Madison man Evan Hill wins Pulitzer Prize

West High School graduate now works at the New York Times
Evan Hill
Former Madison resident Evan Hill in Maarat Misrin, Syria, last March. (Photo by Ali Haj Suleiman)

On a weekend morning earlier this month, Evan Hill got an instant message from his boss at the New York Times announcing a virtual team meeting at 10 a.m.

Hill, 35, is a journalist in the Times’ recently minted Visual Investigations unit, which combines traditional reporting with all manner of computerized forensics.

“Everyone thought it could be anything from bad news to good news to just checking in on stories we were working on,” Hill told me last week by phone from New York.

It had been nearly a decade since we last spoke, and the circumstances could hardly have been more different.

In February 2011, I reached Hill as he stood in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt. He was working for Al Jazeera English, reporting on the Arab spring uprising.

Tahrir Square was relatively quiet, Hill told me. Banks had opened. Cars were moving.

Five days earlier, Hill had walked from his Cairo apartment across a bridge into Tahrir Square and a violent confrontation broke out between thousands of anti-government protesters and supporters of the Mubarak regime. Molotov cocktails exploded around him. Rocks sailed overhead.

A man with blood stains on his white head wrap introduced himself to Hill and said, “Remember my name. If I die here tonight, you will tell our story.”

Hill’s tweets and stories from the Arab spring frontlines drew international attention. He went from 500 to 15,000 followers on Twitter. Yet within a couple of years, he’d left journalism.

Hill grew up in Madison and graduated from West High School in 2003. His parents have lived in the city for nearly three decades.

Hill’s mom once told me he’d been captivated by the film “Lawrence of Arabia” before he was a teen. He learned Arabic as a student at Northwestern University and spent an enjoyable semester abroad at The American University in Cairo.

After graduating, Hill’s blog on the Middle East was noticed by an online editor at Al Jazeera English. A job was offered, at a desk in Doha, Qatar.

Hill took it with some reluctance, grumbling to his mom before he got on the plane. “I’m going to be so bored.”

Funny thing is, six months in, he was bored. “I was not loving Doha,” Hill said last week, “not loving living in the desert. I was ready to reconsider things.” Then came the revolution in Egypt.

“I requested to be sent there,” Hill said.

Cairo was anything but boring, but a year later — “wanting to do something on my own” — Hill left Al Jazeera to freelance. Then came a move out of journalism altogether.

“I wanted something different,” he said. “Something that felt a little more meaningful.”

Hill joined Human Rights Watch, a well-respected nongovernmental organization that uncovers rights abuses worldwide. Hill, based in Beirut, was in and out of Egypt, exposing political imprisonments and executions after a military coup.

“It’s work that I’m proud of,” he said, “but work that was pretty scary at certain periods.”

Hill decided to step away for a bit, enrolling in graduate school at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

“I wanted to take a break,” he said, “and learn more about the world I’d been reporting on.”

Upon graduating in spring 2019, Hill was considering diplomatic service or joining a foreign policy think tank.

And this: “If there was one place on earth I’d like to work in journalism, it would be the New York Times.”

Encouraged by a friend at the Times, Hill reached out to Malachy Browne, with the paper’s Visual Investigations unit.

“I heard you might be hiring,” Hill said in a note. “I’ve done some open-source reporting previously.”

A lunch was arranged. They got on. Hill joined the team.

The open-source reporting Hill referenced involves making full use of technology advances — intricate social media searches, Google Maps, satellite imagery — to gather information.

It’s especially useful on stories when reporters can’t physically visit an area. That was the case in a 2019 Times investigation of Russia’s alleged intentional bombing of hospitals in Syria.

Browne’s team was able to find Syrian sources on the ground who’d filmed Russian air strikes. (Hill’s Arabic was invaluable.) Those sources had also obtained Russian Air Force communications — cockpit recordings.

Might the team be able to pin a recording of a strike to a day and time when a Syrian hospital was bombed?

“One of our translators sent me a text,” Hill recalled. The translator had caught a latitude and longitude on a recording. Hill plugged it into Google Earth.

“It zeroed in,” he said, “on a location that we had already pegged as an underground civilian hospital.”

Hill stood up and walked over to a glassed conference room where a group of editors was meeting.

“We’ve got them,” he said.

In the end, the Times story established the Russians had bombed four hospitals, killing dozens.

On that weekend morning earlier this month when Hill was alerted to a 10 a.m. virtual meeting, he took a walk around his Brooklyn neighborhood, then came back and joined the team on the call.

A top Times editor spoke first. “I just want you all to know you are Pulitzer Prize winners.”

The prize for International Reporting also recognized other work by the Times: “A set of enthralling stories,” the Pulitzer website noted, “reported at great risk, exposing the predations of Vladimir Putin’s regime.”

What sticks with Hill is that moment he told his editors they had the story.

“One of the most exciting moments in my career,” he said. “When I was in Tahrir Square in 2011 is still probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. But catching a Russian war plane in the act of bombing a hospital is right up there.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.