Mr. Tizon was known for deeply reported, philosopher-type pieces that are becoming rarer in today’s fast-paced media cycle.
By Mike Rosenberg
Seattle Times business reporter
Originally published March 25, 2017 at 5:52 pm Updated March 25, 2017 at 8:30 pm
Alex Tizon, a journalist and professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting while at The Seattle Times and spent decades exposing untold stories of marginalized communities, has died at age 57.
Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly Thursday, of natural causes, at his home in Eugene, Oregon, according to his family and the University of Oregon, where he was working as an assistant professor of journalism.
Mr. Tizon was one of three Seattle Times reporters to win the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, for stories that exposed widespread corruption and inequalities in the federally sponsored housing program for Native Americans. The series, which documented how billions of dollars in taxpayer funds were helping wealthy people across the country live in mansions while tribes were housed in decrepit shacks, inspired reforms to the program.
Friends, colleagues and family members said Mr. Tizon was known as a deep listener who preferred to dive headfirst into complicated, long-form stories that are becoming rarer in today’s fast-paced media cycle. An introvert who spent hours alone brooding over deep issues like the meaning of his life, he would often take on seemingly simple stories and come back with complicated tales about humanity.
“He was very curious about other people — and learning about other people helped him learn about himself,” said his wife, Melissa Tizon. “That’s what journalism did for him. His whole life quest was about trying to understand who he was, as an immigrant growing up in a largely white community.”
Born in the Philippines, Mr. Tizon immigrated to Seattle with his family when he was 5 years old and bounced around the country before he settled back here.
He spent 17 years at The Seattle Times before becoming the Seattle bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times from 2003 to 2008. He also contributed to publications like Newsweek and programs such as “60 Minutes.”
He then spent two years in Manila, where he helped track efforts by the government to eliminate poverty in poor communities, and taught workshops in far-flung locales like Romania. And he wrote a memoir, “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self,” about the challenges of being an Asian-American man in the United States.
He turned to teaching in 2011, but his passion for writing still burned.
A year ago, he revived a story he began working on at the Los Angeles Times a decade before, about an Alaskan family whose son had disappeared. People go missing there all the time — about 3,000 a year at one point — but in the remote corner of the world, it garners little attention or news coverage.
The family had learned that authorities had found remains that might provide closure to their grief. Mr. Tizon flew to the tiny town to write a lengthy magazine piece for The Atlantic on the family’s struggles and the broader phenomenon of why so many people vanish in that state.
Those who worked with Mr. Tizon said the story was emblematic of his career — the way he spent so much time deeply reporting the piece, and the fact that he chose a topic that others in the media likely would have ignored.
“He had a real interest in marginal characters and people who had not been in the spotlight,” said his editor on The Atlantic piece, Denise Wills. “He almost became a member of the extended family for these people.”
In an interview last year, Mr. Tizon told the Harvard journalism program: “The stories I work on, especially for any length of time, do tend to become personal to me.”
Jacqui Banaszynski, a University of Missouri journalism professor who was Mr. Tizon’s editor for two years at The Seattle Times, echoed others who said his death was a loss to the journalism community. She recalled Mr. Tizon as “an almost philosopher essayist” in his approach, and that the paper would send him on stories that were complex and needed to be told at a deeper level than the standard news story.
A day after Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, the paper sent Mr. Tizon and photographer Alan Berner out for a series of several lengthy vignettes from various parts of the country that chronicled how communities were coping with the fallout of the terror attacks.
“We need more people doing the kind of work he learned how to do, telling those authentic, true stories, rather than just race-and-chase journalism,” Banaszynski said.
Mr. Tizon had a profound impact on other reporters, as well.
Lisa Heyamoto remembers starting out as a summer intern at The Seattle Times in 2001, sitting at the desk across from Mr. Tizon.
“I was just this flush-faced kid and was so hungry to get better and Alex paid attention to my work, and gave me feedback and clarified a lot of things for journalism for me at a time when I was really hungry and really impressionable,” Heyamoto said. “It made a huge impact on me, and I never forgot it.”
Heyamoto, who later got full-time reporting jobs at The Seattle Times and The Sacramento Bee and worked alongside Mr. Tizon when the two were instructors at Oregon, said that whenever she got writer’s block she would reread a 2000 story by Mr. Tizon called “Thom Jones and the Cosmic Joke,” about a former school janitor in Lacey who became a celebrated but tortured writer. It turned a fairly simple story into a broader piece about suffering and life choices.
“It reminded me of what you can do with a seemingly small story. He can tell this unsung story, and that’s a service to journalism, and a service to humanity,” said Heyamoto. “I modeled myself after him.”
As a professor, his colleagues said he ditched the PowerPoint-and-lecture style and simply got up and told stories.
He had a deep interest in fight clubs and boxing, and was an avid outdoorsman.
His family was in Eugene on Saturday still trying to figure out what happened. His death was so unexpected that they had been making plans for the summer, and Mr. Tizon had a piece in The Atlantic that was set for publication after fact-checking.
“He had more stories in him, he had another book in him,” Melissa Tizon said.
Besides his wife, Mr. Tizon is survived by two daughters, Dylan, 26, and Maya, 17, as well as eight siblings.
A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 1, at the Newport Covenant Church in Bellevue. The family says flowers can be sent there, or donations can be made to the Asian American Journalists Association.
Mike Rosenberg: [email protected] or 206-464-2266; on Twitter @ByRosenberg.