April 17, 2012

When the Pulitzer Prize Board announced last year it would emphasize real-time reporting for the Breaking News category starting in 2012, some speculated whether we would someday see a Pulitzer Prize for tweeting.

As it turns out, this year’s winner came pretty close.

A few of the tweets sent by The Tuscaloosa News and its reporters following the tornado.

The prize for Breaking News went to a small newspaper that combined old-fashioned field reporting with a new tool, Twitter, after a tornado devastated swaths of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011.

The storm knocked out power, and for a couple days The Tuscaloosa News relied on backup generators that could power only a handful of newsroom computers. Phone lines were dead and cell towers were jammed.

“Calls couldn’t get through,” City Editor Katherine Lee told me, “but texts and tweets could.”

Twitter carried the first reports

As reporters and photographers fanned out across the city to survey the damage, they live-tweeted what they saw and learned. Photos. Damage reports. Rescue attempts.

Education reporter Jamon Smith checked out his own neighborhood and found his apartment building destroyed and a victim buried in the rubble.

“The first indications anybody was getting of how widespread this devastation was, was through [our reporters’] tweets,” Lee said.

The News journalists arrived at many scenes of destruction even before emergency first-responders. The National Guard relied upon some of those tweets to decide where to deploy first, Lee said.

The News’ aggressive realtime use of Twitter was very important, Pulitzer jury member Kathy Best told me. (Best is managing editor of The Seattle Times, which won the Breaking News prize in 2010 in part for using Twitter and Google Wave to cover the shooting deaths of four police officers.)

“They made it clear to all of us who were judges this year for Breaking News that we needed to look very hard at realtime reporting,” Best said. “Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all of the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on.”

This photo by Dusty Compton landed on the front page of newspapers across the country.

Of course, there was much other non-Twitter journalism that helped the News earn its Pulitzer Prize: Several days of excellent print reporting under horrible circumstances, more than 300 photos in online galleries, and a people locator that helped hundreds reconnect with loved ones after the storm.

“It’s not about any particular tool,” Best said. “It’s about using every tool that’s available to you in the moment. One of those tools is a print publication that takes all the great stuff you’ve done in the moment and puts it in context.”

In this case, from the tornado’s first touch down through the cleanup, Twitter became the newspaper’s neverending stream of important and heartbreaking news.

A lesson for the staff

Just a few months before the tornado, the News had put staffers through a session on how to use Twitter and Facebook. “I think there were some skeptics on the staff who didn’t see how that was going to apply to our day-to-day jobs,” Lee said. “But that training really kicked in that day.”

“It was the first real, practical application of social media for us that we could actually see this has definite uses,” Lee said. “There was no other place to get information. I was stuck here in the newsroom and all I was hearing was what I was reading from my own reporters.”

“Now we’re all true believers thanks to Twitter.”

Nearly a year after it live-tweeted the tornado, The Tuscaloosa News (one of 16 papers acquired by Halifax Media in January) got to send out a much happier tweet Tuesday:

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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