People ask me “So, how did you find out your newspaper was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize?”
And I say, “The same way we find out everything — a little extra digging by one of our reporters.”
We’re still on a cloud at 400 East Park Avenue, and for good reason — the Pulitzers have been around for 103 years, and our newspaper (founded as the Butte Record) has been part of this community since 1853. This week marked the first time our name has been mentioned in the same sentence as the word “Pulitzer” in print.
As Joe Biden once muttered, “This is a big (insert your favorite adjective here) deal.” And the way we found out about it says a little something about why we got the honor.
First — I’ll admit it, we liked our entry. A lot. It marked just the second time we’d entered the Pulitzer competition (the first being a year ago, for the Oroville spillway crisis) and the sheer volume of great reporting that has taken place since Nov. 8, 2018 is overwhelming.
Our task was to select the best 10 stories we ran on the Camp Fire in 2018 and submit them in as attractive of a display as possible.
Since David Little was the editor through 2018 and the driving force behind so much of the coverage, I consulted with him on the entry, along with our friends at the Bay Area News Group. They played a pivotal role in this effort, since our only photographer at the time was out on leave (and, like nine other coworkers, lost his home in the fire).
We finally selected 10 stories and a powerful collection of photos that we felt best captured the drama, the horror, the heartbreak and, yes, the resilience of those involved. From there, Audria Ruscitti — a talented graphic artist who works in our Design Center — turned it into a labor of love.
I’m not sure how else to describe it other than, “powerful.” (If you happened to see our special “Camp Fire Images” section in this newspaper Feb. 27 — that was, for the most part, our Pulitzer entry.)
As much as we liked our entry, we knew winning a Pulitzer was the ultimate long shot. There are no circulation categories in the Pulitzer competition; there are a handful of categories, and your work goes against the best (and biggest) in the business. It would be like Chico State’s baseball team having a good season in league play, only to find out they had to face the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs.
We tuned in to watch the awards announcement Monday at noon with high, yet realistic hopes. There was more than a slight feeling of disappointment when we didn’t hear our name announced among the winners, and we quietly went back to our long lists of duties, holding out hope we might be honored as a finalist.
I kept refreshing pulitzer.org looking for names of the finalists (which are announced after the winners.) This went on for a good 10 minutes as I tried, and failed, to concentrate on other things. Time and again … nothing.
I took a quick water break and decided I’d wait and check later. And as I walked back toward my office, that’s when I heard reporter Andre Byik say the magic words.
“Did you know we were named a finalist?”
I can’t exactly remember my reaction, other than it landed somewhere between a “How did you find out?” and a Howard Dean-sized “YEEEA-AAAHHHHH!”
It was just Andre being Andre. He quickly figured out that constant refreshing called for a simple bypass-cache maneuver — something I never would have had the patience to stop and do, much less think of — and once he did that, there we were. The Chico Enterprise-Record, in collaboration with the Bay Area News Group, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel were honored as finalists.
In other words, we were on the medal stand.
We’re there for one reason — the talent, ingenuity and dedication of our staff. It wasn’t easy for our team to work such long hours, with no days off, in incredibly hazardous conditions last November. They improvised, they persevered, they worked through exhaustion and tears, and did an incredible job of reporting the story of our lifetime.
Speaking as someone who had a front-row seat to our coverage during the Camp Fire, not once did I hear anyone complain about being shorthanded or exhausted. They went forth, worked hard and produced great journalism, the obstacles be damned. And Little led the way during a time most people might have been tempted to coast toward their final day at the paper. Not him. He crossed that finish line with a sprint and brought the staff right along with him.
So here we are. Chico Enterprise-Record: A Pulitzer Prize finalist for breaking news reporting. It’ll take a little while to get used to saying that, so we plan on practicing it every chance we get.
After all — this is a big (insert your favorite adjective here) deal.
Mike Wolcott is the editor of the Enterprise-Record, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for breaking news reporting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @m_mwolcott.