The Tampa Bay Times on Monday won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for editorials that encouraged Pinellas County to resume adding fluoride to the drinking water.
Times editor of editorials Tim Nickens and columnist Daniel Ruth won the award for a series of 10 editorials, earning the newspaper its ninth Pulitzer Prize.
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 2012 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.
Writers Alexandra Zayas and Kelley Benham also were Pulitzer finalists for awards in investigative reporting and feature writing, respectively.
Times staffers and officials from the Poynter Institute, the school for journalists that owns the Tampa Bay Times, gathered in the newsroom Monday afternoon to hear the results delivered in an online webcast. As former Times editor and chairman Andy Barnes looked on, Nickens' and Ruth's names were announced to thunderous applause.
"Today, we celebrate journalism that makes a difference and we celebrate the Tampa Bay Times," said editor Neil Brown, standing on a chair in the newsroom facing the crowd of applauding staffers. "We are true believers in the editorial mission, and that's why we all got into the business in the first place."
The award is the first Pulitzer won by the newspaper since changing its name from the St. Petersburg Times in January 2012. The last wins for the newspaper came in 2009 when Lane DeGregory won for feature writing and the fact-checking site PolitiFact won for national reporting.
Nickens, who was a Pulitzer finalist for editorial writing last year along with three other members of the editorial board, credited the Times reputation in the community for giving their editorials added credibility and impact.
"I came here first in 1983 and I'm still proud to work here every day," he added, also thanking Tampa Bay Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash for urging the editorial board to continue pressing the fluoride issue. "It was Paul's initial outrage that said we had to get on this fluoride, and get it back in the water for the people of Pinellas County."
Ruth, a widely read columnist who joined the Times after being laid off by the Tampa Tribune, credited Tash and Brown for allowing him to continue working in the industry.
"If someone would have told me at my age … after 40 years in this business that I would ever have my name associated with something like this, I would have said, 'You're crazy,' " he added, choking up a little. "I look at the talent in this room and I feel so unworthy … but I'll take it."
Zayas was a finalist in investigative reporting for her series "In God's Name," examining years of abuse at unlicensed religious children's homes operating with little oversight and, sometimes, with no credentials at all.
Benham was a finalist in feature writing for "Never Let Go," a three-part series about the survival of her premature baby, born barely viable at 1 pound, 4 ounces, and her exploration of the costs and ethics of extreme medical intervention. Her daughter, Juniper, turned 2 on Friday and is in good health.
The Sun Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale won the Pulitzer for public service for its reporting on off-duty police officers' reckless driving.
The Pulitzer Prizes, journalism's highest honor, are given out each year by Columbia University on the recommendation of a board of journalists and others. Each award carries a $10,000 prize, except for the public service award, which is a gold medal.
"There are three things that run through all of this (Times) work," Brown said. "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."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.