NEW YORK — Sometimes the story behind the prize is almost as compelling as the award-winning news itself. Some details on a few of this year's Pulitzer Prize winners.
THE CUB REPORTER
Sara Ganim is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. She's just 24 years old.
She was not long out of college when, as a crime reporter for the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., she began digging into rumors of child sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky, a well-known former Penn State University assistant football coach. She kept at it when she left that paper to join The Patriot-News of Harrisburg in January 2011.
There, besides her coverage of crime and other events, she chipped away at the Sandusky story, lining up critical details and key sourcing that let her publish the first story in March 2011 that Sandusky was being investigated by a grand jury.
As the story grew in importance and size, she said, two moments stuck out for her.
The first came as she learned about allegations that Sandusky had raped a boy in a team shower. The second was in the wake of the grand jury's report, when longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno was fired.
She and the paper's editors hadn't anticipated such fallout.
"We really were so focused on following the facts, and not thinking about what the consequences might be, which I think is actually a good thing because we weren't distracted and we were able to see the whole picture," she said.
Its best-known staffer is a sex columnist with a new show on MTV. It's famous for irreverent, often caustic coverage of Seattle's entertainment and political scene. Now the alternative weekly The Stranger has another distinction – a Pulitzer Prize.
Eli Sanders of The Stranger received one of journalism's highest honors Monday, winning the feature writing award for his harrowing account of a woman who survived a brutal rape. Her partner was killed, and the surviving woman testified about her ordeal in court.
"I was stunned at first," Sanders said.
The Stranger jokingly bills itself as "Seattle's only newspaper," and staffers, led by sex columnist Dan Savage, go out of their way to poke fun at just about everything. But Sanders said it was "cool that a scrappy little alt-weekly in Seattle can produce something that resonates on this level."
Sanders won for coverage of the murder trial of a man accused of raping and stabbing a lesbian couple in their Seattle home in 2009, killing one of them.
"It's a great, great privilege to work at a paper that will allow someone to hang on to a crime story for so long," Sanders said. "(It) was a credit to how much time The Stranger was willing to give."
For reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer, which has been racked with uncertainty in recent weeks amid layoffs and new ownership, the timing of its Pulitzer Prize for public service was not bad.
"It couldn't have come at a better time, and I think we're all hoping that it starts a new era for this newspaper and this whole media company," said Rose Ciotta, project editor for the "Assault on Learning" series.
The project showed how school violence went underreported and shed light on the school system's lackluster response to the problem. In response to the newspaper's reporting, the school system established a new way of reporting serious incidents.
In the past few months, more than three dozen staffers at the Inquirer have been laid off, and a group of local businessmen purchased The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and the website Philly.com from hedge funds for about $55 million – a fraction of what investors paid for them in 2006.
John Sullivan, who was on the project team but has since left the paper for Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, was in the newsroom to celebrate with his former colleagues.
"This just gives us so much joy ... because we've seen what you guys have gone through the past 10 years, all that we've endured and seeing our friends walk out of the building," he told the newsroom, yet "everybody here just continues to do great journalism."
A LITTLE RESPECT
With a Pulitzer Prize in the hands of one of its reporters, the popular yet sometimes-derided Huffington Post is getting some respect.
David Wood's 10-part series on the struggles of wounded American soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, "Beyond the Battlefield," won the Pulitzer for national reporting. It's a first for a reporter from the AOL-owned Internet news site.
Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, said she believes the award changes the perception of the Huffington Post as an aggregator that draws eyeballs by recycling other outlets' journalism.
"It definitely does," Huffington said. "Always in life, the narrative lags behind the reality."
Huffington said Wood's reporting exhibited the site's commitment to original reporting and in-depth storytelling, while noting the site will remain "a platform" for distribution and aggregation.
Online news organizations were made eligible to receive Pulitzers in 2009.
But the Pulitzer breakthrough for the Huffington Post came, ironically or not, from old-fashioned reporting.
"The kind of reporting that I did varies not at all from the kind of reporting that I was doing 10 or 20 or even 30 years ago," said Wood, a veteran correspondent of Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and others. "Except I'm better at it now."
BEATING MOTHER NATURE
Social media skills allowed staffers at the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News to report the first word on a deadly tornado that stopped its presses.
The coverage, which included real-time updates on Twitter, earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.
City Editor Katherine Lee recalled that the April 2011 tornado hit just after the staff had a session on how to use social media for news coverage. Staffers hit the streets within moments after the storm passed, sending in updates about the twister, which was blamed for more than 50 deaths.
The newspaper also used its website as a bulletin board where people could post updates about their whereabouts or seek information about others.
The storm knocked out power to the newspaper, forcing it to publish at a plant 50 miles away.
One reporter, Jamon Smith, rushed to his neighborhood to find his apartment gone.
Despite losing everything except his car, cellphone and the clothes he was wearing when the twister hit, Smith worked nonstop through the night and next day. Everybody else kept going too, he said.
"We felt like it was something we had a duty to do, to let the world know what had happened here," said Smith, who now lives in a different part of the city.