St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact, Lane DeGregory win 2009 Pulitzer Prizes

Paul Tash, left, editor, chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times, applauds staff writer Lane DeGregory and Washington bureau chief Bill Adair, right, after they won Pulitzer Prizes. Only one other newspaper won more awards on Monday.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Paul Tash, left, editor, chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times, applauds staff writer Lane DeGregory and Washington bureau chief Bill Adair, right, after they won Pulitzer Prizes. Only one other newspaper won more awards on Monday.

For the first time in its 125-year history, the St. Petersburg Times has won two Pulitzer Prizes in a single year.

Staff writer Lane DeGregory, 42, captured the feature writing category for "The Girl in the Window," a moving account of a Plant City child whose mother kept her locked in a filthy room, and the adoptive family who worked to overcome her feral beginnings.

The Times staff won the national reporting prize for PolitiFact, a Web site, database and "Truth-O-Meter'' that tests the validity of political statements.

That award reflected the growing influence of online media in public affairs. PolitiFact was designed for the Web at politifact.com, though its content also appears regularly in the Times' print edition.

The two awards are "so representative of our organization as a team, of the skill we bring to work every day,'' Executive Editor Neil Brown told the newsroom staff Monday amid cheers and popping champagne corks.

Like newspapers all over the country, the Times is navigating tough economic times, Brown said, but "this is old-fashioned journalism, great reporting and great writing. Nothing has changed about that. This is what we do.''

The Pulitzers, awarded by Columbia University, are widely regarded as journalism's highest accolade. The only other newspaper to win more than one prize in this year's 14 categories was the New York Times, with five.

The St. Petersburg Times previously had won six Pulitzers, its most recent coming in 1998.

Though Columbia tries to keep results under wraps until one nationwide announcement, reporters and secrets don't mix well.

By lunchtime Monday, grins, hugs and excited whispers spread through the newsroom. A few minutes before the 3 p.m. announcement, staffers congregated around one computer to await the Associated Press bulletin together.

After congratulations died down, DeGregory told her colleagues she was working at the Virginian-Pilot 10 years ago, when she read "Angels & Demons," a Pulitzer-winning series by then-Times reporter Thomas French about the murders of an Ohio woman and her two daughters in Florida.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, there's a newspaper that publishes real stories like that?' ''

When she was hired at the Times in 2000, DeGregory said, "I thought it couldn't get any better than working at this place and working with these people. But today it got a little better.''

"The Girl in the Window" was published last August, with photos by Melissa Lyttle.

Danielle was 7 when neighbors spotted her face through a broken window of her home. Detectives found her in diapers, her skeletal body raw from bug bites.

She couldn't speak.

A Fort Myers family adopted her, and DeGregory chronicled their efforts to draw her from her silent shell.

Within a month of publication, more than 1 million people read the story online. Calls to authorities from Tampa Bay residents wanting to adopt foster children jumped 33 percent.

Times staff writer John Barry was a Pulitzer finalist in the feature category for "Winter's Tale," an account of a dolphin with a prosthetic tail and a disabled girl who befriended it.

PolitiFact was conceived by Washington bureau chief Bill Adair during the runup to the 2008 presidential election.

Adair, 47, felt frustrated in earlier campaigns by a lack of time and resources to fact-check political rhetoric.

"We had neglected this aspect of reporting too long,'' said Adair, a 20-year Times veteran. "With the Web, we had the tools to do reporting better and the tools to be able to publish in new ways.''

With the green light from Times' brass, Adair skipped traditional campaign coverage and worked full time on PolitiFact.

The PolitiFact team included editors Scott Montgomery and Amy Hollyfield, reporter and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan, reporters Robert Farley and Alexander Lane, news technologist Matthew Waite and designer Martin Frobisher.

The team combed through political ads, speeches and debates, and summarized the findings on a "Truth-O-Meter,'' which labeled statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False or Pants on Fire.

A searchable database kept the rulings accessible.

Soon other media outlets were quoting PolitiFact as an authority on public discourse, and Adair was appearing on CNN and National Public Radio.

About 95 percent of the Web site's hits come from outside the Tampa Bay area and 10 percent from outside the United States.

"This is such a terrible time for newspapers, and I think our winning today is a sign that the Web is not a death sentence for newspapers,'' Adair said. "We need to look at it as an opportunity.''

For the first time this year, the Pulitzer board invited entries in all categories from Web-only news operations. The Times won the only prize for content created for the Web.

Editor, chairman and CEO Paul Tash capped off Monday's newsroom toasts by recalling longtime owner Nelson Poynter, who willed the Times to a not-for-profit journalism institute so that public service, not profits, would drive the newspaper's corporate culture.

"Here's to a little guy, in a bow tie, who came from Indiana,'' Tash said. "He gave us the chance, and today our colleagues have vindicated his confidence.''

Pulitzer Prizes at the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent

1998: Thomas French, feature writing, for "Angels & Demons," his narrative portrait of an Ohio mother and two daughters slain on a Florida vacation, and the three-year inquiry into their murders.

1995: Jeffrey Good, editorial writing, for "Final Indignities," his editorial campaign urging reform of Florida's probate system for settling estates.

1991: Sheryl James, feature writing, for "A Gift Abandoned," a series about a mother who abandoned her newborn child and how it affected her life and the lives of others.

1985: Lucy Morgan and Jack Reed, investigative reporting, for their reporting on Pasco County Sheriff John Short, which revealed his department's troubles and led to his removal from office by voters.

1980: Bette Swenson Orsini and Charles Stafford, national reporting, for their investigation of the Church of Scientology.

1964: Times staff, public service, for the investigation of the Florida Turnpike Authority, which disclosed widespread illegal acts and resulted in a major reorganization of the state's road construction program.

St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact, Lane DeGregory win 2009 Pulitzer Prizes 04/20/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:11pm]

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