By Marc Zarefsky
Frank Main (MSJ87) has reported on tense situations all over the world, from war zones in the Persian Gulf to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. But it was Main’s diligent and dedicated reporting on violence in Chicago that earned him the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.
Main was one of three Chicago Sun-Times staff members to share the award.
Frank exemplifies the core values of a Medill journalist. His work gives us insight into a complicated and dangerous world … In the end, he makes all citizens smarter and we are in his debt.” – Medill Dean John Lavine
Main, Mark Konkol and photographer John J. Kim received the award “for their immersive documentation of violence in Chicago neighborhoods, probing the lives of victims, criminals and detectives as a widespread code of silence impedes solutions,” according to the Pulitzer Prizes website.
Main, who has been at the Sun-Times since 1998, took some time away from celebrating to talk about his journalism background, the winning stories and drinking champagne out of Styrofoam cups.
Q: When did you find out the Chicago Sun-Times received the Pulitzer?
It was 2:12 p.m. (on April 18) and I was at my desk making out a photo assignment for a story. I knew the winners were supposed to be listed after 2 p.m., but they weren’t posted right away so I kept working. I didn’t really think we’d win anyway. Our editorial page editor, Tom McNamee, was home and kept clicking on the Pulitzer site to see the winners. He was shocked to see my name and called our city desk. No one in the newsroom knew the news yet. Our editorial assistant, Dale McCullough, yelled out: “Pulitzer! Konkol and Main. Konkol and Main won the Pulitzer!”
Q: How did you celebrate?
Lots of champagne. It was hard to find at first. The editors had to go up to the management offices to find it. We drank out of Styrofoam coffee cups until someone scrounged some plastic champagne flutes, which looked more professional in the next day’s photos of the celebration.
Q: How did the idea for the winning stories first come about?
My original inspiration was the 1992 book “Homicide” by David Simon and the series “Homicide 37; Seeking Justice for Lance” by Brendan McCarthy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Simon and McCarthy had both shadowed homicide detectives to learn how they do their jobs. I admired both of their efforts and set out to do the same thing in 2009, following Chicago Area 5 detectives for four months on a murder case. When they didn’t solve the killing — a gang-related one — I put the reporting on a shelf and waited for the day they solved it.
In early 2010, Mark Konkol and I set out on a different project, revisiting a violent weekend in Chicago in April 2008 when 40 people were shot, seven fatally. What emerged from that reporting was that only one of those cases had resulted in a criminal charge. And the reason was that no one wanted to talk to the police, even if they knew who their shooter was.
We did not set out to do a story on the “no-snitch” code in Chicago, but that’s what we found.
After that series ran in July 2010, I took the Area 5 homicide reporting off the shelf. The case was still unsolved. I wrote a story about the lack of cooperation the detectives were receiving from the victim’s friends and fellow gang members. That series ran during the Christmas week.
We paired those series and a few other stories about the no-snitch code — including one about a man who refused to ID his killer as he lay dying — and that’s what we entered in the contest.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the reporting process?
It was difficult tracking down the shooting victims and persuading them to talk to us. On one occasion, we went to the victim’s workplace — a grocery — and were run out by management. We went to his home several times but he was gone. Finally, we were parked on the street and saw the man hanging out of a window talking to a friend. We yelled up from the car and the guy smiled and came down to talk. He was dodging us, but decided to give up.
Q: Of the stories entered in the contest, do you have a favorite?
That’s like choosing between children. But I would say the “59 Hours” series on the weekend in April 2008. It was one of those stories in which all the dominoes seemed to fall in place perfectly. I really enjoyed working with Mark Konkol, a died-in-the-wool South Sider who is a great writer with a nose for the street.
I remember the time we were speaking to a victim, Willie Brown, in a McDonald’s. He reached over and grabbed my cheeseburger and ate it. Mark looked at me and shook his head, as if to say, forget about it. Then the victim’s shooter walked in and they confronted each other. It was a memorable day of reporting, to say the least.
Q: Of the number of trying situations you’ve covered in your career, what story tested you the most?
Hurricane Katrina. I drove through the storm along Airline Highway and my rental SUV was nearly swamped a few times. I saw a metal roof rip right off a gas station as I drove from Baton Rouge. Navigating New Orleans after the levees burst was nearly impossible. I didn’t have a satellite phone on my first trip to the city, so I had to find people with a working landline. The victims’ stories were gut-wrenching. The heroes’ stories were inspiring. And the abandonment of the city by the police force was quickly evident. It seemed like a land without laws.
Q: Why did you first get into journalism?
I volunteered on my school newspaper at Emory University and caught the bug. I saw the profession as a passport to visit interesting places and talk to interesting people.
Q: Do you have any favorite memories that stick out from Medill?
I remember covering a story in North Chicago for a class. A sailor from the nearby naval base got his finger chopped off in a fight. I tried to go to the base to find the sailor and got kicked off. I tried again and they threatened to arrest me. But the police chief of North Chicago took pity on me and read me the police report — and I got the story.
I also vividly remember Bob McClory, a professor who was amazingly convincing as he stood in front of the class, evading our questions as he posed as a police spokesman. That was great training for what I do today.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, everyone in the newsroom was sad that Jim Tyree, the owner and savior of the paper, died and was not there to see it. Also, the award was vindication for the hard work everyone on the staff has been doing despite layoffs and financial cutbacks over the last few years. It was a real boost for everyone, not just Mark, me and John Kim, the photographer who shared the award with us. Finally I credit our editors — Shamus Toomey, Paul Saltzman and Don Hayner and others — for setting us loose on the streets for months, when daily stories needed to get done.