The aftermath of the 1999 Columbine and 2012 Aurora mass shootings defined dichotomy for many Pulitzer Prize-winning Denver Post staffers.
Their work, though recognized with the most prestigious award in journalism, came at a cost, said Kevin Simpson, a writer who worked on both staffs.
“You’re proud of the way you performed as a news gathering organization and (at the same time) you’re just unbelievably sorrowful of the idea that this even happened at all,” said Simpson, a veteran journalist who has been at the Post for 31 years.
“I remember for the Columbine one, we had I guess what you’d call a celebration, but it was so muted, and again, it really reflected that dichotomy. We were all proud of the work we’d done and we were horrified by the circumstances that made it necessary.”
It’s those types of insights, along with an examination of industry changes in the years between shootings, that Simpson and other Post panelists will share with the public May 13 at the newspaper. The event kicks off a series running throughout the year around the state.
The Pulitzer Project is a joint effort — partners include the Post, Colorado Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and Colorado Springs Gazette — to bring Pulitzer winners to Colorado communities for showcases on the state’s excellence in journalism. Details about the series, including confirmed speakers, are being finalized. Additional dates are June 16 in Colorado Springs, Sept. 15 in Fort Collins, and late September in Grand Junction.
The series commemorates this year as the Pulitzer’s centennial, a milestone that “offers a unique opportunity to focus worldwide attention on the best of American journalism,” Pulitzer administrators reported. “It is an opportunity not only to celebrate the Prizes’ history, but also to spark a national conversation about how we, collectively, can strengthen the values represented by the Prizes as we move into a new era.”
Jerry Raehal, CPA chief executive officer, said there are a few core messages he hopes the public takes home from the Pulitzer series.
“Hopefully it shines through that journalism still matters, that what newspapers are doing has a significant impact on the community, a far-reaching impact,” Raehal said. “And that newspapers continue to be the living history of our society, and they are the ones that dedicate their resources and people to these longer enterprise stories.”
The primary theme for the May 13 Post panel will be changes in reporting and the newspaper industry in the 13 years between the mass shootings at Columbine High School and Century 16 movie theater in Aurora.
The differences, Simpson said, include the migration of news from print to digital, social media’s influence, and the reduction, in some cases dramatically, in newsroom staffing.
For the Post, there was also a shift in competition. The rival Rocky Mountain News, which won its own Pulitzer for Columbine in breaking news photography, was shuttered in 2009.
“In 1999, we were a daily paper competing against another daily paper, by and large, and to some extent, local and national TV,” he said. “Now, you’re competing against everybody — everybody with a website is your competitor, so in a way, the competition has not diminished.”
In 2006, seven years post-Columbine, the Post had 310 newsroom staffers. Today, the number is 135, making the newspaper “a shadow of our former selves in terms of just raw numbers,” Simpson said.
As most newspaper editors and executives can attest, staff reductions require “harder and harder choices,” he said. The Post, he added, didn’t hesitate in allocating resources necessary to thoroughly cover Columbine and Aurora, major events felt deeply in Denver and throughout Colorado.
“It’s a never-ending puzzle you have to solve of how much do we devote to this story and what do we have left to cover everything else,” Simpson said. “You make the best choices you can. Certainly, for a story of the scope of Columbine and Aurora, I don’t think there was any doubt that we would throw whatever resources we felt necessary to cover those. They were the stories of the day.”
Raehal said industry changes — the print to digital transition, and diminishing resources, specifically — that will be discussed May 13 at the Post can help provide a blueprint, of sorts, that other newspapers can emulate.
“As journalists, we can choose to look (and lament) at our resources … or we can embrace it and say, ‘Look at how many great ways we can tell a story now and how many platforms we can reach people at,’” he said. “As we go through this Pulitzer project, the thing that’s interesting to me, particularly with the Post one, is that with Columbine it was print (centric) and they addressed it that way. With Aurora, you had social media at play, and it changed the dynamic entirely.”
The Post panel might also give audience members a look at the Columbine and Aurora stories not so prominently told — that of the emotional toll the work took on reporters.
Simpson said Post staffers, first and foremost, felt a responsibility to tell the story accurately and responsibly. However, Columbine and Aurora were always seemingly changing with new angles and questions emerging.
“We were, as reporters, constantly in the position of needing to call people for victim reactions to whatever the news of the day was,” he said. “And that was certainly taking a toll on the people we were calling, obviously, but it was also taking a toll on us as reporters. We dreaded seeing an editor coming toward our desk because we knew it was going to be, ‘We need victim reaction on such and such.’”
Several weeks into the Columbine coverage, he said, the newspaper brought in counselors, who helped the journalists reconcile their professional responsibilities with the emotional turmoil covering the story was creating.
“People thought maybe they weren’t being professional because they were emotionally affected by this,” Simpson said. “… What the counselors pointed out was that everybody was going through this and it was perfectly normal. Just knowing we weren’t alone in having difficulty with the trauma was helpful.”