Reporter Julie Johnson and local news editor Brett Wilkison, members of the Pulitzer Prize-winning staff of The Press Democrat newspaper, in Santa Rosa, California, on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Members of the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Press Democrat scoop journalism’s top prize for breaking news.

Five UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alums were among those honored with Pulitzer Prizes this year, when The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, Calif., earned journalism’s top prize for breaking news.

Kathleen Lund Coates (’78), Robert Digitale (’79), Julie Johnson (’09), Diane Peterson (’82) and Brett Wilkison (’08) were among the team that covered last year’s Wine Country wildfires, which devastated the North Bay region.

The Pulitzer Committee recognized the small newsroom for its “lucid and tenacious coverage” of the wildfires, reporting that brought “clarity to its readers—in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting.”

Speaking a few days after their win, Wilkison said the prize was a reflection of what the community, and the newsroom, had gone through. When the fires struck late Sunday night on Oct. 8, 2017, Wilkison was preparing to fly out on vacation. Instead, he headed to the office before dawn the next morning.

Among his colleagues already at work was Johnson. The pair had been on the J-School’s narrative writing track together; Johnson had recruited Wilkison to The Press Democrat. That night, “the smell of smoke and the sounds of exploding propane tanks woke me up,” Johnson recalled. She had arrived at the newsroom at 3 a.m., and had been fielding calls with firefighters through the night.

The following days were a blur of 20+ hour shifts for the newsroom’s staff of 50. Sonoma County took the brunt of the fires, which ultimately killed 40 people, destroyed nearly 6,200 homes, and caused $10 billion in damage. “You couldn’t help but want to work as hard as we did,” Wilkison said.

Both alums describe the coverage as an extraordinary team effort. While Wilkison, the paper’s local editor, and Johnson, a staff reporter, worked the phones in the newsroom, Digitale was on the ground in Coffey Park—a residential neighborhood severely damaged in the fires.

Meanwhile, Peterson helped lead the newspaper’s features coverage, and Coates and her team copy-edited each story before it went to print. Ariana Reguzzoni (’05) also contributed to The Press Democrat’s coverage as a freelance video reporter.

Fortunately, none of The Press Democrat newsroom staff were directly impacted by the devastation. However, staff in other parts of the company did lose their homes. Wilkison said it was the paper’s connection to the community, and reporters’ local knowledge, that elevated their coverage above other outlets’. “The difference is that we stayed, and that we were a part of this in a way that nobody else was,” he said. The fires burned from early October through to Halloween; reflecting their community’s need for information, The Press Democrat kept the story on A1 until December.

On the day of the Pulitzer ceremony, it was unclear whether the newsroom would gather to watch the announcements. It was Wilkison’s day off, and Johnson was at home finishing her taxes. In the end, though, they ran to the office to be together when the news came through.

“All of a sudden we’re standing together,” Johnson said. “We were arm in arm, holding on to each other. We were really not anticipating getting it.”

When The Press Democrat was announced as the winner, the newsroom exploded with a roar. “People were crying, and very joyful,” Johnson said. But underneath the elation there was a second, more complex sentiment: “I was so thrilled and excited, and then I just started bawling because of what happened here.”

“None of that is lost on us,” she continued. “We take this award as recognition of what this county went through in October.”

“We all wake up every day wishing this had never happened,” Wilkison added.

Nonetheless, the team is proud of what their small newsroom was able to achieve during the disaster. “There’s no more important time in our time in country for local news,” Johnson said. While many students at the J-School may be dreaming of working for well-known organizations pursuing national stories, The Press Democrat’s Pulitzer win shows the extraordinary work that can be done through local reporting, using the fundamental skills taught in the master’s program. “I feel like we were both given so many of the tools that we needed in this trade through our time with the excellent professors and staff and classmates there,” Wilkison said.

Long after graduation, the alums still remember being put through their paces by J-School instructors Cynthia Gorney and Katherine Corcoran. Last Monday, just moments after the Pulitzer announcement, Wilkinson said former classmates began to send congratulations. It was clear the J-School community had been watching and, he said, “it was fantastic to make them proud.”

Rosa Furneaux (’18)