Ali DeFazio and Deidre Foley
A one-year-old newspaper, the East Bay Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting. The publication — a recent consolidation of four Bay Area news outlets, including the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times — won the coveted award for their work covering the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that left 36 dead. The warehouse fire was the deadliest fire in California since the fire caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
“We didn’t get a medal. [The prize for public service journalism] is the only one that gets a medal,” said Neil Chase, the executive editor of the Bay Area News Group, the media organization that owns the East Bay Times. Chase was one of four panelists at the event. “Everyone else gets a certificate very much like what was in those green folders,” he said.
In those green folders, handed out early in the event by journalism professor J. Michael Robertson, were certificates honoring the eight students graduating this May and December with minors in journalism. Robertson organized the event. He invited the Pulitzer Prize-winning news team to show students what he called “the inspirational part of journalism…Where a big story happens and you get on it, and you can feel good that maybe some good comes out of it.”
Because of their proximity — both emotional and geographic — to the Ghost Ship tragedy, the East Bay Times team was able to break stories faster than out-of-town outlets, and tell fuller stories of the Ghost Ship victims.
Part of the East Bay Times’ coverage of the Ghost Ship tragedy — and an aspect of their coverage that set them apart from other Pulitzer entries — were the 36 individual profiles composed about each victim of the fire. They composed the profiles following an industry precedent established by the New York Times’ obituaries for each victim of the 9/11 attacks.
Marisa Kendall was part of a team of reporters tasked with investigating the victims to create the profiles. Normally a tech reporter, Kendall mined the victims’ social media accounts and spoke to countless relatives and friends to gather information, a job that fellow panelist Thomas Peele called “the hardest job of anybody’s.”
“It’s emotionally draining,” said Kendall, “and sometimes you feel a little bit like a pariah, trying to push these people, because you want something out of them. It can’t be avoided, but they’ve been through this horrible thing.”
Matthias Gafni, an investigative reporter with the East Bay Times, told the crowded room how the team came to learn about the fire that took place in the early morning of Dec. 3. Veteran reporter Harry Harris, who has been reporting in the Bay Area for 52 years, alerted the East Bay Times. “You talk about anything that happens overnight in Oakland, one of [Harris’] sources is going to call him to let him know,” said Chase. “So as far as we know, he was the first person to find out about it and break the story.”
The East Bay Times’ chronological recount of the night of the Ghost Ship fire, “The Last Hours of Oakland’s Ghost Ship Warehouse,” gave a detailed description of what happened that night. National media outlets, from the New York Times to Buzzfeed, did the same. However, the East Bay Times went a step further than any other media organization at the time: they described the relationships of all the victims — how they knew each other and how they ended up at Ghost Ship that fateful night.
Gafni described how difficult it was to find an ending for this story that, in his own words, wasn’t “trite.” They found it when he and another reporter, Julia Prodis Sulek, read an account from a reporter who talked to the mother of a victim, a student at SF State University.
“And I’m sitting next to Julia reading this email, and I just look at her suddenly…she’s just bawling. And she’s got tears going down her cheeks and she’s just thinking of her own kids. We’ve been working for days all locked up and all of the sudden it just came out. I look at her and I’m like, ‘Hey, I think we have our ending here.’”
The tragic nature of the fire forced the reporters to cope with a cavalcade of different emotions throughout their coverage.“The human-side element, when it’s that raw, is a balancing act,” Gafni said. “It’s all about gaining the trust to have someone share what is the worst moment of their entire life with you, a total stranger.”
Peele, the investigative reporter who has covered much of the fallout from the fire, mentioned using anger to fuel his pursuit of the truth. “If you look closely at stuff, and you work on this kind of thing, you start to get a little pissed off. You’re motivated by an anger. [Ire] is an ingredient sometimes.”
The East Bay Times team made a difference in the city of Oakland, specifically in pointing out the shortcomings of city officials that could have prevented the Ghost Ship fire from happening in the first place. The panel discussed fatal oversights, like inspectors coming to inspect Ghost Ship, only to leave after they couldn’t get in. Firefighters were marking “referral” on paperwork for failed inspections only for the East Bay Times to discover “referral” had no meaning; the fire department took no further action on entries marked as “referral.”
Gafni told an anecdote about a poorly attended Oakland hills’ fire prevention committee meeting, where he was surprised to see Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed. He was even more surprised when the chief started to threaten a defamation lawsuit against a concerned citizen who read a letter criticizing the chief and the fire department during the public meeting.
Gafni says, “So I grab my phone and I’m like ‘record’ and sat it on my lap for the rest of the meeting. She walks up to me and introduces herself and says ‘You’re with the East Bay Times, right?’” said Gafni. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, we spoke just this last week, do you remember?’ and she’s like, ‘Oh yeah yeah yeah. Boy, you’ve been doing great reporting.’” Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed took went on an unannounced sick leave shortly after the paper published the recording online, and has since announced her retirement from the department.
Gafni developed a love for journalism after working at a Vallejo newspaper right out of college. “I still get a rush out of being a journalist. Especially, I’m an investigative reporter, and that’s a thrill for me. And there’s not many jobs where you get that,” he said.
He advised the graduating journalists to begin in a small newsroom where they’ll be doing all aspects of work. The journalism minors — including some Foghorn staffers — honored at the event were graduating seniors David Garcia, Brian Healy-Garcia, Matthew Hughes, Gabriela Mahady, Tabitha Reyes, Brianna Sanchez, Katie Ward and Shannon Weinreich.
“There’s a phrase I like,” Peele started, explaining the importance of the field. “‘Going into journalism would be the single worst possible career choice you could make. Except for every other career choice.’ I mean don’t kid yourself, this is hard. But occasionally you get to do really great things.”
Headline photo by Miles Herman/ Foghorn