In N.J., Governor's Downfall Leads to Newspaper's Glory

By: Joe Strupp Jim Willse, editor of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., apparently had more than just hopes that his paper would win a Pulitzer Prize today for its coverage of Gov. Jim McGreevey's surprise resignation.

Earlier in the day, the veteran editor summoned the entire 12-person reporting team from the paper's statehouse bureau in Trenton to its Newark headquarters so they would be on hand when the awards were announced at 3 p.m.

"We wanted them to share the moment," Willse said after the official word that the paper had taken the breaking news award for its Aug. 13 edition, which reported extensively on McGreevey's announcement that he was gay, had engaged in an affair with another man, and would leave office.

Asked if he had gotten prior word of the win, Willse would only say, "We sensed that it might be true."

This was the paper's second Pulitzer in four years; the first went to photographer Matt Rainey in 2001 for images of two students burned in a dormitory fire at Seton Hall University. They are the only two Pulitzer Prizes the paper has won in its history.

The Star-Ledger was also a finalist in two other categories, with freelance journalist Borzou Daragahi receiving acknowledgement in the international-reporting category for Iraq War-related stories and Robin Gaby Fisher placing in the feature-writing group for stories on a local alternative high school.

Star-Ledger reporter Russell Ben-Ali was dispatched Monday to Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where the Pulitzer winners were announced. Just moments after finding out his paper had won, Ben-Ali called in to the newsroom via a cell phone.

"We put him on speaker phone and he read it out loud to the newsroom," Willse recounted. "The newsroom hooted and hollered at the appropriate moment."

The paper beat out two others, The Charlotte Sun of Charlotte Harbor, Fla., and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., both of which were named finalists for hurricane coverage. The Star-Ledger's reporting also, in essence, competed with more than a dozen other New Jersey dailies that were on the same story.

"What pleased me was the fact that, in a very short amount of time, a lot of people came together and did a lot of reporting, writing, and editing on a very complicated story that came without warning," Willse said about the McGreevey story, which did not break until late in the day. "If we had had another four or five hours, we could not have improved upon it."

John Hassell, a Star-Ledger editor who had been a political reporter when news of the governor's admission broke, pointed to the fact that the story arose in one of the paper's strongest beats, state government. "There is no paper in this country that makes more of a commitment to covering state government," he told E&P. "As a result, we are in a position when this happened to do what we did."

The Star-Ledger's two Pulitzers both came during Willse's editorship, which began in 1995. But he was quick to spread the honor around, saying, "It's recognition that the whole staff can share in."


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