Loyola University Chicago

School of Communication


Former Phoenix reporter wins Pulitzer Prize

Former Phoenix reporter wins Pulitzer Prize

Former Loyola Phoenix staffer Tony Messenger celebrates in the newsroom after learning he won a Pulitzer Prize. Photo courtesy David Carson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

By Carla Rogner

Tony Messenger, a former staff member of The Phoenix, Loyola’s student newspaper, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on Monday for a series of columns about debtors prisons which he wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Messenger says he hopes that winning this award will help to criminal justice reforms that are needed in Missouri and elsewhere. 

“The series has been really important to me and it means a lot to have the standard of the journalism industry recognize your work,” he said.

Messenger went to Loyola from 1985 to 1987 to study Theology and Psychology.

“I thought I was going to be a priest,” Messenger said.

However, when he arrived to live in Gonzaga Hall his freshman year he met the Editor-In-Chief and the Sports Editor of The Phoenix.

Messenger’s new friends asked him if he would be willing to cover a Loyola soccer game for the school paper and he later became the paper’s Sports Editor.

“I hadn’t taken any journalism classes. I didn’t intend on being a journalist at that point, but I fell in love with it,” Messenger said. 

Though he never graduated, Messenger said he cherishes his time at Loyola and even owns a pair of Sister Jean socks.

“Loyola is what got me started in my career as a journalist,” he said.

After leaving the school for financial reasons, he got his first job as a journalist at Yuma Pioneer, a small weekly paper in Eastern Colorado. 

Messenger now writes four columns per week for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where he has worked in various positions since 2008. He writes about his Pulitzer winning debtors prison series about once a week.

In his series of columns, Messenger writes about people who are held in jail because they can’t afford to pay court fines and fees.

The series began when Messenger received a tip about someone who had been sent to prison because they owed court fines. He decided to write a couple of columns on the topic and then discovered it was a common issue.

“I just started getting calls from attorneys and people in various rural counties in Missouri,” he said. “The judicial system is being used as a de facto tax collector and as I started finding more cases I found that people really resonated with it.”

According to The Pulitzer Prizes, Messenger was awarded the prize for “bold columns that exposed the malfeasance and injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail.”

“I have many other columns in the works on this topic and it is important and I plan to continue to write about it,” Messenger said. “I’m going to keep doing what I can to solve the problem.