By: Miki Johnson
Though movie celebrations usually consist of corks popping and champagne bubbling into glasses, the staff gathered in the alcohol-free newsroom of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., celebrated the news of its first Pulitzer Prize earlier today with sweet tea and chocolate chip cookies.
?We didn?t really know this drill very well,? admits Stan Tiner, executive editor and vice president since 2000 of the 45,928-circulation paper that has won a Pulitzer Prize in the coveted Public Service category for its Hurricane Katrina coverage.
Led by the paper?s conception as a ?family,? Tiner gathered the entire staff in the newsroom about 2:00 p.m. while two editors diligently checked for the winner announcements on Web sites.
While the staff of about 230 (slightly depleted since Katrina) waited for the final word, the staff discussed the two categories for which the Sun Herald was a finalist?editorial and service?and recognized those who had contributed to the stories. Praise radiated from there out to everyone at the paper.
?It has been an important time for us and we wanted everyone to feel a part of that,? Tiner explained, reiterating that in Katrina?s aftermath, staffers had to be versatile and perform duties normally far outside their job descriptions. ?It was a very touching time, to see the bonding of an entire newspaper around an event like this.?
Tiner, who previously had served as executive editor of the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City and editor of the Mobile (Ala.) Register, also recognized that the newsroom celebration was slightly more subdued than might be expected, mostly out of respect for the devastating circumstances from which the prize-winning coverage grew.
?So many in the newsroom suffered such great personal loss, as did our readers, and many are still in extremely dire circumstances,? Tiner said. But he is obviously proud of such high recognition from the journalism community, as well as what he thinks the Pulitzer suggests about the communities the paper serves.
?We also think it?s a recognition that the people of our region can take something from because it says their story is that important,? Tiner said, hoping that the prize will also draw attention to the southern Mississippi communities that have often been overshadowed by New Orleans and are in need of resources still being allocated by the state and federal government.
According to Tiner, this year?s trials have also created a paper with much stronger bonds?between staffers and with the community.
?Never have so few worked so hard for so long,? he said, pointing out that the paper has continued to add beats for new recovery issues as they arise. He also sites a passion that has permeated the paper since Katrina, and a swing away from detached objectivism toward advocacy. Front-page editorials, unheard of before, are now regular occurrences at the Sun Herald, and they grow edgier, speaking for a deeply frustrated community.
In a sign of dedication to their readers, the paper distributed 80,000 copies for free for about six weeks following Katrina — continuing its 121-year tradition of never missing a day of printing.
?Every day wasn?t just another day,? Tiner reflected. ?Every paper we printed was important to keeping people going down here and to keeping people informed elsewhere.?