Santa Rosa Press Democrat Wins Pulitzer for Fire Coverage

Press Democrat Executive Editor Cathy Barnett embraces reporter Martin Espinoza after the paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Northern California wildfires. Photo by Kent Porter 2018.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat has been awarded journalism’s highest honor, a Pulitzer Prize for the staff’s courageous and comprehensive coverage of devastating October firestorms.

The North Bay newspaper’s Pulitzer – in the Breaking News category – continues an impressive run of journalism for newsrooms covered by the Pacific Media Workers Guild. The East Bay Times won a Pulitzer in 2016 for breaking news coverage of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland.

“We are so proud of the work these newsrooms are producing,” said Derek Moore, president of Local 39521. “If anyone doubts the importance of local journalism, please read the work the Press Democrat staff produced during the firestorms for a community in desperate need of timely and factual news. The work journalists do really does matter.”

The Pulitzer Committee lauded the Press Democrat for its “lucid and tenacious” coverage of the historic blazes, which killed 40 people — the highest death toll of any wildfire disaster in California history – and destroyed 6,190 homes in the region.

As the disaster began unfolding the night of Oct. 9, many PD staff members left their homes and families and raced to the paper’s downtown Santa Rosa headquarters to clock in. Others, including photographer Kent Porter, headed straight into the inferno.

“My first instinct was to call the newsroom and tell them that this fire was going to go all the way to Santa Rosa,” Porter recalled for the Press Democrat. “My second instinct was, don’t get killed covering this fire.”

Porter recounted his harrowing drive through narrow canyons ringed by flames, the smoke so thick he drove his Honda Civic on the yellow pavement markers in the middle of the road to keep him from going off the shoulder.

Reporter Martin Espinoza described meeting up with Porter and documenting the scene on Facebook Live. Espinoza told the Press Democrat he kept trying to convince himself that people escaped from the homes burning all around him.

“What I saw was like a bomb dropped on a city, and you didn’t want to believe anybody had gotten caught up in that,” Espinoza said.

The Pulitzer Committee said the paper’s staff made expert use of photography, video and social media to bring clarity to readers in real-time and in subsequent in-depth reporting.

Steve Falk, chief executive officer of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Press Democrat, stated in an email the paper’s Pulitzer is a “proud day for local journalism.”

The prestigious award comes nearly six years after SMI purchased the Press Democrat and affiliated papers in November 2012 from Florida-based Halifax Media.

SMI includes some of the most well-known figures in the Sonoma community, including Jeannie Schulz, wife of the late Charles M. Schulz, whose Peanuts comic strip empire was built on newspapers, and Norma Person, whose late husband Evert Person sold the PD to the New York Times in 1985.

The Media Workers Guild encouraged and supported the acquisition. Union PD staff voted unanimously to freeze their pensions, accept a 5 percent wage cut and take a fifth week of vacation away from the most senior newsroom employees, among other concessions, to help finance the deal.

In an interview Monday with the Press Democrat, Falk said the Pulitzer validated SMI’s business model of local ownership investing in local journalism.

“We aren’t reporting to corporate types. We aren’t reporting to Wall Street. We are reporting to readers,” Falk said.

The Media Workers Guild will continue fighting for quality journalism and for decent pay and other benefits for the hard-working men and women who produce it.

Congratulations all-around to the PD for a job well done.

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Pacific Media Workers Guild

We are the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. We represent more than 1,200 journalists and other media workers, interpreters, translators, union staffs and freelancers.