Follow-Up: A Pulitzer to Our Local Paper

Pulitzer for Breaking News

By way of addendum to our post earlier this week about the Storm Lake Times’ Pulitzer prize: Our local East Bay Times also won a Pulitzer, for its coverage of the Ghost Ship fire.

The Ghost Ship was a warehouse that was serving as an unpermitted artists’ work space and living quarters. It burned down in December 2016, killing 36 mostly young people attending a concert.

The local Mercury News (“the Merc”) covered the awarding of the Pulitzer:

The East Bay Times has won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for its coverage of December’s Ghost Ship fire — the fifth time a Bay Area News Group paper has gained journalism’s highest award.

In a Monday announcement, the judges said the Times received the award “for relentless coverage of the ‘Ghost Ship’ fire, which killed 36 people at a warehouse party, and for reporting after the tragedy that exposed the city’s failure to take actions that might have prevented it.”

Bay Area News Group journalists, who produce coverage for the Times and the Mercury News, were the first to uncover problems with the city’s inspections and permitting of the Ghost Ship building, initially reporting the issue on BANG websites less than 12 hours after the Dec. 2 blaze. In subsequent days and weeks, the coverage expanded to encompass the lives of the victims, mostly young artists and musicians, and the housing crisis that has driven so many Bay Area residents into substandard dwellings like the Ghost Ship.

A narrative story, “The Last Hours of the Ghost Ship,” won enormous praise for taking readers inside the warehouse as the fire started, then raged out of control, and Oakland firefighters fought to save those inside. In the months since, BANG journalists have continued to report on the system breakdowns that allowed so many people to cram into a firetrap whose dangers should have been obvious. City officials have now begun to overhaul their fire inspection and other practices.

The Pulitzer citation, with links to the East Bay Times’s articles, is here.

(Image: Ghost Ship. By Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

Real Warm Fuzzies: Tiny Paper Wins Pulitzer

It’s as good a day as any for a straight-up, feel-good (re)post.

From Poynter.org, here’s a backgrounder and interview with a small-town newspaper editorialist, Art Cullen, who just won a Pulitzer prize. Tiny, family-run newspaper wins Pulitzer Prize for taking on big business.

First, the background:

If you know Art Cullen, it’s not exactly a surprise to learn his initial words upon watching the livestream of the Pulitzer announcements and learning he’d won for editorial writing.

“Holy shit,” he yelled out to his brother, John, the publisher of the family-run, 10-person Storm Lake (Iowa) Times.

The only surprise was that there wasn’t a longer string of un-family-like adjectives or adverbs.   …

[Cullen] won for editorials that confronted the state’s most powerful agricultural interests, which include the Koch Brothers, Cargill and Monsanto, and their secret funding of the government defense of a big environmental lawsuit. His “tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing” were quite self-evident if you’ve seen his labor (which actually spanned two years, though he won for last year’s efforts).

The paper in question is The Storm Lake Times, described in the Pulitzer citation as “a 3,000-circulation twice-weekly newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, pop. 10,000, in rural Northwest Iowa.” Click here to link to the editorials for which the prize was awarded.

Here’s an excerpt of Poynter’s interview with Cullen, by James Warren. The take-away? Local journalism matters. It’s not a novel take, but the Pulitzer payoff drives it home. We hope it reminds you and your students that story-telling and journalism are worthwhile.

What would you like to think are the most important points you made in the editorials?

It’s all about transparency in the funding of the environmental lawsuit (defense). We took on the state’s biggest agricultural players and said their donations should be made public. The biggest players: the Koch brothers, Cargill, Monsanto were all conspiring to fund the defense of the (Buena Vista) county.

We found out they (elected officials) had met with Monsanto executives and Koch executives. My son, Tom, did most of the reporting. And he tracked down how the Agribusiness Association of Iowa was working with the Iowa Farm Bureau to funnel the secret donations to the country.

We cried foul and worked with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. They wrote several letters saying these were public records under Iowa law. They wouldn’t release them, but they shut down the fund. It’s all a matter of transparency in government financing.

How has being in a small place fueled your passion? Is it easier or harder when arguably there’s greater accountability since, well, you may run into people whom you write about on the street?

I lost some friends, but some people don’t understand us, why we would badger county supervisors so that their sugar daddy went away. I said, “Because it wasn’t right.” We felt the public deserved to know who’s paying our bills. We did a lot of groundbreaking news reporting and my son (who’s 24) did most of the heavy lifting.

We’ve spoken before about your work on immigration, especially right after President Trump’s controversial executive order. Is the confusion and fear that we’ve talked about in the Storm Lake area when it comes to immigration still the same?

Things have calmed down. The police chief (Mark Prosser) has calmed things down. He arrives in his police uniform at public forums and says, “We’re not arresting you just because you are undocumented.”      …

What, at first blush, does this recognition say about the people like you, laboring in more isolated environs, busting their asses to survive and believing as you do in journalism?

Journalism really matters, and good journalism is being done all across the country.

Any final thoughts?

Yes. Put in a plug for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. They are broke and have little support.

(Lady Liberty image courtesy of Pulitzer.org website)