Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Winning the Hard Way

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Winning the Hard Way

Article excerpt

Mark Schoofs of the 'Voice' went where no major daily dared to go, exploring AIDS in Africa - earning a top prize, but paying a price

Mark Schoofs lay flat on his back in a Nigerian hospital, an IV stuck in his arm dripping quinine to treat malaria, with two thoughts chasing each other across his mind: Would he get some kind of deadly infection E and would he ever get a chance to finish his reporting? The veteran Village Voice writer had already spent most of early 1999 roaming Africa for a major series on its AIDS epidemic when the feverish disease struck in June, effectively shutting down his research and shifting his attention to his own health.

"I wanted to make sure the needles going into me were sterile," Schoofs, 37, recalls during an interview inside his third-floor cubicle at the Voice's office in New York's Greenwich Village. "The nurse was actually offended that I would believe they would use dirty needles. That made me feel a little better, but not a lot."

It had been four months since the Voice writer first landed in South Africa with a six-month plan for a multipart series on skyrocketing AIDS infection rates that had already killed 14 million Africans (compared to 500,000 deaths in the United States). Schoofs, whose AIDS reporting dates back to his days as a San Francisco free-lancer in the late 1980s, had visited several African countries, interviewed scores of natives, doctors, and scientists, and built up an impressive store of information when the malaria struck him down, forcing him to spend three days in a hospital bed. "The fever would come and go, my joints would ache, and I could [only] sleep," Schoofs remembers. "I was worried that I would not be able to do this story. I could feel the time ticking away."

Within a week, Schoofs' slowly overcame the disease, and went back to work reporting for two more months. When his tour of duty was over, he'd survived a brothel raid, an arrest for shooting pictures in public, and endless visits to decrepit, impoverished villages where entire families were being wiped out by the single killer virus.

He also assembled enough background, anecdotes, and data for an eight- part series that the Voice published in November and December, eventually earning him the Pulitzer Prize last month for international reporting - the only reporting Pulitzer ever given to an alternative paper, and only the fourth Pulitzer in history for a nondaily. In a year when The New York Times failed to win a single Pulitzer, Schoofs single-handedly beat out multiple staffers at two venerable institutions, The Washington Post and The Associated Press, who were finalists in his division. They had been nominated for the type of reporting that often wins awards: high-profile foreign-war coverage (Kosovo and Chechnya, respectively).

Schoofs' six-month odyssey through Africa's growing AIDS nightmare also brought him new insight into the need to keep plugging away at a story in the face of adversity, the importance of researching broad issues thoroughly and continuously, and the challenge of carefully explaining foreign cultures to an American audience that has never seen them up close. At the same time, the openly gay writer also had to deal with his own views of AIDS, which killed his former partner nine years earlier in San Francisco and left some painful memories.

'Voice' in the wilderness

"I realized I would have to re-enter a world I did not want to re- enter," Schoofs says. "But it was an urgent story that needed to be told."

Don Forst will tell you it took little convincing for him to let Mark Schoofs spend six months overseas - and $17,000 of the Voice's money - for his series on AIDS in Africa. Still, it was an extraordinary step. None of Schoofs' previous Voice assignments had cost as much, but Forst was quick to approve the request after the reporter walked into his office in September 1998 and pitched the idea. …

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