Despite Global Pandemic, Journalists Celebrate 2020 Pulitzer Prizes

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On May 4, Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy announced this year’s winners from her living room with some technological help from her 14-year-old son. Meanwhile, newsrooms around the country gathered over video conference calls to hear if their names would be read over the livestream. In the end, there were 16 winners in the 15 journalism categories with a special citation award issued to Ida B. Wells for “her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Also, this year, the first Pulitzer for Audio Reporting was awarded. Canedy said they received hundreds of applications in the new category, and it will make a return next year.

Typically, winners attend a luncheon at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City, but due to the pandemic, awards were sent through the mail. Although Canedy personally called each winner to congratulate them, she said when it was “realistically possible,” they would invite the winners to New York for a reception to celebrate.

This is the 104th class of Pulitzer Prize winners, and Canedy said there has never been a year where the awards were not given out. Despite this difficult time, Canedy said presenting the awards allowed them to pause and share the important works journalists are doing.

“I can’t even imagine what next year’s awards will look like,” she said. “The works that are being produced right now will reflect this historical time we’re in.”

To gain that perspective, E&P spoke with some of the newsrooms that won journalism’s highest honor during this unprecedented moment. For a complete list of winners, visit pulitzer.org.

Celebrations Continue

The Anchorage Daily News—in partnership with ProPublica—won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “Lawless,” a yearlong examination of the failures of the criminal-justice system in communities across Alaska.

Roughly 20 staffers from the Daily News attended a video call to watch the Pulitzer Prize announcements. Later the same day, Daily News staffers joined ProPublica on a video call.

Daily News editor David Hulen shared that the win was a bittersweet moment.

“We were really gratified with the recognition but really what we set out to do was call attention to these problems that have existed for a long time and that’s really what it was all about,” he said.

To celebrate, a reporter organized for the Daily News staff to gather at a city park that same evening in an effort to create a sense of community. Everyone who showed up stood about 10 feet apart and a photo to commemorate the moment was taken by a drone.

Hulen said this year’s win shows even the smallest newsrooms can be mighty.

“You shouldn’t have to live in a big city to expect the best from your local newspaper. No matter where you live you should expect your local news organization to do strong work and it’s become tougher,” Hulen said. “In this case, we were able to find a way to do deep work through a partnership and that’s one of the tools that some of us are learning how to use. Partnering extends limited resources and allows you to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do on your own and I think this was a recognition of that.”

The Baltimore Sun won the Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting for their coverage of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s book-publishing scheme, which led to her resignation.

On the morning of the announcement about 80 staff members gathered for a video call, according to Trif Alatzas, publisher and editor-in-chief.

“We were clapping and cheering, and (when the ceremony was) over…we all just started to congratulate each other and enjoy the moment,” he said. “And then it devolved into a conversation about how the story unfolded and everyone talked about their part in it.” That evening, each staffer got on another video call with their beverage of choice in hand and raised a toast to share more stories.

The Sun accepted the prize while working on the biggest story of their lives—the coronavirus pandemic, said Alatzas. It was a spectacular moment to look back on work from last year because it was a reminder of what the newsroom is capable of, he shared.

“Just like covering the story that was cited by the Pulitzer Prizes, it was a newsroom effort and certainly covering the pandemic is the same. The same effort. The same teamwork,” Alatzas said. “It’s inspiring for me to see everybody work together and work towards this common goal of informing this region.”

The Seattle Times won in the National Reporting category for stories that exposed design flaws in the Boeing 737 MAX that led to two deadly crashes and revealed failures in government oversight. Although four reporters were given the award, it was a newsroom effort, said executive editor Michele Matassa Flores.

“I’m proud of work being done, where we’re leading the country and world with our Boeing coverage,” she said. “I truly believe it will influence regulations and create a culture around safety.”

Close to 60 staffers attended a Zoom call when they learned they had won. Although they had their hopes, they still were not sure if they were going to receive an award. Still, Matassa Flores wanted them to gather. She told her newsroom: “I rather we be together and not win, then win and not be together.”

Emotions were high when they won, and Matassa Flores called the moment “uplifting.” For her, the win showcased the importance of local journalism and the emphasis of beat reporting, acknowledging Dominic Gates, the paper’s aerospace reporter for 16 years.

“We’ve held on to our beat reporting structure as other newspapers have sold out to hedge funds and abolished their staff, where they can’t maintain deep beat enterprise,” she said. “The coronavirus was a wakeup call, that newspapers need a healthy sizable news staff.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for “applying his expertise and enterprise to critique a proposed overhaul of the L.A. County Museum of Art and its effect on the institution’s mission.”

For the three-time finalist, Knight said he was used to being the bridesmaid, not the bride. “It’s still hard to believe because I’ve been doing this for so long,” he said, sharing that his first nomination was 29 years ago.

Knight said during the Zoom call, where hundreds from the newsroom attended, his screen was muted so when he heard his name, no one heard him yell. There was a Zoom reception later in day, where Knight was able to thank his editors. Not only was the win a “ray of sunshine amid gloom” for the paper (which Knight described as being on a roller coaster over the last few years due to its various changes of ownership), it was also a win for the city.

“There’s a stereotype that culture in LA is found in yogurt,” he said. “If you look at past criticism winners, they usually go to someone on the East Coast, so this win largely acknowledges the signification of culture in LA.”

Perhaps the best surprise win was for the Palestine Herald-Press in Texas. Editor Jeffery Gerritt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for a series of “editorials that exposed how pre-trial inmates died horrific deaths in a small Texas county jail—reflecting a rising trend across the state.”

No one in the Herald-Press newsroom was even watching the announcement video when it was revealed Gerritt had won. Gerritt was out running errands, while publisher Jake Mienk said his small newsroom was busy with putting out the paper. It was Mienk who received the news first from someone calling to congratulate them.

“I had to go check it out myself,” he said. “One I saw Jeff’s name, my jaw dropped.”

Mienk spent the next few moments pacing the office, waiting for Gerritt’s return so he could share the good news. As soon as he saw Gerritt pull up in his car in the parking lot, he raced out to him.

“You won a Pulitzer!” he told Gerritt.

Gerritt recalled the moment Mienk “sprinted out” to him and “bodyslammed” him in the parking lot with a giant bear hug. When he heard the news, Gerritt said he dropped to his knees and cried. “I was stunned and overwhelmed,” he said.

Gerritt, who spent most of his career at larger daily newspapers, said winning a Pulitzer at a small community newspaper shows that they can now do “big, great things and operate on a much higher level.” The win also gives them momentum to carry them forward, especially during these challenging times, where there is “lots of news and fewer resources.”

“The bar is raised now,” Gerritt said, who was recently appointed editor of the Sharon Herald and New Castle News in Pennsylvania.

For its rapid coverage of hundreds of last-minute pardons by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, the Courier-Journal in Louisville received the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting.

Editor Richard A. Green and his newsroom were shocked to learn they had won. Busy at work covering the pandemic remotely, they seemingly forgot all about the announcement.

That afternoon, Green joined a video call with Gannett regional editors and other top newsroom leaders and quickly realized they would be watching the announcement together. Green had one screen running with the video call and another to stream the announcement. Unfortunately, his stream timed out when the winners were being announced. Struggling to get his feed running, he suddenly saw his colleges cheering. He called Amalie Nash, vice president of local news at the USA Today Network, on his cellphone to get the details.“Did somebody win a Pulitzer?” he asked.

To which, Nash informed him that the Courier-Journal had.

Green immediately emailed his newsroom, but they were all were in disbelief. One staffer responded, “Rick, did your email get hacked again?”

“I didn’t tell everyone on staff to watch the Pulitzer announcement (and) we had no insight that we were even in the running for it,” Green said. “So, none of us could believe it.”

A few days later, Green brought nearly the entire staff of 65 together via a video call where they replayed the announcement so that they could experience the moment together. Although the news was about 72 hours old at this point, the newsroom erupted into applause and cheers as though they were hearing it for the first time.

“I am counting the days until we can all get together,” Green said. “And if it’s at a social distance and we’re wearing masks outdoors, I don’t care. I can’t wait to be able to see everybody in person and celebrate an incredible team win.”

Public Service

Anchorage Daily News with contributions from ProPublica

Breaking News Reporting

Staff of the Courier-Journal

Investigative Reporting

Brian M. Rosenthal of the New York Times

Explanatory Reporting

Staff of the Washington Post

Local Reporting

Staff of the Baltimore Sun

National Reporting

Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi of ProPublica

Dominic Gates, Steve Miletich, Mike Baker and Lewis Kamb of the Seattle Times

International Reporting

Staff of the New York Times

Feature Writing

Ben Taub of the New Yorker

Commentary

Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times

Criticism

Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times

Editorial Writing

Jeffery Gerritt of the Palestine Herald-Press

Editorial Cartooning

Barry Blitt, contributor, the New Yorker

Breaking News Photography

Photography staff of Reuters

Feature Photography

Channi Anand, Mukhtar Khan and Dar Yasin of Associated Press

Audio Reporting

Staff of This American Life with Molly O’Toole of the Los Angeles Times and Emily Green, freelancer, Vice News

Special Citation

Ida B. Wells

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