A Pulitzer-winning journalist and USF St. Pete alum's tales of covering the opioid crisis

At USFSP, Eric Eyre talked about how he dug up the dirt on the pharmaceutical industry's role in the crisis in West Virginia the epicenter of the phenomenon.

click to enlarge A Pulitzer-winning journalist and USF St. Pete alum's tales of covering the opioid crisis
Dinorah Prevost

Since winning the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting last year, journalist Eric Eyre has being spreading the word about small town journalism’s merits. Eyre writes for The Charleston Gazette-Mail, a small newspaper in West Virginia’s capital, Charleston. He’s talked to 15 different audiences, many of them at universities. On Thursday, he spoke to his 16th crowd.

Just under a year since collecting one of the most prestigious journalism and literary arts awards in the U.S., Eyre returned to Tampa Bay to speak at his second alma mater, USF St. Pete.

About 50 people, many of them USF St. Pete students, attended Eyre’s talk where he dropped details about reporting his three prize winning stories in Harbor Hall on the USF St. Pete campus.

For the past six years, Eyre has written about the drug abuse epidemics in rural West Virginia, ranging from methamphetamines to heroin and fentanyl more recently.

“West Virginia has the highest (drug) overdose death rate in the nation,” Eyre said. “And the numbers continue to climb.”

His early stories were mostly small ones reporting overdose deaths and other issues related to the epidemic. but after some time, he “wanted to get more at the why, the causes and the costs to the state.”

Then in December 2016, Eyre wrote two pivotal stories on West Virginia’s opioid epidemic in what he dubbed the “Pain Profiteer” series. Published within a day of each other, they detail how three major pharmaceutical companies poured 780 million pain pills (hydrocodone and OxyContin) into West Virginia in six years and how the state’s pharmacy board dropped the ball on investigating suspicious drug order reports.

“I obtained confidential records sent by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to our state’s Attorney General office. The records disclosed the number of pain pills sold to every pharmacy in the state and the drug wholesaler’s shipments to all 55 counties in West Virginia. Nobody ever had this information before,” Eyre said.

Before then, the companies tried to keep those damning numbers a secret.

“I kind of got a sense of the issue when we went to court and one of the filings from the drug companies pointed out that... ‘The Gazette should not stick its intrusive journalistic nose in our records’,” Eyre said.

Those two stories, he said, have garnered the most attention in West Virgina and across the country. National outlets like CBS News have done follow-ups to Eyre’s stories.

Eyre earned his master’s degree in mass communication from USF St. Pete in 1998 and interned at the Tampa Bay Times before joining the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Eyre modestly played down the gravity of winning a Pulitzer Prize when a student asked if it changed his life.

“It’s not the Nobel Prize,” he said.

And where does he keep his prize?

“It’s in a drawer,” he said.

But he admits he was “stunned and shocked” and “walked around in a daze” when he found out he won on April 10th. Five days later, he was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.

“It doesn’t matter if you work at a small newspaper,” Eyre said. “(Whether) writing for a 37,000 circulation (newspaper) like ours or a national publication, any of those, you can do work that has impact.”