“I love finding out things people don't want me to know,” says Gary Cohn, the new Atwood Chair of the Journalism and Public Communications Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Cohn, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, is settling into his first semester in the classroom after spending more than 20 years as a success in the newsroom. He's an energetic man with a thick Brooklyn accent whose eyes tend to sparkle when he gets to thinking about a good idea. He's accomplished, soft-spoken and contagiously enthusiastic about almost everything.
The Atwood Chair is a faculty position created in 1980 by Robert Atwood, long-time Alaskan and founder and publisher of The Anchorage Times. The purpose of the Atwood Chair is to bring nationally recognized journalists to the JPC Department and to advance the quality of its journalism training. The position is at least one year in duration, but it can be extended to include a second year.
And Cohn is already considering staying on.
“I like the teaching,” said Cohn. “It sort of forces me to think about what I do every day.”
But the learning element goes both ways, says Cohn. “When I go back to reporting it will make me a better reporter,” he said.
And a more diverse journalist, based on one of Cohn's most recent experiences. A seasoned print journalist, Cohn knew little about making news using electronic media – such as radio. But that didn't stop him from going forward with one of his good ideas.
When disaster struck on Sept. 11, Cohn did what journalists do – he sprung into action.
“I thought to myself, `this is going to be the biggest news event of our lives,' ” said Cohn. “We've got to jump on it.”
He abandoned his prepared lesson plan for his Advanced Newswriting class and turned his students into spontaneous radio reporters. In one night, with the help of UAA campus radio KRUA 88.1 FM and other JPC faculty and students, Cohn and his class produced a half-hour special news report about the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon and how it affected the community.
“It's an unbelievable example of what reporters and students can do when a big story hits,” said Cohn. “Everybody rose to the occasion.”
The more you look at Cohn's long list of accomplishments, the more you see evidence of his thirst for adventure. In 1998 Cohn won a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for a three-part series he co-authored called “The Shipbreakers.”
The story detailed the dangerous working conditions and environmental hazards associated with the dismantling of old naval ships. The story took an entire year to research and complete, leading him across the United States and overseas to India. Once published, the series inspired congressional action to improve industry regulations and an executive order prohibiting a plan to send old ships to third world countries for disassembly.
Cohn says his specialty, investigative reporting, relies on many of the same fundamentals as other reporting, such as newsgathering and interviewing, in addition to detailed research and deeper information gathering.
“It's always a challenge to peel back the layers to find out what's going on,” Cohn said.
He says thought goes into whether the topic of an investigative report will bring about positive results. “Is there a possibility of reform,” is a question he says he asks himself when considering new topics. Cohn says often there is a hope that the investigation will “spark some kind of action, bring about some kind of change.”
The list of Cohn's accomplishments in his field is long and varied. He's won a Selden Ring Award for Investigative Journalism, an Overseas Press Club of America Award, a George Polk Award, an Edward W. Scripps First Amendment Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. He was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. In that instance, he investigated a CIA-trained Honduran army unit called Battalion 316 and its legacy of murder, torture and kidnapping during the 1980s.
So, with a rap sheet like this, what's a guy like Cohn doing in a place like Alaska? He says he was looking for both a change and an adventure. Cohn says he was ready for a short break from reporting, but he wanted to do something new and worthwhile that would still relate to the field. He says Alaska is exotic, and being here affords him more time with his 18-month-old son, Jake.
In addition to his teaching course load, Cohn will give speeches throughout the year. He says his initial focus is teaching, but that he soon hopes to start working with members of the local Native community.
“I think it's really important to have people with different perspectives doing reporting.”
Read Gary Cohn's Pulitzer Prize winning story, “The Shipbreakers,” on the Web. Go to http://www.pulitzer.org . Then click on “1998,” then “INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING” and then “WORKS.