A Day to Celebrate in the Newsroom

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 23, 2006

All work stopped at the magic hour of 3 p.m. Monday in The Post newsroom. Every year on an April Monday at 3 p.m. EST, the Associated Press announces, in bulletins, the winners of the holy grail of American journalism, the Pulitzer Prizes.

The morning had begun with the buzz of Pulitzers in the air; everyone knew what was about to happen. Hundreds of staffers came before they were called to the 5th-floor newsroom as Executive Editor Len Downie sat at a computer terminal to read the official word. Cheers went up as The Post won a record four Pulitzers.

At other papers, winners and editors often stand on desks amid spewing champagne. Not at The Post. The ceremony was dignified and Downie formal: "It is one of the great days in the history of this great newspaper."

Speeches and thank-yous lasted an hour and a half. The winners' spouses and children were there, along with Post Co. Chairman Don Graham and Publisher Bo Jones. "No paper has a better publisher or owner," said Downie. Editor emeritus Ben Bradlee was front and center. Still and video photographers recorded it for posterity. Sort of like a downscale Oscars ceremony for ink-stained wretches.

Why are the Pulitzers so important to journalists? It's because the winners have been judged by juries of their peers to have done exemplary work, the best in the country. (Graham is a member of the Pulitzer Prize board but does not vote on prizes involving The Post.)

On Monday, the winners were all shy and a little embarrassed, carrying scraps of paper to remember what they wanted to say, thanking their families, editors and, many times, staff members of The Post's News Research department.

The winners are all veterans of the journalistic trenches:

· Dana Priest, who covers intelligence and the CIA, won for beat reporting; her most important story revealed that the United States had secret "black site" prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists. Priest, from California, started as a Post summer intern. Downie said: "She is a relentless and well-respected reporter who roams Washington and the world working her beat in the same way in which those she covers work -- painstakingly piecing together information from a wide range of sources. There are times when she comes to know more about what she is reporting than some senior officials of the agencies she covers." She said: "The stakes [for journalism] could not be higher and the obstacles just keep growing."

· David Finkel, a national reporter, won in the explanatory division for a series documenting the failure of a democracy-building project in Yemen. Finkel, a winner after being a finalist six times, has been at The Post for 16 years. Managing Editor Phil Bennett said he's wanted to tell journalists who aspire to write like Finkel: "How much are you willing to suffer? He goes deeper, stays longer, looks harder, cares more, and sweats every single last bloody word." Here's how Finkel put it: "Be a witness and tell the truth."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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