by Dylan Carlson Sirvent, ’19
On April 16, the Cincinnati Enquirer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting for their story “Seven Days of Heroin.” The Pulitzer Board said that the story was recognized for “a riveting and insightful narrative and video documenting seven days of greater Cincinnati’s heroin epidemic, revealing how the deadly addiction has ravaged families and communities.”
The Enquirer sent more than 60 reporters, videographers and photographers into the community to chronicle the story. Among these reporters was UA alum and former managing editor of the Arlingtonian Anne Saker.
FINDING HER PATH
Saker’s journey to working for the Enquirer and winning a Pulitzer was, as she described, “a ridiculously long, and stupidly complex story.”
After graduating from UAHS, Saker attended Ohio University and received a degree in journalism. Then, she interned for three months at the Cincinnati Enquirer and flew across the Atlantic Ocean and interned in London for another three months for United Press International. When she came back, she asked the Enquirer for a job, but they told her she was not experienced enough to work there.
“They told me I needed to go work at a smaller paper and I said ‘Oh, the heck with that,’” Saker said. “So I contacted UPI officials and they found me a job in Northam, Virginia.”
From there, she went to Washington D.C. with UPI, then to Raleigh, North Carolina where she worked for ten years at The News & Observer, then to The Oregonian where she worked for eight years. Then, she worked on the Kroger Chronicles, reported for the New York Times and was a freelance writer for two years before making a full circle back to the Cincinnati Enquirer where she has worked since 2014.
“By then, I was probably erring on the side of too much experience,” Saker said with a chuckle.
REPORTING “SEVEN DAYS”
Saker’s role in “Seven Days of Heroin” was to analyze the Cincinnati opioid epidemic from the healthcare perspective which took her to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. There, they run a clinic at least once a week where doctors see all the children who are suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome, an array of deficits and behaviors in those born dependent or addicted to heroin or opioids.
There, she met Stephanie Gaffney, a 28 year-old and the mother of Elliana, her 8-month-old daughter. Gaffney told Saker and Cara Owsley, the Enquirer’s Director of Photography for Ohio, that she had been sober for 16 months after learning she was pregnant and was aiming to graduate from rehab, get a job and marry fiancé Stephen Russ.
“The mom was in great shape, the baby was in great shape. We came back to the newsroom thinking, ‘Wow, we’re going to have a bright spot. The one bright spot of this horrible week of overdose deaths, shattered families, and children in foster care.’ Out of all of this, we had this beautiful happy story of a mom and a baby recovering,” Saker said.
Then, two weeks later, Saker received a phone call from a spokesman at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
“Remember that young mom with baby you saw here at the NAS clinic?” the spokesman said, according to Saker’s article “Seven Days of Heroin: Elliana’s Story” published in the Enquirer. “Her obituary was in your newspaper yesterday.”
Saker said that Gaffney’s death was a hard reality check for her and readers.
“We had a lot of people tell me that for them that [Gaffney’s death] really crystallized how dangerous this epidemic is,” Saker said. “That a mother could gaze upon her infant child in its bed sleeping and still put a needle in her arm—that’s how devastating this problem is.”
In the seven days that the Enquirer analzyed, there were over 180 overdoses and 18 deaths in the greater Cinncinati area.
“This story really illustrated that this is [not happening] in some disreputable corner of downtown somewhere that you can sort of turn you back on,” Saker said. “[People are overdosing] in the grocery store, or the movies, or at schools… We’ve had people overdose in the drive-through line with their kid in their back seat.”
GOLDEN BEAR BEGINNINGS
Saker was a member of the Arlingtonian staff from 1975-1977 and the staff was advised by Shirley Behnke, a journalism teacher at UAHS. Saker credits Behnke for infecting her withher passion for journalism.
“She lived and breathed her own passion for journalism, and that definitely took hold of much of us in the [Arlingtonian staff] and me,” Saker said.
Behnke who passed away in 1999 was inducted into the UA’s Educator Hall of Fame in 2010.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve been wishing that I could call her and thank her for setting me on my track for life,” Saker said.
Background: The only reason that I knew Anne Saker was a former graduate from Upper Arlington High School is because a community member emailed the Arlingtonian telling us she had won the Pulitzer along with the staff at the Cincinnati Enquirer for their work on the story “Seven Days of Heroin.” That shows the value of the relationship between readers and the publication, because if the channels between the two are open and frequent, then not only will the publication be able to tap more closely to prominent events or topics of relevance to its readership, but the readers themselves will feel as though they have input and be more engaged.