Pulitzer Prize awarded to Press Democrat for wildfire coverage

The Press Democrat on Monday was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the highest award in American journalism, for its coverage of the most devastating wildfires in California history.|

The Press Democrat was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on Monday, the highest award in American journalism, for its coverage of the most devastating wildfires in California history.

The newspaper was honored in the category of Breaking News for its online and print coverage of the October fires, which killed 40 people and destroyed 6,190 homes in the region.

The Pulitzer Committee lauded the paper “for lucid and tenacious coverage of historic wildfires that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, expertly utilizing an array of tools, including photography, video and social media platforms, to bring clarity to its readers - in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting.”

The newsroom on Mendocino Avenue erupted in cheers and hugs as the awards were announced shortly after noon. While the paper has won several other journalism awards for its fire coverage, snaring a Pulitzer is the pinnacle of American journalism.

“This is such a proud day for our newsroom. Our staff headed directly toward the flames to bring powerful and continual reporting of this story, even as they sent their families to safety,” Executive Editor Catherine Barnett said.

“So many of our friends and families lost their homes and so much more on that October night. While we celebrate today with journalism's highest prize, we keep them in our hearts.”

Press Democrat veteran photographer Kent Porter, whose images from the first night of the fires are as harrowing as the story of how he captured them, said he was conflicted about the award.

“I feel proud that we won this prestigious award, but it's tempered by the loss and destruction that our community suffered,” Porter said.

See all of the Press Democrat's wildfire coverage here.

Press Democrat publisher Steve Falk, who took the helm of the paper after its 2012 acquisition by Sonoma Media Investments, said he couldn't be prouder of the newsroom.

“The real test of a newspaper is in a disaster, and our journalists rose to the occasion when our community needed them most,” Falk said.

During the month of October, the 47,000-circulation newspaper's website had nearly 5 million unique users and 78 million page views, Falk said. He said the award validated SMI's business model of local ownership investing in local journalism.

“We aren't reporting to corporate types. We aren't reporting to Wall Street. We are reporting to readers,” Falk said.

Darius Anderson, managing partner of SMI, said he was “still in shock” Monday evening.

“Essentially, it's like watching the newsroom win the Super Bowl,” said Anderson, who was on his way to Sacramento when he heard the news. “It's just such an amazing day.

“To have the highest award in journalism come to Sonoma County for such a monumental and tragic event, I think really goes to show the amazing work that everyone did during a time of crisis.”

Anderson said when he led the investment group to purchase The Press Democrat, “never in my wildest dreams did I ever think we'd win a Pulitzer.”

It is the second Pulitzer awarded to The Press Democrat. The newspaper in 1997 won the award for Spot News Photography for a photo by Annie Wells of a firefighter rescuing a teenager from raging floodwaters.

The Pulitzer Prizes recognize 14 categories for reporting, photography, criticism and commentary.

The Press Democrat's reporters, editors, photographers, designers and web producers gathered shortly before noon around a television at the center of the second-floor newsroom to watch the live video feed from the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York.

The assembled employees erupted in cheers when Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy made the announcement. Porter alternated between taking photos of the celebration and pumping his fists in the air.

Managing Editor Ted Appel hugged Barnett, local news editors Brett Wilkison and Steve Levin high-fived, and reporters Randi Rossmann, Julie Johnson and Martin Espinoza - lead reporters on the first day's chaotic day of coverage - embraced amid the cheers.

The acclaim - and sparkling wine - flowed all afternoon, as the newsroom celebrated and congratulations rolled in from politicians, other media organizations and people who lost their homes.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, a former reporter and columnist for the paper, said he was proud of “my hometown paper,” which unlike, the news out of Washington, focuses on issues that matter in people's day-to-day lives.

“The coverage of that event and the aftermath was just outstanding,” Coursey said. “You could have won a Pulitzer for public service, as well.”

Porter, who excels at breaking news photography and is never far from a scanner, was the first Press Democrat staffer to realize the wind-whipped blaze that began around 10 p.m. Oct 8. on Tubbs Lane outside Calistoga had the potential to race up the Mayacamas Mountains and threaten the Santa Rosa Valley 13 miles to the west.

“My first instinct was to call the newsroom and tell them that this fire was going to go all the way to Santa Rosa,” Porter recalled. “My second instinct was, don't get killed covering this fire.”

He described scenes of “Armageddon” and worried at times he would become trapped in the narrow canyon road between Calistoga and Santa Rosa. The smoke at times was so thick he drove his aging Honda Civic on the yellow raised pavement markers in the middle of the road to keep him from careening off the shoulder, he said.

He would later meet up with veteran reporter Espinoza, who, after dropping his young son off at a relative's home, went out with Porter to document the unfolding devastation, Porter in photos and video, and Espinoza with Facebook Live videos that gave many members of the public the first real sense of the scope of the destruction.

Espinoza said he kept trying to convince himself that people escaped from the homes burning all around him.

“What I saw was like a bomb dropped on a city, and you didn't want to believe anybody had gotten caught up in that,” Espinoza said.

Even though the paper has won numerous awards for its wildfire coverage in recent weeks, including from the American Society of News Editors and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Espinoza didn't want to let himself believe the paper might be in line for journalism's most prestigious prize.

“It was the proudest moment of my career,” Espinoza said. “You know what the best thing after they announced it? It was looking at the faces of my colleagues, and seeing how proud and happy they were and knowing we'd all done it together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.


The Pulitzer Prizes recognize the best journalism in newspapers, magazines and websites. There are 14 categories for reporting, photography, criticism and commentary.

In the arts, prizes are awarded in seven categories, including fiction, drama and music.

For a searchable list of current and past winners and finalists, go here.

To see the Press Democrat's Pulitzer entry, go here.

See Press Democrat videos from the wildfires here:

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.