April 21, 2009

In such a huge year for national news — with Wall Street unraveling and a historic presidential election — the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service recognized local Las Vegas Sun reporting that flew largely under the radar. Talk about your long Vegas odds.

But not in the view of the public-service jurors who nominated finalists to the Pulitzer Prize Board. Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman, serving his first time in the category after three times judging investigative, found the Sun‘s work “a story that took on so many of the significant powers in the community: the casinos, labor unions, and both the state and local governments.” And, he said in a telephone interview, “It was among the best-written works of any that we came across in our category.”

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Considering the “legendary” powers behind Vegas’ construction booms over the years, the seven jurors were especially impressed with the Sun‘s work, said jury chairman Neil Brown, executive editor and vice president of the St. Petersburg Times. (The newspaper is owned by Poynter.) Brown, who said he could only discuss the jury’s thoughts broadly, noted that “the degree of difficulty on the story for a small paper was high.” Still, “small paper or no, we did not rate it on a curve. The work stood up well against all comers.”

The Sun described the construction-worker project, which started in early 2008, as one that “reported on cozy relationships existing between safety regulators and builders,” especially at the huge MGM Mirage CityCenter development. Twelve workers had died in just 18 months due to a combination of falls, crushing accidents, elevator failures and, in the words of reporter Alexandra Berzon, “an attitude issue”: that accidents were inevitable in an innately hazardous job like construction.

The 29-year-old reporter’s response: “It wasn’t true that people had to die.” Indeed, since June, when federal hearings were called and safety reforms instituted as a result of the articles, no workers have been killed.

How did the jurors compare the work of the 180,000-circulation Sun with the economic reporting of the massive New York Times, described by the Pulitzer Board as “comprehensive coverage of the economic meltdown of 2008”? They didn’t have to, because Pulitzer juries send three nominees to the Pulitzer board without rating them. Yet the panel of high-level editors couldn’t help but note that the Las Vegas work was largely scoop-oriented, and it brought to an end a series of injurious events in the community. The Times‘ coverage that they also nominated, meanwhile, largely aimed to explain a catastrophe that had happened already.

Indeed, the work by the Sun and the Times, along with the third choice of the St. Petersburg Times, “really did represent three very different manifestations of public service,” Boardman said. “And the Sun was more in the investigative mode — taking on forces that were concealing the facts from the public.” (As is customary among Pulitzer juries, Neil Brown did not participate in any discussions related to his own paper. In the end, the St. Petersburg entry, for its PolitiFact fact-checking initiative during the 2008 presidential campaign, was moved by the Pulitzer board to national reporting, where it won.)

After being shocked with the Pulitzer news — she was returning from an assignment when a receptionist blindsided her with a “congratulations” — late Monday afternoon, Berzon and her editors discussed in telephone interviews the story behind the story and the prize’s meaning for their newspaper.

“It seems like it came out of the blue; I didn’t think we had a chance,” Berzon said, in part because other workplace safety coverage, notably that of The Charlotte Observer about the poultry industry, had gotten more media attention as a Pulitzer contender. (The Sun‘s work did, however, win a national Scripps Howard award and other honors, including several from the Nevada Press Association.)

Last year’s public-service Pulitzer winner, The Washington Post‘s investigation into poor veterans’ care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was widely celebrated by the time it won.

David Clayton, one of two editorial writers who wrote about the Strip construction deaths, said he has rarely seen a reporter with Berzon’s “conscientiousness and talent” as well as the sensitivity to deal with the families of deceased construction workers. “In a way,” he said, “it’s not something you want to celebrate and whoop and holler about, when workers have died. But workers are safer today because of what she did, and what this newspaper did.”

Berzon balked at describing her work as courageous, as the Pulitzer Board did. “I’m not going to say my life was at risk. But there were some threats from union officials,” she said. The pressure came mostly from groups that believed the newspaper’s stories interfered with their businesses.

“The entire economy here depends on the gaming industry,” she said. “People who I would have expected to get to the bottom of things didn’t want to.”

Berzon worked on most of the stories with one editor, Los Angeles Times veteran Drex Heikes, who realized the significance of the rising worker death toll and made it Berzon’s first assignment shortly after joining the paper. “It was an incredibly economical project,” she joked. “And I’m a new reporter, too, so I’m not an expensive one.”
She also reflected about the career choice that brought her to the Sun. The daughter of a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco, she acknowledged that “a law career seemed a little bit of a safer bet” than journalism.

Still, she had fallen in love with reporting at Vassar College, a master’s program at the University of California at Berkeley and then at her internships, including one at the Anchorage Daily News. In Alaska, she learned about the impact of a Pulitzer gold medal on a newsroom; the Daily News had two and was still very proud of them. “I know what a big deal that was for them,” she said. “It’s amazing to think that this prize could do the same thing for the Sun.”

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, published in an updated edition…
More by Roy J. Harris Jr.

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