By: Jennifer Saba
When a tornado struck the small town of Utica, Ill., about an hour and half southwest of Chicago, the big-city paper sensed the tragedy deserved a longer look. The Chicago Tribune’s feature department thought staff reporter Julia Keller would be the perfect fit, the one who could fill in the details after the news sketches.
“I fought it viciously, I thought it was a terrible idea,” says Keller, who is a cultural critic at the Tribune. “The metro staff did a great job covering the tornado as it happened, with great detail and great energy.”
Despite her doubts, Keller landed the Tribune its first Pulitzer for feature writing with a remarkable three-part series that followed the townspeople before, during, and after a 10-second twister leveled one of Utica’s beloved bars, the Milestone Tap.
Two things stood out: Keller’s exhaustive reporting, and a writing style similar to that seen in magazines and books. She captured the seemingly mundane details that people recall after a shocking experience, like the chicken noodle soup that Jim Ventrice, 70, was finishing while waiting for his pork chop sandwich. Keller grabbed readers right from the start with the lede, “Ten seconds. Count it.”
It took Keller seven months to report the story, spending several days in Utica each week while covering her other beat. “I had to learn a kind of patience,” she says about winning over the townspeople, who were weary from all the media attention.
Keller’s editor Tim Bannon says the series was so well done, the paper wanted it for Page One. “It was a beautifully reported and beautifully written piece,” he says.
A few days after she won the Pulitzer, Keller went straight to Utica: “I wanted them to know I was so appreciative that they shared their stories with me.”