The 2009 Pulitzer Prizes in journalism include familiar names like The New York Times, but a few surprises, most notably a public service medal -- the most prestigious -- inspired by the work of a 29-year-old reporter a year into her job at the Las Vegas Sun.
Alexandra Berzon's stories investigated the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip -- a dozen fatalities in a year and a half -- and lax enforcement of regulations. The paper got behind her, giving her six weeks to develop the first stories, and following them with editorials calling for change.
“This story was about the failure of government and an attitude of the people that said it was not important to inspect for safety violations the way they’re supposed to, which results in working people getting hurt,” Sun Editor Brian Greenspun said. “It was a failure up and down the line ... When it gets fixed, that means you saved that many people’s lives. What greater purpose can you have in the newspaper business?”
The Pulitzer citation was "to the Las Vegas Sun, and notably the courageous reporting by Alexandra Berzon."
The Sun's story about the surprise award credited Berzon -- a 2006 Berkeley journalism master's grad -- -- with "persevering against closed doors and intimidation" in reporting the series.
"The Sun’s Pulitzer victory is a win," the paper said, "for the underdog — workers on the Strip, a young reporter and an all-enterprise newspaper that doesn’t cover the ordinary news of the day — and provides inspiration at a time when journalism is reeling from cutbacks."
The Sun report says Berzon's first stories grew to a yearlong project that involved not only dealing with the OSHA bureaucracy, but "ignoring threats of physical harm if she showed up at a union hall."
Web brings winners
Meanwhile, in the National Reporting category, a Web-based project took a major award, and a story first published online took the Breaking News prize.
The National Reporting Pulitzer went to the St. Petersburg Times for “PolitiFact.com,” its "fact-checking initiative during the 2008 presidential campaign that used probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine more than 750 political claims, separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters."
(This is the first year the Pulitzer committee considered projects that were primarily online.)
The non-profit St. Pete newspaper also used the Web creatively to accompany the long-form narrative story that brought it the Feature Writing prize. See winner Lane DeGregory's video comments at Poynter.org on why the combination of awards is especially gratifying, and an earlier story about the project itself.
The PolitiFact project came close to winning the Public Service prize, but was moved to the National Reporting category. The other Public Service runner-up was The New York Times for its "comprehensive coverage of the economic meltdown of 2008." The Times did win Pulitzers in five other categories, for stories including its investigation of the role of retired generals working as radio and television analysts, and its breaking news coverage of the New York governor's sex scandal. The latter citation commended the paper for "breaking the story on its Web site and then developing it with authoritative, rapid-fire reports."
Speaking of Web things, see the Mesa, Ariz., Local Reporting irony below...
The other 2008 journalism Pulitzers:
- Five for The New York Times (the second-best year in its 101-prize history)
- -- Breaking News Reporting - The New York Times Staff
- -- International Reporting - The New York Times Staff
- -- Investigative Reporting - David Barstow of The New York Times
- -- Criticism - Holland Cotter of The New York Times
- -- Feature Photography - Damon Winter of The New York Times
- Two for the St.Pete Times.
- -- Feature Writing - Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times for "The Girl in the Window."
- -- National Reporting - St. Petersburg Times Staff for PolitiFact and its "Truth-O-Meter."
- Explanatory Reporting - Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times
- Local Reporting - Detroit Free Press Staff
- Local Reporting - Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the East Valley Tribune, Mesa, AZ (With some serious state-of-the-trade and Web irony: By the time the award was announced, Giblin had been laid off -- and launched an online legislative news startup.)
- Commentary - Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post
- Editorial Writing - Mark Mahoney of The Post-Star, Glens Falls, NY
- Editorial Cartooning - Steve Breen of The San Diego Union-Tribune
- Breaking News Photography - Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald