Wednesday, September 19, 2012

APME Nashville kicks off with all-star Pulitzer panel

~Written by Becca Andrews

In the first session of APME 2012, Pulitzer Prize winners told attendees to get creative in their reporting and in their newsrooms, and that the support of good editors is essential.

Michael Berens of The Seattle Times, Sue Snyder of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Katherine Lee of the Tuscaloosa News, Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News and Eileen Sullivan of The Associated Press spoke about their reporting processes in their recent Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, the frustrations they faced and the ever-changing pace of the industry.

These four journalists are hailed as leaders in their field, and said this has been a good year for journalism despite the uncertainty surrounding it.

Sara Ganim talks about her experiences while covering the Sandusky case.
~Photo by Matt Masters

“My friends and I would say this has been a great year,” Berens said. “There are maybe fewer people dedicated to it, but more papers dedicated to watchdog than ever before.”

Berens added that newspapers are looking for unique content, and watchdog journalism is a good way to ensure they get it.

The necessity of multimedia content also found its way into the conversation.

“[The tornado story] had to be told in video,” Lee said.

Synder and her editor referred to security videos for the school violence trend story as “the holy grail,” and the video brought the Inquirer’s website national attention.

Ganim advised that multimedia for the sake of multimedia is not a good thing.

“It’s great, but you have to know when to use it,” Gamin said, after she emphasized the importance of convergence and multimedia.

The group made it clear that a lot of time and energy were spent on their projects, their work cannot be measured by a time card.

In Lee’s newsroom at the Tuscaloosa News, she and her staff were literally living out of the newsroom to cover the devastation caused by the tornadoes. Photographers and videographers risked their lives during the tornado to capture it on film.

Ganim said she used to sleep with a police scanner next to her bed, and was “obsessed” with her beat, particularly when she began at the Centre Daily Times just out of college.

Sullivan’s work had her “drawing circles” in an attempt to find sources who would go on the record about the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism program.

Snyder was a beat reporter thrown onto an investigative team because of her expertise in her area.

Possibly the most tangible reward for their work is the positive reader response, the panel said.

Lee said one morning she received a phone call from  a woman who told her, “My house isn’t here, but my paper is.”

The work done via Twitter by The Tuscaloosa News was also followed closely by locals trying to pick up the pieces, and their Google Doc they put together as a community bulletin board helped readers find loved ones. The National Guard also used staff tweets during the state of emergency.

Berens saw social change come about from his work when the state of Washington reversed its position of the drug Methadone from a first-choice painkiller to a last resort. He also heard how the piece affected the lives of the victims’ families– particularly the  mother of victim Angeline Burrell– who came and spoke at The Seattle Times’ Pulitzer celebration.

“That’s the meaning of what we do,” he said.

Ganim’s coverage of the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State saw healing in the lives of victims of sexual assault, even from those not directly connected with the story.

The newsrooms recognized by the Pulitzer Prize generally experienced a raise in spirits that had been exhausted by the long hours, little pay and cuts that have come with the recent state of the economy.

“We really needed the lift,” Snyder said. “There’s still a lot of challenges, but I’m still hopeful.”

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