The Pulitzer Prize Board awarded a special citation Monday to the staff of the Capital Gazette for their work in covering the June attack on their Annapolis offices that killed five employees.
The Capital’s citation was given “for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief.” The award comes with a $100,000 bequest by the Pulitzer Board — the largest amount ever awarded — to be used to further the newspaper’s journalistic mission.
The Capital Gazette staff was also a Pulitzer finalist in the editorial writing category.
The Pulitzer Prize Board’s special citation for the Capital was an unusual decision, existing outside of the 21 categories across journalism, books, drama and music awarded annually. A special citation was last awarded in 2011 to songwriter Hank Williams. The previous record for a cash award was $15,000, said Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy.
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Canedy called the prize money a statement of support for local news, and said she hopes the gesture brings a measure of comfort to the staff and their families.
“It was important to us to make the contribution significant enough to aid the newspaper in continuing to do extraordinary community work,” Canedy said.
Leadership with Baltimore Sun Media, which includes the Capital Gazette, will work with the newspaper’s staff to determine how best to use the funds from the Pulitzer Board, said Tim Knight, CEO of the group’s parent company Tribune Publishing, in an email Monday to employees.
“I ask that we pause and consider the remarkable sacrifice and dedication that our journalists poured into their award-winning work,” Knight said. “That … our teams could deliver such precise, compelling, heartbreaking journalism while their own hearts were breaking demands our awe.”
Capital editor Rick Hutzell called the citation a “great honor,” but one that brought mixed emotions.
“We spent the last couple of weeks talking about what this could mean,” Hutzell said of the Pulitzer Board’s consideration. “It's a recognition of what happened after June 28. The work we've done in the last eight to nine months speaks volumes about the community of journalism and it speaks worlds about the people in this room.”
Staff believe it is the first Pulitzer that the paper has won.
Staffers gathered in the newsroom for a small event that Hutzell said was not quite a celebration.
“We weren't sure what to call this today,” he said. “We have some refreshments in the office. We didn't want to have a celebration, but it feels really good that our peers were nationally recognized.”
Reporter Chase Cook said the mood among the staffers, former colleagues and family at the gathering Monday was “subdued.”
“There was definitely no exciting pop-off like there may have been at other papers,” Cook said. “It was a little confused. Was it OK to cheer? It's a complicated feeling. I think we were all overcome with excitement, but also the reminder of the worst day of our lives.”
Despite the bittersweet feelings, reporter Selene San Felice said she felt elated to learn of the special citation.”[I want people] to know that we do this not for us, but for the community,” San Felice said. “We picked up nationwide notoriety after the shooting, but we're reporting for Anne Arundel County, for Annapolis. That's been our goal since day one and nobody's going to stop that.”
Trif Alatzas, publisher and editor-in-chief of Baltimore Sun Media, which includes the Capital Gazette, called the award a great tribute to the staff’s work under extraordinary circumstances.
“They always came to work and did their job as they remembered Rob Hiaasen, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Gerald Fischman,” Alatzas said. “We also owe an incredible amount of thanks to the entire journalism community, who provided so much assistance throughout the days, weeks and months to help this organization continue on its mission.”
Before announcing the winners, Canedy shared strong words recognizing journalists, including those at the Capital Gazette, who have died for their work.
Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted a congratulations to the Capital Gazette and called the prize a “well-deserved honor.”
“Gerald, Rob, John, Rebecca, and Wendi will never be forgotten,” Hogan said in the tweet.
The 2019 winners and finalists of the Pulitzer Prize, considered one of the highest honors in journalism, were announced Monday afternoon at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Other winners included: the South Florida Sun Sentinel (also part of Tribune Publishing) for its coverage of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting; and The New York Times for its investigation into President Donald Trump’s finances.
Aretha Franklin, who died last summer, also received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize board, with judges praising the Queen of Soul “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture.”
In addition to the Pulitzer citation, the Capital staffers won the 2019 News Leaders Association award for breaking news and were named among Time magazine’s Person of the Year for their work as “The Guardians and the War on Truth.” And Hutzell accepted the National Press Foundation’s Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year award in February.
The Maryland General Assembly unanimously voted in March to designate June 28 as “Freedom of the Press Day” to honor the fallen Capital employees.