Behind 'Seattle Times' winning a Pulitzer

A near-empty newsroom suddenly filled with journalists. But what came next was unprecedented, a true networking between a newspaper and citizens.
A near-empty newsroom suddenly filled with journalists. But what came next was unprecedented, a true networking between a newspaper and citizens.

Who, what, where, when, why and — most importantly — how did The Seattle Times win a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for 'ꀜBreaking News'ꀝ for its coverage of the Lakewood police shootings and the Maurice Clemmons manhunt?

Those questions were asked — and well-answered — at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce first Executive Speaker Series event, 'ꀜAnatomy of a Pulitzer Prize'ꀝ on Tuesday (June 22) at The Westin. (The Washington News Council was a "promotional partner" for the luncheon, along with the Public Relations Society of America and The Times.)

Lori Matsukawa, longtime KING-5 TV anchor, moderated the all-Times panel: Executive Editor David Boardman, and Managing Editors Suki Dardarian and Kathy Best, who oversaw the coverage. When Matsukawa asked Boardman why they won the Pulitzer, he replied: "First of all, I want to say this belongs to all of you. We want the whole community to share in this prize."

Indeed, this was an unprecedented example of a newspaper networking with citizens in what some call the new news ecosystem. No newspaper has ever made such extensive use of the web to cover a breaking news story. That's why this Pulitzer was so richly deserved.

Dardarian noted that the shootings happened on the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, when only one reporter and one editor were in The Times' newsroom. "Within a few hours, the newsroom was full," she said. Before long, they were "on the front lines."

Boardman said The Times "got a four-to-five-hour jump on every other news organization" because reporter Jennifer Sullivan, working from her sickbed, identified Maurice Clemmons as the shooter through her sources. When The Times reported that, Dardarian said, she got a call from a police spokesman saying "we got it wrong 'ꀦ That got my adrenaline going." The Times checked again, and confirmed it was Clemmons. Later, the police confirmed on television that The Times was right, Dardarian said.

The Times created a 'ꀜ#washooting'ꀝ hashtag on Twitter and the digital flood began. They invited citizens to contribute tips, photos and videos, using Google Wave and other online sources.

They did "cutting-edge use of all these new tools," Boardman said, using their "quick-twitch muscles." Boardman, who had not used Twitter much before, tweeted for 15 straight hours.

"The Seattle Times jumped into digital news with both feet," Matsukawa said, noting that many bloggers and dot-commers were "shocked" that The Seattle Times could become so "digitally nimble" in such a short time.

Matsukawa asked Best how they kept track of "thousands of pieces of information." Best said they used Dipity to organize videos, photos and text online. "We did a lot of innovating on the run."

Dardarian said they checked tips and rumors constantly. When a new report came in, people in the newsroom would ask: "How do you know that? Are you sure of that? We've always had those conversations, but to have them every 15-20 seconds was new."

The whole staff worked long hours. "In the old days, when the paper went to bed, you went to bed too," said Dardarian. "In this case, there was no going to bed."

Matsukawa asked if the police ever asked The Times to pull back because they might be interfering with the manhunt for Clemmons. Only when a Times photographer who was on a balcony across the street from the house where Clemmons was thought to be hiding, Dardarian said. The Seattle Police Department asked The Times to 'ꀜslow down his tweets'ꀝ while he was covering the stakeout. (It later turned out that Clemmons had a Twitter account, but he wasn't logged on during the hunt, Boardman said.)

Matsukawa asked if 'ꀜcitizen journalists'ꀝ had helped or hurt the profession.

Boardman: 'ꀜThe whole notion of citizen journalists is something that we struggle with'ꀦ. Many people in the public expect a far greater degree of interactivity'ꀝ with the newspaper than ever before. But he still believes 'ꀜit is a profession,'ꀝ with basic standards, ethics and tools that need to be learned. He worries that some citizen journalists don'ꀙt have adequate training.

But Best noted: 'ꀜYes, but with Google Wave we were able to expand the scope of our coverage."

Dardarian added: 'ꀜFolks in the community were able to see holes in our coverage and correct it.

Boardman recounted how, after the manhunt ended and Clemmons was dead, The Times published a memorial page to the fallen officers. King County Sheriff Sue Rahr called him to thank The Times for its coverage, noting that 'ꀜthe community just embraced them, and wanted to wrap their arms around them."

Dardarian added: 'ꀜI was touched. This was a moment of bonding'ꀝ with the police.

Contrast that with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's negative and deeply flawed multi-part series on the King County Sheriff'ꀙs Office in 2006, which led to a complaint by Rahr to the Washington News Council. The P-I series was clearly an effort to win a Pulitzer or other journalism prizes, but it was inaccurate, sensationalized, and overblown. Rahr's complaint was largely upheld by the News Council after a three-hour public hearing on Oct. 21, 2006.

Boardman noted: The press's relationship with the police is always a very touchy and complicated relationship," but this was an opportunity to honor them."

The Times'ꀙ coverage helped honor the police, and the Pulitzer Prize justifiably honors The Times.

This article is adapted from a slightly different version on the Washington News Council blog.


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