The Bristol Herald Courier, a small paper in the coalfields of Appalachia, beat out journalism's powerhouses to win the Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for uncovering a scandal in which Virginia landowners were deprived of millions in natural gas royalties.
The seven-reporter daily was honored for what many regard as an endangered form of journalism in this age of wrenching newspaper cutbacks — aggressive reporting on local issues.
The Washington Post received four Pulitzers — for international reporting on Iraq, feature writing, commentary and criticism. The New York Times won three — for national reporting, for explanatory reporting, and for investigative reporting for collaborating with the fledgling nonprofit news service ProPublica for a story on the life-and-death decisions made by New Orleans doctors during Hurricane Katrina.
The ProPublica prize — and an editorial cartooning award for the self-syndicated Mark Fiore, whose work appears on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site SFGate.com — represented a victory for new media in a competition long dominated by ink-on-newsprint.
ProPublica, a 2-year-old organization based in New York with around 30 employees, is bankrolled by charitable foundations, staffed by distinguished veteran journalists, and devoted to doing the kind of big investigative journalism projects many newspapers have found too expensive. It offers many of its stories to traditional news organizations, free of charge.
"We've had five or six stories that have been honored in different places. I think taken together, this plus other things is a moment that says that model ... works," said Stephen Engelberg, managing editor for ProPublica. "It is a validation."
The Pulitzer Board also recognized the way newspapers are branching out with new media. The Seattle Times employed Twitter and e-mail alerts to help inform readers about a deadly shooting, and used the social media tool Google Wave to encourage reader participation.
The Pulitzers opened their doors wider in recent years to online-only material. The changes reflect the seismic shifts going on in the industry over the past decade, with readers getting their news online at all hours, in a never-ending news cycle.
Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler said there were about 100 online entries from 50 sites this year, up from 65 entries last year.
"You could see they're really doing serious journalism," he said. "I think over time they're going to get stronger."
The 33,000-circulation Bristol Herald Courier won for reporter Daniel Gilbert's computer analysis that showed how a state board allowed the energy industry to funnel into an unaudited escrow fund tens of millions of dollars in royalties owed to people in one of the poorest regions of Virginia.
Gilbert, 28, called the award "a hell of an honor" and said it underscores the importance of public service reporting in rural areas.
With its small staff, two bottles of cheap champagne were all the newsroom needed to mark the occasion.
Editor J. Todd Foster said the story required "a lot of shoe leather" and a tenacious reporter. "It's why newspapers will continue to survive in some form," Foster said of Gilbert's reporting. "Nobody else is going to do this sort of reporting."
A prize for investigative reporting also went to the Philadelphia Daily News for exposing a rogue police narcotics squad. Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman's reporting led to an FBI investigation and the re-examination of hundreds of criminal cases.
The work "was built on the kind of grit and shoe-leather reporting that journalists often neglect in the Internet age," editor Michael Days wrote in his nominating letter, adding that the pair "proved that pure investigative, watchdog journalism is not only irreplaceable but is often the only avenue to right the wrongs suffered by the powerless."
The Seattle Times staff was honored in the breaking news category for its coverage of the shooting deaths of four police officers in a coffee shop.
"It's hard to absorb," said Steve Miletich, one of the reporters who worked on the shooting story. "It was a team effort. We're all really honored by it. We set out to inform the community about a really tragic event at a time they really needed it."
The Pulitzer for local reporting went to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a series of stories on fraud and abuse in a child-care program for poor working parents.
The Dallas Morning News won for editorial writing.
The Des Moines Register won for breaking-news photography for capturing a rescuer trying to save a woman trapped beneath a dam, and the Denver Post was honored for feature photography for a portrait of a teenager who joined the Army at the height of insurgent violence in Iraq.
The Washington Post's award for international reporting went to Anthony Shadid for what the Pulitzer board called "his rich, beautifully written series" on Iraq as the U.S. military gets ready to withdraw. Shadid has since left the Post for The New York Times. He nominated himself for the award, Gissler said.
The newspaper's Gene Weingarten won in feature writing for what the board called a "haunting" story on parents who accidentally kill their children by leaving them in cars.
Both Shadid and Weingarten are repeat winners of the Pulitzer.
The Post also won for commentary, for Kathleen Parker's witty columns on political and moral issues, and for criticism, for Sarah Kaufman's writing on dance.
The Post, like most newspapers, has seen deep cutbacks in the past few years and has been forced to scale back its ambitions. But its haul of four awards was a repeat of 2006, and not far off the six it won in 2008.
The New York Times won for national reporting for a series of stories in print and online on distracted driving, and for explanatory reporting for writing about the dangers of contaminated hamburger and defects in federal food-safety regulations.
Executive editor Bill Keller heaped as much praise on entries that didn't win prizes as the ones that did, including David Rohde's first-person account of escaping seven months of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I was a little surprised" Rohde's entry didn't win, Keller said, "because it seemed to have won just about everything else." He added: "I don't think that it's winning prizes because he lost seven months of his life. I think it's winning prizes because he turned that sacrifice into a tremendous piece of journalism. But believe me, I am not doing any complaining today."
Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, said collaborations of the new and the old — such as the one between ProPublica and The New York Times — could become more common.
"Collaboration is something we are going to see much more of," he said. "The mythical body of journalists has been so decimated we are going to see all kinds of creative ways to get more juice. What's interesting about it is it's a way of building a bridge between the old school and new school."
The Pulitzers are the most prestigious awards in journalism and are given out annually by Columbia University on the recommendation of a board of distinguished journalists and others. Each Pulitzer carries a $10,000 prize except for the public service award, which is a gold medal.