TUSCALOOSA, Ala. —
(AP) — The Tuscaloosa News won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting for its coverage of a deadly tornado last April that knocked out power to the newspaper for more than two days and sparked creative ways of getting news to the devastated community.
The Pulitzer judges announced the selection Monday afternoon.
Doug Ray, the newspaper's former executive editor, said the newspaper had enough generator power to operate its computers, but not its presses. Staff members used social media, particularly Twitter, to release real-time updates that brought sense to the destruction and let people know the status of their neighbors.
Ray said 5,000 people were unaccounted for or missing immediately after the tornado hit on April 27, 2011. The newspaper used Google Documents to let people post information about their whereabouts or about people they were seeking, he said. The lists were published in the newspaper and distributed where survivors gathered.
"It's the first time I've seen disaster coverage rely so much on social media," he said.
City Editor Katherine Lee recalled that the tornado hit just after the staff had a session on how to use social media for news coverage. Staffers were on the streets within moments after the storm passed sending in updates about the twister, which flattened more than 10 percent of the city's structures and was blamed for more than 50 deaths.
"I think we won because the tornado hit where we live, and we all felt a responsibility to do this well, to tell our story well — about how people came together to help total strangers," Lee said.
Staff members were dealing with "incredibly difficult experiences," similar to what the people they were covering were going through, Ray said. Several employees' homes sustained damage and one reporter, Jamon Smith, rushed to his neighborhood to find his apartment gone.
Back at his desk after a Pulitzer celebration that included drinking champagne from foam cups in the newsroom, Smith described crossing downed trees and walking past bodies covered with sheets to cover the devastation in his own neighborhood.
Despite losing everything except his car, cell phone 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.
The Birmingham News, 50 miles away, printed The Tuscaloosa News for two days until power was restored.
"This is one of the times when you know what brought you into this business," said Ray, now executive editor of The Gainesville Sun and the Star-Banner in Ocala, Fla.
The Pulitzer Prize is the second for the Tuscaloosa newspaper. In 1957, the News received the Pulitzer for editorial writing by Buford Boone.
The Tuscaloosa News was part of the New York Times Regional Newspapers when the tornado hit. It now is owned by Halifax Media Group.
The Pulitzer includes $10,000 in prize money. Lee said the paper, which has a newsroom staff of about 35, has donated money from past awards to relief efforts and could do the same with the Pulitzer award.