‘I Just Like Puzzles’
A three-time Pulitzer winner, Matt Apuzzo ’00 leads the new international investigations team at the New York Times
Matt Apuzzo ’00 proudly calls himself “nosy.”
He will also tell you his nosiness led him to the lofty position in journalism where he sits today. In May 2022, the New York Times set up its first international investigative-reporting unit—and chose Apuzzo as the newspaper’s first international investigations editor.
In late 2021, the Times announced it had surpassed a million subscribers outside the United States, a new record. The Times is now a truly global journalism brand, and Apuzzo’s job will be a critical piece of the paper’s expanding appeal to that global audience. The Europe-based investigative team that Apuzzo leads aims to expand the newspaper’s long-established reputation for deep reporting beyond the United States.
“The Times has a really great tradition of investigative reporting in general,” Apuzzo said. “Historically, there was one team in New York that did all these massive investigations, and I think what you’re seeing now is a move toward recognizing that this isn’t a skill set or a product that we want to have living only in one place in one city.”
Apuzzo is, according to many of his colleagues at the Times, the absolute right man for the job.
But he would never have gotten there if he hadn’t posted a few stinky grades while he was at Colby.
Apuzzo’s degree from Colby has nothing to do with his current field: He holds a bachelor of science in biology. His decision to follow a journalist’s path came quickly after he struggled in organic chemistry and gave up on the idea of becoming a doctor.
“I had been writing for the school paper, and I had a pretty sweet gig just working a couple of nights a week at the (Central Maine) Morning Sentinel, but I just thought of it as fun. It was never something I considered a career,” he said. “When it became clear that it was going to be a lot harder for me to be a doctor than I thought it was, then I started thinking like, ‘God, what do I really want to do?’”
He liked his work at the Colby Echo and the Morning Sentinel, so he stuck with journalism.
Two years after leaving Colby, Apuzzo stumbled deeper into what would become his journalistic calling while at work for the Standard-Times in New Bedford, Mass. He and a colleague exposed a massive drug-trafficking operation on the New Bedford waterfront.
“We ended up literally just stumbling in,” Apuzzo said. “We had no idea what we were doing. It was just the blind leading the blind, but I kind of got just a taste for that—piecing stuff together.”
The zeal for “piecing stuff together” is the secret sauce in investigative reporting, and the New Bedford experience wound up cementing the passion that would define the rest of Apuzzo’s career.
“I don’t know that I had a passion for investigative reporting—other than I just like puzzles,” he said. “I just like the idea of figuring things out, and it was stuff that was hard. I liked it because it was challenging. I’m nosy to begin with, so I liked the idea of figuring stuff out that people don’t want you to figure out.”
Ten years later, that natural nosiness would lead Apuzzo to the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes.
Uncovering a spy ring
Apuzzo in 2003 left New Bedford to join the Associated Press in Connecticut. Three years later he moved to the AP’s Washington bureau. While there, Apuzzo and three colleagues—Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan, and Chris Hawley—uncovered a clandestine spying program inside the New York Police Department that monitored daily life in Muslim communities. The exposure of the program, which also used the CIA, resulted in congressional calls for a federal investigation and a debate over the proper role of domestic intelligence gathering.
Their series of 10 stories gave the four reporters the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Goldman and Sullivan are now Apuzzo’s colleagues at the Times, and both attest to the skills that put Apuzzo in his current position.
“Matt is very organized, and he’s really good at stepping back and seeing what everybody needs to do to start sorting out the puzzle pieces and how to put them together,” Sullivan said. “On big projects that I’ve worked with him on, he steps in and he leads us, which you always need: somebody who’s going to help get everyone organized.”
Goldman and Apuzzo have been friends for almost 15 years, since they worked together in Alaska in 2008 on an AP investigation into former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“Matt knows how to frame a story. He knows what a story should look like,” Goldman said. “He’s also extraordinarily precise and methodical. And as a reporter, he sees landmines everywhere. I’m an investigative reporter, too, and we’re incredibly aggressive and we’re always pushing, pushing, pushing. Matt is the same way, but he also knows how to bulletproof stories, and he knows how to keep stories within the guardrails.”
Two years after winning the Pulitzer at the AP, Apuzzo joined the Times’s Washington bureau as a reporter covering the Justice Department. In 2016 both Apuzzo and Goldman were part of a Times team that shared the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting with the Washington Post. The Pulitzer jury praised both newspapers for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage … that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team, and his eventual administration.”
Their coverage resulted in a 2017 move by the Justice Department to subpoena their phone records. Their audacity in the face of that move put both Apuzzo and Goldman, a University of Maryland graduate, among the 2021 winners of Colby’s Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism.
Tracking the spread of Covid-19
Although Apuzzo had cemented his reputation as one of the most prominent national security reporters in the business, he radically shifted his path two years later when he moved to the Times’s Brussels bureau.
In 2020 he was part of a team that reported a 10-story series called “Behind the Curve” that tracked the spread of Covid-19. The sequence of stories began with a piece called “How the World Missed Covid-19’s Silent Spread” by Apuzzo, New York-based investigative reporter David D. Kirkpatrick, and London-based Selam Gebrekidan, who is now part of Apuzzo’s international investigations team. The story outlined how a series of misunderstandings among the world’s medical community resulted in a months-long and potentially catastrophic delay in the acknowledgment that Covid-19 could spread among people even though they had no symptoms.
The series—pulled together by a global team of more than 20 Times reporters, photographers, and interactive designers—won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.
Throughout the seven months the series continued, “Matt was just full of energy, good ideas, great attitude,” said Jim Yardley, who’s been the newspaper’s Europe editor since 2016. “He’s kind of a perfect investigative reporter in many ways.”
By the time Apuzzo became international investigations editor, he had pieced together a nearly 20-year streak of deep investigative work. Along the way, he had learned the ropes of a field that demands ridiculously meticulous reporting and editing—even though he had, by his own admission, blindly stumbled into the field. But looking back, Apuzzo said, the path makes complete sense to him.
“I don’t know if it was a natural aptitude, but I was certainly drawn toward it,” he said. “I was probably drawn to it before I knew it was called investigative reporting or had any idea how to do it.”
A mentor with a ‘generosity of spirit’
Carolyn Ryan, now one of the Times’s two managing editors, hired Apuzzo away from the Associated Press in 2013 when he was Washington bureau chief. She was one of the key drivers of the newspaper’s decision to create the international investigations team in Europe and install Apuzzo as the team’s editor.
When she first hired Apuzzo, Ryan said, “what really struck me about him, which is unusual, is his generosity of spirit. He has a broad journalistic spirit and a generosity toward his colleagues, which I think is really rare. And he not only wants to do great stories, he wants to see other people do great stories, and he has the brains and heart to help get them there.”
For years now, she said, she has relied on Apuzzo to help younger reporters understand how to handle challenging assignments and live up to the Times’s rigorous journalistic standards. That willingness to work as part of a team is critical in the massive investigative projects for which the Times has built a reputation.
In May 2022, just after Apuzzo took on his latest assignment, the Times published a colossal, 10,000-word interactive story called “The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers.” It was a historical investigation—one that dove into records reaching back two centuries—so comprehensive that few journalists can think of other projects like it. The story showed how the successful 1791 uprising of Haitian slaves against their French masters resulted in an arrangement that has held back the island nation ever since: Haitians were forced to pay reparations to the French masters to compensate for the slaves they lost in the uprising.
The package took more than a year to produce. Apuzzo was part of a team of four byline reporters, 11 researchers, a video editor and a photo editor, web producers, and a mapmaker.
Ryan said she trusts that Apuzzo’s coaching instincts and his enthusiasm for complex collaborations will help him make his new international investigations team highly effective. And she believes their work will be critical as the Times keeps building its reputation as a trusted global news source.
“I think where we’re having impact is on big investigative stories that show our ability to really uncover revelatory information and share it with our readers,” she said. “And I feel like we’re showing an ability to spot areas that have been neglected or are really in need of examination and scrutiny by journalists. I do think that our global audience is hungry for that kind of story and hungry for that kind of journalism—and hungry for answers to some of the most vexing and seemingly intractable problems. What’s exciting about what Matt wants to do is to take our investigative firepower and identify areas around the world that really deserve that kind of scrutiny.”
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