The Virginia governor’s medical school yearbook page was stunning. A photo in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook showed two people looking at the camera – one in blackface wearing a hat, bow tie and plaid pants; the other in white Klan robes.
Hours after a conservative news outlet first reported the racist photo late on a Friday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam apologized and acknowledged that he appeared in the photo. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and several Democratic presidential candidates called for his resignation.
By the next day, however, he had a change of heart and Virginia statehouse correspondent Alan Suderman broke the news ahead of everyone else. Through a hard-won source he had cultivated during his five years at the statehouse, Suderman revealed that Northam did not believe he was in the photo and would not resign, hours before the governor made that decision public at a news conference.
The scandal took a turn when sexual assault allegations were made against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat who is only the second African-American to win statewide office in the state.
But Suderman wasn’t done. Adding to the uproar, he revealed that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, the potential successor to Northam and Fairfax, had admitted that he wore blackface to imitate rapper Kurtis Blow during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
Again working his sources, Suderman had found out about the picture and asked Herring’s office for comment. They initially denied the rumors but then gave him a headstart on the news after he was able to describe the photo.
“Absolutely fantastic scoop today on the AG,” said Deputy Managing Editor for U.S. News Noreen Gillespie. “Within seconds, the alert was being credited to AP all over the media universe.”
Suderman also secured a statement from Fairfax denying the sexual assault allegations from a second accuser who had come forward.
“Alan worked this story tirelessly from the moment it broke, not only keeping us ahead of the competition in many areas, but also providing invaluable help to other AP staffers parachuting into the story with necessary context and sources,” said Mid-Atlantic News Editor Steve McMillan. “He really left it all on the floor for this.”
Meanwhile, Richmond photographer Steve Helber was making widely played images of key moments in the fast-moving scandal, including evocative images of Northam attending a funeral for a gunned-down state trooper – his first official appearance after his news conference – and an overhead shot of Fairfax surrounded by a gaggle of reporters. The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today were among the outlets using his photos.
The stories drew tremendous play with readers and customers, with more than 1,000 website matches on several days and 103,000 social media interactions in one day. Suderman was also interviewed on air by Canada’s CTV .
For his deft source-building and strong reporting on this highly competitive series of stories, Alan Suderman wins the AP’s Best of the Week award.