The staff of The Star Tribune of Minneapolis won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting “for its nuanced coverage” of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police and subsequent protests and investigations.
The Star Tribune reported news breaks as they happened but supplemented them with timelines, analyses and in-depth stories. One of the first of them, “George Floyd and the city that killed him,” a column by Jennifer Brooks, ran three days after his murder.
A week later, The Star Tribune published a comprehensive takeout, headlined “One week in Minneapolis.”
Floyd’s fatal encounter with police happened the evening of May 25, 2020. It became known the next morning in a police press release that made no mention of Derek Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd’s neck. But surveillance video quickly emerged, and the four officers involved had been fired by the end of the day.
I asked editor and senior vice president Rene Sanchez in a phone interview to describe The Star Tribune’s coverage strategy, and he replied, “We recognized very early that this was going to be a huge story and a very painful one for our community. … You could call our approach head-and-heart. … (The events) raised some very hard questions for our community.”
Reporting challenges were significant, Sanchez added. “During the pandemic, we had been working at home … but in this profession, you never know when news is going to leap at you and demand everything you’ve got.”
Without any stockpile of gas masks and other protective equipment, reporters and photographers were out in the street right away, covering protests that soon drew a massive law enforcement presence and morphed into violence.
None of his staff was gravely hurt, Sanchez said, but a half-dozen were hit by rubber bullets or otherwise injured. Doing the job became a double act of courage, Sanchez said, because being in the thick of events also involved COVID-19 exposure.
Floyd’s death and its aftermath surfaced long-simmering issues in Minneapolis of racial disparities and police misconduct that never got punished. The neighborhood precinct station nearest the incident was burned to the ground, and the city council voted to defund the force — an action later rescinded.
The Star Tribune wrapped up its 2020 coverage with a long and elegantly illustrated biographical piece in late December titled “George Floyd’s Search for Salvation.” (Chauvin’s trial and conviction were not until 2021 and thus not part of the entry).
The Star Tribune last won a Pulitzer in 2013 for Local Reporting with a series on infant deaths in poorly regulated home day care centers. The paper has also had a number of Pulitzer finalists, most recently last year for its editorial writing.
Besides fielding a newsroom staff of roughly 240, The Star Tribune, which is independent and locally owned, is considered by me and other media business analysts as one of the financially strongest, if not the strongest, metros.
Its digital-only paid circulation exceeds 100,000, and it is also a leader in Sunday print circulation, trailing only the national papers and those serving Los Angeles and Chicago. In several recent years it has suffered revenue losses but much smaller ones than typical for the industry.
Other Pulitzer finalists in the breaking news category were the staff of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, “for coverage that contradicted the police narratives following the killing of Breonna Taylor and the aftermath;” and Helen Branswell, Andrew Joseph and the late Sharon Begley of Stat “for their prescient coverage of the emergence of COVID-19.”