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Winner praises the Pulitzer board's commitment to the 'heart' in journalism

What does it feel like to win a Pulitzer Prize?

Between tears of joy, Maria Hinojosa told NPR, "It's like a dream and when I stop crying it's like, Wow!"

On Monday, Hinojosa and her team of producers and editors at Futuro Media won the Pulitzer Prize in audio reporting for a seven-part podcast series called Suave. The show is about a man reentering society after serving more than 30 years in prison. It was a project decades in the making.

Now, Hinojosa says, to be recognized by "the highest levels of quote unquote American journalism feels as if a tectonic shift just happened." After so many years reporting on criminal justice, Hinojosa says it is a signal that journalism with a big J, is interested in a sweeping story about a man behind bars with a lot of hope – David Luis "Suave" Gonzalez – and a journalist who has heart."

Hinojosa, who spoke with NPR from her home in Harlem with a dog yapping in the background, is a veteran television and radio journalist. She was previously a correspondent for NPR and has been the host of the long-running show Latino U.S.A. She launched Futuro Media in 2010; the company is a nonprofit multimedia content company, and its foray into the narrative nonfiction podcasting space is the ultimate validation, she said.

The story of the stories about Suave

Hinojosa first met Suave, the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning show, in 1993, while speaking at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. She was a correspondent for NPR at the time, and he was serving a life sentence without parole for a crime he committed when he was 17 years old. Eventually, Suave became a source – someone she'd check in on a few times a year — as she began reporting stories about the growing population of mostly men behind bars. But inevitably, she says, it soon became a friendship.

She sent him Christmas cards, shared stories about her life, and collected decades of recordings of their visits and conversations. "We had no idea what I was going to do with them," she admits. But she was committed to keeping a record.

There was no way to know, when they first met, that there would ever come an opportunity for Suave's release.

"He was supposed to come out in a box," she says. Things changed in 2012 when the Supreme Court began to reconsider the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, she explained.

"And that's when my deep sense of journalism was like, OK, wait a second, he might get out. Then it was like, You have to record every single conversation."

Hinojosa has advice for journalists: Don't be afraid to put your heart into it

If that's not a lesson for journalists to follow their instincts, she doesn't know what is, she joked.

Her advice for fellow journalists is: "Trust your gut about what's a story. But then also be prepared to bring some heart into it."

She adds: "I encourage bringing your heart into the reporting," quickly noting the importance of remaining respectful with interview subjects.

In fact, Hinojosa herself and her unique bond with Suave are an integral part of the story. (During the opening of the first episode, Hinojosa weeps with Suave, when he suffers from PTSD because he is confined in a tiny recording studio that reminded him of his former cell.) That is a significant departure from the type of journalism and storytelling that is often rewarded or even encouraged in the industry.

"And that's why a Pulitzer is like, Wow!,"she says laughing.

"Y'all are recognizing deep commitment to this story, but also a deep commitment to heart in the context of American journalism in the year 2022. I'm going to take that as a win for everything that I (and) Futuro Media represent. I'm going to take that as a win, for sure."

She was so intertwined with Suave's story, that her producers – Maggie Freleng, who also hosts the show, and Julieta Martinelli – limited Hinojosa's role in the series.

"They came to me and they said, Look, Maria, you're part of the story, so you can't produce it. And I was like, What?"

It was a bit of a shock initially, but at the end of the day she agreed with her producers.

"I was trained to trust my producers and I trust them 100 percent," Hinojosa said, once again on the verge of tears.

Without them, Hinojosa says, she would never have been able to pull off such an ambitious project.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.