The Bernstein 2019 Shortlist: Meet the Finalists for NYPL's Journalism Award

By Gwen Glazer, Librarian
March 5, 2019
finalists spines

Life, loss, and hope in wartime Syria.

A reporter's undercover journey into the business of punishment.

Flint's water and the American urban tragedy.

One family and the fracturing of America.

Dealers, doctors, and the drug company that addicted America.

These descriptions—which could easily be mistaken for summaries of the most pressing news stories of our time—are the subheadings of the five books in the final running for this year's Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. Every year, The New York Public Library gives this award, established in 1988, to a journalist whose work brings clarity and public attention to important issues, events, or policies. 

This year's finalists and their works are:

no turning back

No Turning Back by Rania Abouzeid
Based on more than five years of fearless, clandestine reporting, No Turning Back brings readers deep inside Bashar al-Assad’s prisons, to covert meetings where foreign states and organizations manipulated the rebels, and to the highest levels of Islamic militancy and the formation of the Islamic State. No Turning Back dissects the tangle of ideologies and allegiances that make up the Syrian conflict through the dramatic stories of four young people seeking safety and freedom in a shattered country. Read more about Rania Abouzeid's No Turning Back.


american prison

American Prison by Shane Bauer
In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough. A blistering indictment of the private prison system, and the powerful forces that drive it, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. Read more about Shane Bauer's American Prison.


poisoned city

The Poisoned City by Anna Clark
In the first full account of this American tragedy, The Poisoned City recounts the gripping story of Flint’s poisoned water through the people who caused it, suffered from it, and exposed it. It is a chronicle of one town, but could be about any American city, all made precarious by the neglect of infrastructure and the erosion of democratic decision-making. Places like Flint are set up to fail—and for the people who live and work in them, the consequences can be fatal. Read more about Anna Clark's The Poisoned City.


amity prosperity

Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold
Drawing on seven years of immersive reporting, Griswold reveals what happens when an imperiled town faces a crisis of values, and a family wagers everything on an improbable quest for justice. Amity and Prosperity tells the story of the energy boom’s impact on a small town at the edge of Appalachia and one woman’s transformation from a struggling single parent to an unlikely activist, pursuing her case in court and beginning to expose the damage that's being done to the land that her family has lived on for centuries. Read more about Eliza Griswold's Amity and Prosperity.



Dopesick by Beth Macy
Fully charting the opioid crisis in America, Dopesick is an unforgettable portrait of the families and first responders on the front lines. Macy takes the reader into the epicenter of America's twenty-plus year struggle with opioid addiction. From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs; from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns; it's a heartbreaking trajectory that illustrates how this national crisis has persisted for so long and become so firmly entrenched. Read more about Beth Macy's Dopesick.

The winner will be announced on April 16, 2019.

A committee of seven librarians reads dozens of books, all published in 2018, and meets throughout the year to select five finalists. Those choices move on to the nine-member committee of journalists, chaired by veteran editor Jim Hoge, who choose a winner. Their decision will be announced at a reception at the Library's iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

Previous winners of the award, which includes a $15,000 cash prize, include such acclaimed journalists as Jane Mayer, George Packer, Ellen Schultz, David Finkel, Katherine Boo, Dan Fagin, and Anand Giridharadas. In 2018, Masha Gessen won for her revelatory work, The Future Is History, which captures a pivotal era through the stories of several Russians whose lives spanned three decades.

The Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism was established in 1987 through a gift from Joseph Frank Bernstein, in honor of journalist Helen Bernstein Fealy.


Book descriptions provided by the publishers.


Have trouble reading standard print? Many of these titles are available in formats for patrons with print disabilities.

Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so leave a comment and tell us what you'd recommend. And check out our Staff Picks browse tool for more recommendations!