By Melinda Munson
It took years for Skagway School graduate and journalist Kyle Hopkins to get The Anchorage Daily News (ADN) to hire him. When they did, he earned them a Pulitzer.
Hopkins led a team from the ADN, in partnership with the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, on a year-long investigation into rural Alaska where one in three communities has no local law enforcement officers.
The series, entitled “Lawless,” explores isolated villages combatting high rates of sexual abuse, violence and suicide with no access to first responders. Hopkins’ team discovered that in some communities where officers were hired, those officers were convicted felons with a history of violence that would make them ineligible under state law to be hired as a security guard.
Hopkins’ connection to Skagway started in 1991 when his father took over as Skagway School’s superintendent. Hopkins was a freshman.
“I didn’t love to write in high school,” Hopkins said. What he did love was basketball.
“I lived for basketball and basketball season. If I had lived in a big community, basketball would not have been an option for me,” he said, citing his five-feet, seven-inch frame.
To stay at the top of his basketball game, Hopkins joined track. Track and basketball coach Jeff Kasler “loomed large” in Hopkins’ high school experience.
“I became a full-on runner. It was because of Jeff Kasler,” said Hopkins, who went on to run track for the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). He still runs today, albeit a little slower.
Another of Hopkins’ loves is reading. At UAF, he tried to settle on a major so he could get a job “where someone would just pay me to read.” Publishing seemed like a good fit. He took a journalism course as an introduction.
“After that first journalism class, I just never wanted to do anything else,” Hopkins said.
He applied to be The Skagway News’ intern in 1998.
“When he went off to UAF, I had no inkling he would end up majoring in journalism,” said Jeff Brady, Skagway News owner from 1978 to 2015. “So when we found out he wanted to apply for The Skagway News internship, we sort of tossed out all other applications to make room for the local kid.”
Brady remembers Hopkins as a skilled interviewer.
“He already knew everyone in town and it was easy for him to approach people. Looking back, I think this actually was an inherent trait that he nurtured over the years and certainly played a large part in how he was able to win over the trust of those many sources in the ‘Lawless’ series.”
When Hopkins covered the Dyea to Dawson centennial race on the Chilkoot Trail for The Skagway News, he forgot his sleeping bag.
“I’m pretty sure he carried one when the ADN hired him later to cover the Iditarod,” Brady said.
Hopkins graduated from UAF in 2000. He applied several times to the ADN but was unsuccessful. He worked for the Vallejo Times Herald in California where his job included covering homicides. Hopkins moved on to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner then the Anchorage Press.
In 2005, he was finally hired by the ADN. When the ADN changed ownership in 2014, Hopkins went to work for KTUU TV, where his wife, journalist Rebecca Palsha, was employed. He returned to the ADN in 2018.
Hopkins said there was a point where he wondered if it was “irresponsible” to continue working in the news industry.
“I came really close to not working in journalism anymore,” Hopkins said. He worried about the financial future of his two children, Alice, 10, and Poppy, 7. He decided to continue amid the uncertainty of bankrupt newspapers and unemployed reporters.
“I felt like I hadn’t done my best work,” Hopkins said. That’s when he started thinking: “If I’m going to do this, it needs to matter.” He contemplated what stories he would regret not doing.
Hopkins describes the subject matter of “Lawless” as “super dark and heavy.” At one point, he approached his editor. “I have to get a therapist. It’s really hard to process all of this,” he said.
The 42-year-old father tries to keep perspective.
“This is kind of like a tour of duty,” he said. Hopkins is giving himself permission to cover something less intense when the series is over; like a dog show, he joked.
When Hopkins started the project, he hoped “that if enough people knew about the inequality that exists … that it wouldn’t withstand sunlight.”
“Lawless” did catch the attention of the nation’s top law enforcement officer. In June 2019, after a visit to Alaska, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a law enforcement emergency, pledging $6 million for recruiting, training and equipping rural Alaska law enforcement. The Justice Department promised another $4.5 million through its Office of Community Oriented Policing to support an additional 20 officers.
Reporting on the sensitive topics of sexual abuse and violence within a community is difficult. Doing so as a stranger is even harder. Hopkins and his team had to develop trust and respect with communities before they even arrived.
“We reached out to every single community. There were definitely communities that weren’t interested,” he said.
Hopkins and his team nurtured relationships with community leaders “that had a lot to say and felt strongly about the issue.” The process involved intensive communication before arrival, talking to as many people as possible while in rural villages and checking back in with sources once material was written. That complex reporting won his team the Pulitzer Prize for public service, the most prestigious honor a newspaper can receive.
Hopkins and his wife were in the ADN newsroom when he got the call notifying him of the award.
“It felt unreal. I kept thinking it was a mistake,” he said.
Hopkins, who lives in Anchorage, has now spent a majority of his life outside of Southeast.
“Baked into me is that feeling that Southeast Alaska is the real Alaska,” he said. “Skagway is a magical place. I’m really grateful for having spent time there.”
As for Brady, Hopkins’ former editor, his excitement is irrepressible.
“A Skagway kid just won the Pulitzer! I keep saying that over and over. Yeah, I’m proud of him. The whole state should be.”
View all of the “Lawless” articles at www.adn.com/lawless.