Monday, April 17, 2006
Times-Picayune wins Pulitzers for Katrina coverage
By James O' Byrne
The Times-Picayune won two Pulitzer Prizes Monday, including a gold medal for meritorious public service, for the newspaper's coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
The newspaper also received a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished reporting of breaking news. Both prizes were awarded to the newspaper's staff.
In addition to the paper's two awards, Chris Rose was honored as a finalist in the commentary category for his columns about the devastating psychic and emotional toll of the storm on the community. The commentary award was won by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
The Pulitzer Prizes are awarded annually in journalism, arts and letters, and are considered journalism's most prestigious honor.
In the aftermath of Katrina, rising flood waters from collapsed seawalls forced more than 200 staff of The Times-Picayune and their family members to flee the paper's downtown offices in delivery trucks on Aug. 30. But photographers, reporters and editors stayed in the area continuously, and the newspaper never ceased publishing, posting online editions for three days, then returning to print editions as well on Sept. 2.
The Pulitzer Prize board took the unusual step this year of awarding two public service medals, with the other going to The Sun-Herald of Biloxi, Miss., another paper that persevered in the face of the catastrophic storm.
"Katrina, the greatest urban disaster in America, dealt tragedy and bitter loss to our community and everyone in this room," editor Jim Amoss told several hundred staff members assembled in the New Orleans newsroom after the awards announcement.
"As our city was being ravaged, our citizens dying, our market destroyed, our homes lost, with chaos and lawlessness reigning -- while this was happening, we came together as a team," Amoss said, "and fulfilled a mission that is sacred to us: to publish no matter what -- no matter whether our house was destroyed, whether we knew what had happened to our families, or what the future held."
Monday's awards represent the third and fourth Pulitzer Prizes for The Times-Picayune in its 169-year history. The paper won two Pulitzer Prizes in 1997, for public service, and for editorial cartooning. Rose’s recognition as a finalist this year also represents the fifth time the newspaper has been a finalist in a category won by another paper.
"If anyone doubts the value of a daily newspaper, ask the readers of The Times-Picayune," Amoss said. "They will tell you what it means to have news from your hometown, brought to you by reporters, photographers, graphic artists, columnists, editorial writers and editors who know their backyard, understand the complexity of our situation and are driven by a passion for this place and this story."
"I remember being in this room on the Tuesday after Katrina hit, and Jim Amoss told our team, ‘This will be the biggest story of our lives,' "said Ashton Phelps, Jr., president and publisher of The Times-Picayune. "He was right. And our team rose to the occasion.
"Many people have asked me, 'What did you learn from Katrina about Hurricane planning?' " Phelps said. "I recently told newspaper publishers from across the country the best advice: Hire talented, tough and totally dedicated employees who will put the newspaper first at a time of major personal challenge.' That's what we had done -- and it paid off."
This year for the first time, the Pulitzer Prize board allowed a newspaper to submit material that appeared originally in online form, in addition to printed stories, as a part of their entries.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, The Times-Picayune’s continuously updated online blog, as well as its online editions of the paper posted each night on its affiliated Web site, NOLA.com, became the source of information for more than a million area residents who had evacuated, and for much of the world.
In his remarks, Amoss acknowledged the contribution of the staff at NOLA.com, “who were integral to everything we published, and made us an around-the-clock vital link to readers scattered across the nation.”
Visits, or “hits,” to Times-Picayune pages on NOLA.com, increased from an average of about 800,000 page views a day before Katrina to more than 30 million page hits a day in the days after the storm. Excerpts from those blogs, as well as stories from the online editions of the paper, made up a portion of both of the newspaper’s winning entries.
Chased from the city by flooding and a lack of power and water, much of the newspaper’s staff worked out of temporary offices in Baton Rouge for six weeks, printing first at the Houma Courier, a New York Times-owned paper, and then at the Mobile Press-Register, a sister paper that is owned, like The Times-Picayune, by Advance Publications, Inc.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, another team of journalists worked in the powerless and chaotic city under difficult and dangerous circumstances, siphoning gas, charging computers and cell phones with car batteries and moving from house to house -- partly to stay ahead of danger, and partly to find the rare working phone lines out of the city.
Moving around in a newspaper truck, the journalists also equipped themselves with a boat, a kayak, bicycles and vehicles loaned to them by other staffers. Friends who evacuated gave them permission to break into their houses for food and shelter.
Police at one point advised the newspaper’s staffers to arm themselves. Reporters and photographers had guns pointed at their heads, either by nervous residents who had stayed and feared looting, or by law enforcement officers who mistook the working journalists for looters.
"We didn't know what the next moment might bring. But we knew we were on the biggest story in the world, and it was in our town," said City Editor David Meeks, who led the team in the city. "We were determined to tell it, and through tremendous teamwork and resourcefulness, we did."
Sometimes, in order to file stories or photographs, reporters and photographers were forced to drive to Houma in the evenings, then return to the city at night to continue working.
In Baton Rouge, meanwhile, the paper set up a newspaper operation from scratch at two locations. Having left the city with only limited supplies, the newspaper needed everything from computers to pencils to rental cars to places to sleep for more than 100 staffers.
Like tens of thousands of New Orleans residents, staff members of the newspaper worked while knowing that their houses and belongings were destroyed, and often while not knowing the whereabouts or well-being of their loved ones. But they knew that the newspaper would still publish, as the paper’s owners made their commitment to that task clear from the outset.
In a written message to the staff, Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications, also offered his congratulations to the staff of the paper.
"During the horrific events of the storm and flood and their aftermath, you were and are magnificent," Newhouse wrote to the staff. "What you did and are doing is immensely important for the people and the community you serve. The two Pulitzer Prizes affirm your excellence, your sacrifices and your heroism. My family and I are thrilled to be your associates."
In one of the more memorable moments of coverage for the paper, staff members took printed editions of Friday, Sept. 2, to the Convention Center, where tens of thousands of refugees were still awaiting buses.
"They pounced on the newspapers as if they were food," recalled Meeks. "We were bringing not only information that they were starved for, but also some semblance of normalcy amid the chaos – their hometown newspaper."
The Times-Picayune returned to its building on Howard Avenue on Oct. 10, six weeks after its hasty exit, and printed that night on its own presses for the first time since Aug. 29.
For a full list of winners, click here. To see the Times-Picayune's and NOLA.com's coverage of Katrina, click here.