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'Devoted to journalism': Capital Gazette receives special citation from Pulitzer Prize board

On the afternoon of June 28, a gunman entered the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, killing five staffers before surrendering to police. Shaken survivors from the newsroom worked late into the night to put out an edition the following morning.

Exactly 11 months later, on Tuesday, colleagues and families of the victims of the deadliest-ever attack against American journalists were at Columbia University to accept a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize board "for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief," Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said.

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"As the Founding Fathers knew well, there can be no democracy without a free press. That is something Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara understood, too," said Dana Canedy, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. "They understood it when they went to work last June at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and were gunned down by a madman who opened fire in their newsroom."

McNamara's widow, Andrea Chamblee, said that on the morning before the attack in the newsroom she had urged her husband, who had been pulling late nights in the office covering political primaries, to work from home that day.

"No, I have to go in," McNamara replied, according to Chamblee.

"His character was devotion, and his devotion was his fate," Chamblee said. "He was devoted to me, which I was always aware of how precious that was, but he was devoted to journalism."

At the ceremony, she joined her late husband's colleagues onstage and struck a defiant pose, raising her right arm and flexing a biceps, marked with a temporary tattoo that read "warr;or."

The citation from the Pulitzer Prize board comes with a $100,000 grant to further the mission of the Capital Gazette.

“It means that we’re going to do a lot of great investigative work. We’re going to get a lot of good training,” said Capital Gazette features reporter Selene San Felice, who was in her first year with the paper when she witnessed the attack in the newsroom.

Winters Geimer, 30, the daughter of Winters, who was a community reporter with the Capital Gazette, said: “My mom used to say that nobody worked at The Capital to get a Pulitzer. So, it’s ironic, almost cruel, that the paper is being recognized for this honor, which is a great honor and is amazing, especially the grant to the paper. But part of the reason for that is my mother’s death and the death of four other people.”

Reflecting a year when mass shootings never left the headlines for long, the Pulitzer Board also honored the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for breaking reporting for its coverage of the October massacre at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which like the Capital Gazette and The Baltimore Sun is a Tribune Publishing newspaper, won a Pulitzer for its public service reporting that exposed the failings by law enforcement and school officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018.

Eight staffers from that high school's newspaper, the Eagle Eye, were present for the ceremony, though they did not take home a prize. The student journalists had submitted the obituaries they had written for their 17 classmates who died in the attack, which constituted a special edition of their paper.

"English class doesn't teach you how to write obituaries when you are in high school," Eagle Eye editor Hannah Kapoor, 18, told the Sun-Sentinel on Monday.

"And yet that is exactly what these student journalists did," Canedy said in her remarks, calling the Eagle Eye's submission her favorite entry for this year's awards.

"It was a year in which journalists bore witness to the most heinous crimes carried out against innocent men, women and children, including in our ranks," said Pulitzers co-chairman Robert Blau, a former Sun managing editor. "Your work did not end with mourning and sadness. You helped communities heal even when it seemed a far-fetched possibility."

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Doreen Christensen, columnist with the Sun-Sentinel, said the most difficult aspect for staffers of the paper’s yearlong, Pulitzer-winning effort in covering the Parkland massacre was keeping personal emotions in check.

“The Sun-Sentinel spent a year covering an unspeakable tragedy that happened in our community, and there was not one single member of our newsroom that did not contribute to this story of unspeakable loss and violence,” Christensen said. "We are so sorry for the loss in Parkland, of our colleagues at the Capital Gazette, of the unspeakable tragedy at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and everywhere else where mass shootings are occurring at an alarming rate."

The Capital Gazette was also a finalist in the editorial writing category of the Pulitzer Prizes, for its editorial board's columns that examined gun violence, and loss and recovery after the newsroom shooting.

Capital Gazette editor Rick Hutzell said he and Hiaasen had talked a year and a half ago about what they wanted to accomplish near the end of their respective careers. That answer was a no-brainer for two career journalists: win a Pulitzer.

Hutzell praised Tribune Publishing and the Sun for helping the newspaper keep putting out editions, and the University of Maryland for lending office space after the attack. But he reserved his greatest praise for his reporters and editors.

“I’m proud of this young staff that I work with,” he said. “This is a defining moment for them to show such courage and such dedication to their craft, to put aside their personal grief at such a young age and to be able to focus on the important work that we do.

“People have committed to stay and work through some pretty traumatic stuff,” he said.

Reactions from the staff of the Capital Gazette after being awarded a 2019 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
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