Q&A with Nicholas Nehamas, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and Lawrenceville School grad

Nicholas Nehamas

It took 10 years for Nicholas Nehamas to go from compiling the Prize Papers at The Lawrenceville School to working on the Panama Papers for the Miami Herald.

Nehamas, a Princeton native, won a share of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting after extensive investigations concerning the Panama Papers, a massive set of leaked documents detailing offshore financial transactions.

Planet Princeton reached out to Nehamas recently to talk about his Princeton connections, his work on the Panama Papers and his reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Before I get into any of the journalism you’ve done, could you give me some background on your connections to the Princeton area? You went to Princeton Day (School) and then Lawrenceville, is that correct?

A: I was born in Philly. My dad was a professor at UPenn and then he got a job at Princeton so we moved there when I was two or three. We grew up in Princeton and I went to Princeton Junior School, then Princeton Day School and then Lawrenceville for high school.

Q: What kinds of connections do you still have to the area?

A: My connection is still very strong. My parents still live in Princeton and so I visit them as frequently as I can. Most of my friends – really all of them – have now moved to other cities around the country but we try to meet up when we’re back home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I’m still close to several of my teachers at Lawrenceville, especially my Latin teacher, so I try and see him whenever I’m in town. Princeton’s my hometown and I’ll always have a strong connection to it.

Q: What got you interested in the student paper at The Lawrenceville School and what did you learn when you were there?

A: Well I loved to write. Writing was always my strongest skill. The paper, which was called The Lawrence, was a prestigious institution and it’s competitive to write for it and be an editor there. I liked that aspect of it.

Also for a bunch of high school kids it was kind of cool to be reporting on what the teachers and faculty and staff were doing. The power dynamic at the school was usually the other way around so I enjoyed that part of it as well.

Q: In terms of speaking truth to power, which is your job now, did that really start at The Lawrence? Were you ever in conflict with anyone because of a story or did that not crop up until later in your career?

A: That was where it certainly began; my desire to kind of find the real story beyond the messaging. Not that there was anything dastardly going at The Lawrenceville School, but it was certainly good training. I think it’s safe to say that’s where my interest in investigative reporting started.

Q: I want to get into the Panama Papers now because that’s what you’re known for. I’ve read about them multiple times and I’ve read your story and I still don’t think I totally understand it. Can you explain it for me again?

A: It really is pretty simple. Well it can be complex but it can also be pretty simple. The (Panama Papers) are documents that were internal files from a law firm in Panama that sets up offshore companies for rich and powerful people around the world. The attraction of offshore companies is that they offer complete privacy to the people who set up the companies. It can be very difficult if not impossible to figure out who really owns those companies.

While there are established legal uses for these companies, their secrecy also makes them extremely attractive to criminals. We found corrupt government officials, money launderers, drug dealers, governments that are under international sanctions, all of which were using these offshore companies to do business in complete secrecy. There’s a lot of tax evasion that happens with offshore companies.

Big picture, the point of the story was to show readers that in these offshore tax havens, there is a parallel financial system that operates in almost complete secrecy and is only available to the richest and most powerful people in the world. It is completely inaccessible to law enforcement.

Q: I was reading the big story you did about it and I think one of the main thrusts of it was that shady or outright criminal people were putting this offshore money into Miami real estate to make it “clean.” Is that the right understanding of it?

A: Yeah, that’s exactly right. If you’re trying to hide money, U.S. real estate is a great place to put it because the U.S. is a safe place to do business. Property values are generally rising. The U.S. also allows you to own property through shell companies, where again it can be very difficult to figure out who the real owner is. It’s a way to secretly invest your money in a very, very safe asset.

Q: What was the reaction you got from your audience when you started publishing these stories?

A: The reaction was incredible. It really started trending globally on Twitter and Facebook when we published. There’s been a lot of reporting done on offshore tax havens but I think the Panama Papers made such an impact because it was 100 media organizations around the world publishing their findings on the same day.

The goal of all the stories was really to make them relatable to our audiences. We wanted to make people understand why it mattered that there was this parallel, secretive financial system.

Q: When you won the Pulitzer, what did you do immediately after? What was your reaction? 

A: Well we had some champagne in the newsroom and you know it was really a fantastic feeling. But the best part of all was we shared it with all the reporters around the world who worked on this project. I think one of the reasons we won was the method of our collaboration and how difficult it was to keep this under wraps. Collaborating with other journalists is not a natural instinct for us – we want the scoop, we want the exclusive. However, this story could not have been done that way. It needed collaboration to work.

Q: With the news business always changing and seemingly always in turmoil, do you ever feel a sense of not being secure? I know it might be there for other journalists. 

A: You know, journalism is in a very tough place right now in terms of the economics of the business. There’s also the feeling that we’re under attack by powerful people including the president and the public in general. The “fake news” or “lying media” have become pretty popular terms. That’s certainly concerning.

But I think newspapers are doing a really good job of adapting to that and figuring out how to amp up their digital operations. Not just that, but they’re also committing people and resources to investigative work. We’ve seen in the last year that this is what local and national audiences really crave is in-depth, investigative work that they can’t get from any other source. I think that journalism is being challenged right now but it will emerge stronger.

Q: One last question. What advice would you give to someone at, say, your old high school who is trying to figure out what they want to do with his or her life?

A: I actually gave an interview to the high school paper that touched on that. I’d just say if you’re interested in doing journalism, it’s a fantastic career. In general, the advice I’d always give is just do something that makes you happy and remember that public service is a really important calling.