Despite tough times and smaller newsrooms, local news was a star in this year’s Pulitzers

April 17, 2019

Several local newsrooms have something new in common this week — a Pulitzer Prize.

This year, local newsrooms won in several categories: Public Service, Breaking News, Investigative Reporting, Commentary, and yes, of course, Local Reporting. Local journalism scored as finalists in 11 other categories and received a special citation.

Those newsrooms have another thing in common: how they’ve managed to keep doing critical work in the midst of change.

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Whether through buyouts and layoffs that shrunk their newsrooms, new ownership or drama with current ownership, a changing business model or a tragedy, each has had to figure out how to navigate that change while doing extraordinary work for their communities. Monday’s awards show it’s possible.

Capital Gazette

Staff at The (Annapolis, Maryland) Capital Gazette were awarded a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board “for their courageous response to the largest killing of journalists in U.S. history in their newsroom on June 28, 2018, and for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief.”

The citation comes with $100,000 “to be used to further the newspaper’s journalistic mission.” It’s too early to say exactly how that money will be spent, editor Rick Hutzell told Poynter on Monday, but the newsroom is already hearing suggestions.

Related: At the Capital Gazette, we’re still mourning, we’re gonna need help, but we’re still here

Monday wasn’t a celebration, Hutzell said, as much as a chance to honor the work the newsroom produced. That work, while done under extraordinary circumstances on and after June 28, was also an example of the basics of good local journalism.

“Journalism is a hard job,” Hutzell said. “It’s doesn’t require a huge amount of reimagining …You can show up at your county council and read the budget and look at the police records,” he said. “You can look around your community and celebrate the victories, point out what could be better, point out what’s wrong.”

The newsroom covered everything from the mundane to the tragic, Hutzell said.

“It has been the stuff that local journalism does.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch and South Florida Sun Sentinel

Tony Messenger has been at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 2008.

“It’s a lot smaller than when I got here,” he said, “and when I got here, it was a lot smaller than it was a few year before.”

By our count, that newsroom currently has 87 journalists.

Messenger won the 2019 Pulitzer for Commentary “for bold columns that exposed the malfeasance and injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail.”

Julie Anderson has been editor in chief at the South Florida Sun Sentinel since March, and there are about 85 newsroom positions, she told Poynter on Monday, including a few that are open. At its biggest, the newsroom had 300-something people.

The Sun Sentinel won the 2019 Pulitzer for Public Service for “exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”

In both newsrooms, the lesson here is making choices about what gets covered and what doesn’t.

Related: How the Post and Courier grew digital subscriptions by 250%

“I think we all recognize that we can’t do what we used to do,” Messenger said. “So we do what we can. And when we find something that is valuable and news and can move the needle, we do our best to focus on that.”

Messenger’s editors realized there was something big in what he uncovered in his reporting and that following it could make a difference, he said.

“That’s what we can still do as journalists,” Messenger said. “We can identify problems, connect them to our readers in a meaningful way and fix injustices … our country still demands that of us.”

At the Sun Sentinel, everyone covered the Parkland shooting just after it happened, Anderson said. But that wasn’t sustainable long-term.

Editors and reporters had to decide the main stories they’d go after, and then keep up a rotation in the newsroom. Sometimes that meant reporters picked up each other’s work, and sometimes it meant that things didn’t get covered.

“Once it became clear that the institutions we wanted to get public records from weren’t going to give them to us, we had to dig down even harder,” she said. “We felt like there was something there.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Los Angeles Times

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s newsroom had about 150 in it a year ago.

“We’re lucky that we still have the amount of people that we do here,” deputy managing editor Jim Iovino told Poynter on Monday. “We’re not at that point some newsrooms are.”

But before and after the Pulitzer-winning work, it has faced trials other newsrooms haven’t, including the firing of a popular editorial cartoonist and a bizarre confrontation with the paper’s publisher.

The Post-Gazette won a Breaking News Pulitzer for “immersive, compassionate coverage of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief.”

“Local news is so crucial,” Iovino said. “For us, we live in this community. Our city editor, her doctor was one of the victims … That integral knowledge of our community is what really sets local news apart and affords us the ability to cover it in a way that you can’t get from any other source.”

Related: The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes, by the numbers

Similarly, last summer, the Los Angeles Times said goodbye to a turbulent run with Tronc and hello to a new owner. In the midst of that, Matt Hamilton, Harriet Ryan and Paul Pringle produced work that won them the Investigative Reporting Pulitzer for “consequential reporting on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of violating hundreds of young women for more than a quarter-century.”

“The award recognizes an extraordinary piece of journalism that continues the Los Angeles Times’ commitment to public service journalism and stories that have real impact on the lives of our readers,” Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine told Poynter Monday in an email. “Through all of the turmoil of the last few years, the one constant has been the newsroom’s commitment to public service journalism.”

The Advocate

The Advocate is made up of three newsrooms in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette. The model, said editor Peter Kovacs, is to expand geographically.

“Our strategy is to grow outward and fight to be the dominant media outlet in other communities, which ironically is sort of an ‘80s and ‘90s view of the world, but it’s worked and it works in our case because we’re fighting for communities where there’s been journalistic disinvestment, and these communities don’t want journalistic disinvestment by out-of-town owners, they want investment.”

The Advocate’s Baton Rouge newsroom won the Local Reporting Pulitzer for “a damning portrayal of the state’s discriminatory conviction system, including a Jim Crow-era law, that enabled Louisiana courts to send defendants to jail without jury consensus on the accused’s guilt.”

“The most endangered thing is local reporting, but I think the solution is local ownership,” Kovacs said.

Ironically, he said, it’s another example of how local news’ future should look to its past for answers.