Journalism instructor wins Pulitzer Prize

April 27, 2018
Joanne Derbort

When SF State journalism lecturer Joanne Derbort found out on April 16 that she and her news team at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for coverage of the Sonoma County fires, she was overwhelmed with joy.
“I was so incredibly happy for my former newsroom team that all our hard work was recognized and rewarded,” Derbort said.
But that joy was quickly dampened by the sad reminder that the award-winning coverage had documented one of the worst tragedies to befall her community.
On Oct. 9, 2017, a firestorm began raging throughout the region, and over the next three weeks, destroyed 6,190 homes, killed 40 people and forced tens of thousands to abandon their homes to the fire in order to save their own lives. It was the most destructive fire ever in California.
“So very many people lost so much and are still hurting,” Derbort said.
It all started well before dawn as the Tubbs fire, propelled by gusting winds and dry land, swept across the hills of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties and into Santa Rosa city limits.
The Press Democrat’s team of reporters, photographers and editors quickly went to work providing the community with some clarity in all the chaos.
For three weeks, their unrelenting coverage delivered critical news to the region’s residents through its website, live video feeds, social media channels and cellphone push alerts — even when the chaos entered the newsroom.
“For the first few days… colleagues would bring their exhausted, evacuated families into the newsroom; spouses would nap on the armchairs and couches, kids and dogs would be running up and down the aisles of the newsroom,” Derbort said.
Reporters and photographers on the front lines “risked a lot” to get stories, often at great personal expense, she said. They drove through downtown Santa Rosa with headlights on to better see through the thick smoke and ash raining down. And everyone had respirator-rated masks that they never took off when outside.
Reporters livestreamed video footage in gusting winds, surrounded by flaming structures and grassland, often only a few meters from their feet. One video segment ended with an unseen man warning others that he’d spotted a gas line and they all needed to “get out of here.”
Meanwhile, everyone in the newsroom faced the reality that their homes could be evacuated at a moment’s notice, Derbort said.
“The fires were so massive and their direction so unpredictable,” she said.
Through it all, Derbort worked with a small team of three other editors directing, assigning, and conceptualizing the coverage, and editing it as it came in.
“There were so very many moving parts to the story, and it changed so quickly,” she said. “We were updating our website constantly as well as putting out a daily paper.”
Everyone worked 16 hours a day and never took a break, Derbort said. And they would probably have gone without eating too, if not for the thoughtfulness of other newsrooms throughout the U.S. that had covered huge disasters themselves.
“They sent us food,” she said. “It was an amazing feeling of being taken care of by peers who knew firsthand what it feels like to be covering an ongoing disaster… That went on for weeks.”
The Pulitzer Prize Board rewarded the news team’s heroic efforts by naming the Press Democrat winner of the breaking news prize for its “lucid and tenacious coverage of historic wildfires that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, expertly utilizing an array of tools, including photography, video and social media platforms, to bring clarity to its readers — in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting.”
The Press Democrat beat out the other two finalists: The Houston Chronicle for its Aug. 2017, coverage of Hurricane Harvey devastation, and The New York Times for its Oct. 2017, coverage of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas.
Derbort found out her team had won while she was at SF State University, working with students on the coming [X]press Magazine, a student publication. This allowed a few lucky students to celebrate along with her.
The prize is not only profoundly meaningful for Derbort and her team, but acting chair Venise Wagner believes it also hits on three key takeaways for students.
First, it models excellence for the students, she said. Second, it reminds students that journalism serves an important purpose. And third, it’s aspirational.
“If you know somebody who’s accomplished something really cool like this, it puts it in your mind, ‘Well maybe I can do that, too,’” Wagner said.