrong has consistently pushed the boundaries of journalism, combining old-fashioned curiosity and shoe-leather reporting with a strong narrative voice.
Armstrong initially found his passion at The Exponent, where he began by writing editorials. Those sometimes drew letters to the editor like this one: “You have an IQ that is only rivaled by dead house plants and pet rocks and your ego is the size of Mount McKinley.”
“There’s little about Ken that was conventional in those days,” Exponent publisher Pat Kuhnle told the audience in 2009 as Armstrong was awarded the John Chancellor Award from the Columbia Journalism School, “and, in my opinion, that’s what brings us together here tonight.”
That non-traditional path has taken him to newspapers big and small in several states, including Colorado, Idaho, California, New York, New Jersey, Alaska and Virginia.
At the Chicago Tribune, his work revealing the innocence of death row inmates inspired the governor to declare a moratorium on executions. After the stories were published, Armstrong and a colleague sat down with a movie producer who wanted to know how they went about reporting on the death penalty.
“I told him: ‘We pulled all of these records, file after file; we filled in all of these boxes on a hand-drawn spreadsheet, box after box; we tallied up all our findings, number after number,’” Armstrong wrote later, about a movie that was never made. “His mind drifted away. I swear, I could see it, it drifted out the window, to Michigan Avenue, to the expressway, to the airport, it hopped on a flight and got off in a place where reporters do gloriously cinematic things, like hold clandestine meetings with code-named sources in parking garages.”
Later, at the Seattle Times, reporting projects that inspired change included risky prescribing of methadone; special treatment of college athletes; a MRSA epidemic; the warning signs of a disastrous landslide that killed 43 people; and illegally sealed court files (“Your Courts, Their Secrets”).
Armstrong’s work has been featured in such books as Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism in America. Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, written with Nick Perry and based on his Seattle Times reporting on the topic, was praised by the Sunday New York Times Book Review and won the 2011 Edgar Award for non-fiction.
As a reporter for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit that concentrates on national criminal justice issues, Armstrong co-wrote a story in December 2015 of a woman persuaded to recant her report about a vicious rape but who was later vindicated by authorities in another state tracking down a serial rapist. “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” won Armstrong his fourth Pulitzer Prize, was the subject of an NPR “This American Life” report, is being used to train police officers in how to treat sex crime victims, is the topic of a book released in February 2018 that has garnered favorable reviews and will soon be an eight-part dramatization on Netflix.
As a young journalist, Armstrong notes, he never envisioned the current media world that allows one story to take so many complementary forms — and that “there would be something I would learn every step of the way.”
In October 2017, Armstrong began work as a reporter for the national investigative nonprofit ProPublica, which in January 2018 launched an ambitious partnering with local newspaper newsrooms across the country. As part of that initiative, Armstrong is partnering with a South Bend Tribune reporter to explore a criminal justice topic rooted in Indiana.
Armstrong has many awards to his credit, including the Chancellor award for lifetime achievement (which he notes is “the profession’s polite way of calling you grizzled”); six Investigative Reporters and Editors awards; four George Polk awards; the Selden Ring; ASNE’s Distinguished Writing Award; and the Michael Kelly Award for the fearless pursuit and expression of truth.
In May 2018, Purdue awarded Armstrong an honorary doctorate in liberal arts. Besides the fun perk of asking his two children to refer to him as “Dr.,” for at least a short time, Armstrong said, “I still enjoy doing what I do.”
“If I’m lucky,” he wrote online, “the work makes a difference.”
Armstrong’s colleagues at the Marshall Project described him as gracious and generous with advice. He has shared his experiences at many conferences and in college classrooms, having also served as the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Even Ken’s story ideas “are like gifts from the journalism gods: intriguing, entertaining, wide-ranging,” wrote his Marshall Project editor-in-chief, Bill Keller. “They include offbeat legal questions (can police force you to give a urine sample by shoving in a catheter?) and one idea for a criminal justice story told in song. Sometimes I’m tempted to just publish his pitches.”
“Ken does journalism that makes a difference — sometimes a profound difference,” Keller said.
Ken lives with his family in Seattle, commuting to New York City regularly to meet with co-workers. Some family members still live in Indiana, including his mother.
After the 2016 presidential election, Armstrong wrote this in an email to Marshall Project staff:
“Our reporting on criminal justice can make a difference, no matter the time or mood or place. There’s never a straight line with our work. And there’s never one ideal moment to be seized. We just need to keep reporting, mindful of that arc bending towards justice.”
By Virginia Black