Tampa Bay Times wins Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing; the ninth award in newspaper's history
It was an emotional scene this afternoon as past and present staffers at the Tampa Bay Times and Poynter Institute gathered in the paper's newsroom to honor three of their own who had been honored by journalism's most prestigious awards contest.
Staffers broke into cheers as a tinny voice annonced the news over a webcast hasily dialed up on one of the newsroom's large TV monitors: The Tampa Bay Times had won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for a series of editorials that encouraged Pinellas County to resume adding fluoride to the drinking water.
In all, the Times was recognized three times by the Pulitzer board: Tampa Bay Times editor of editorials Tim Nickens and columnist Dan Ruth won the award for a series of 10 editorials,while writers Alex Zayas and Kelly Benham were also named finalists for awards in investigative reporting and features writing, respectively.
The honors marked the ninth Pulitzer win in the newspaper’s history and the first since its name change from the St. Petersburg Times in January 2012. "The name is different but what has stayed the same is the power of a principled, committed newspaper to make a real mark in its communities," said Times chairman Paul Tash.
Nickens, 54, and Ruth, 63, challenged a 2011 vote by Pinellas County Commissioners to remove fluoride from the county’s drinking water, long considered the most effective method to prevent tooth decay. After the pair’s pointed editorials, voters ousted two of the commissioners who supported removing the fluoride, replacing them with candidates who pledged to add it back; after a 6-1 vote, the county began adding the substance again in March.
Both Tash and Tampa Bay Times editor Neil Brown stressed how every entry honored by the Pulitzer committee brought positive change through its publication, from the the reversal of the fluoride decision to investigations into unlicensed religious children's homes sparked by Zayas series "In God's Name" and the attention paid to the struggles of prematurely-born children revealed by Benham's series "Never Let Go."
Nickens, a Times employee since 1983, was finalist for the award last year along with several other editorial board members (the committee declined to name an award in that category back then). He credited Tash with pushing the board to keep pressing the fluoride issue. "It was Paul's initial outrage that said we had to get on this fluoride and get this back in the water for the people of Pinellas County," Nickens added. "When we would finally write something about it last year...he would say 'That's great. Now what's next?'...It's old style motivation."
Ruth, who worked as a high-profile columnist at rival Tampa Tribune for years before he was laid off, crediting Tash and Brown for allowing him to stay in newspaper journalism by hiring him. "I look at the talent in this room...I feel so unworthy," said Ruth, choking up a bit while acknowledging the support of his wife. "But I'll take it."
"There are three things that run through all of this work,” said Brown as the awards were announced. “the tremendous talent of the journalists, the support of a great institution even in tight times, and the core belief on the part of everyone at the Times that journalism matters today as much as ever."
Click here to see the Tampa Bay Times special coverage page for the Pulitzer announcement.