Campus journalism lecturer receives Pulitzer Prize as part of East Bay Times group covering ‘Ghost Ship’ fire

Jane Tyska/East Bay Times/Bay Area News Group/Courtesy

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Thomas Peele, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize on Monday along with several other reporters at the East Bay Times, for their coverage of the “Ghost Ship” fire, a tragedy that killed 36 in Oakland last December, including two campus students and two campus alumni.

The East Bay Times won the prize in the “Breaking News Reporting” category. The Pulitzer Prize Board described the newspaper’s coverage as “relentless,” commending the staff’s exposure of the city of Oakland’s failure to take preventative actions against the warehouse in which the fire occurred.

The first newspaper to arrive on the scene, the East Bay Times reported on the incident at 4:14 a.m. Dec. 3, the morning of the fire. Harry Harris, an East Bay Times breaking news reporter, said he was the only reporter at the scene during the first several hours.

The East Bay Times proceeded to launch an investigation that spanned several months, eventually revealing that local authorities had repeatedly visited the warehouse but had failed to report the building’s fire code violations.  

“We were very determined to get as many answers as we could about how (and) why this happened,” Peele said. “The (Pulitzer board) seemed to recognize that we were investigating from the get-go, that we recognized signs of problems and we pursued digging into those problems very aggressively.”

The East Bay Times competed against two other finalists for the award: the Dallas Morning News, for its coverage of the July 2016 shooting spree that resulted in the death of five police officers, and the Orlando Sentinel, for its coverage of the June 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting.

Lowell Bergman, a professor at the J-School, said it is unusual for a small regional newspaper such as the East Bay Times to win the Pulitzer Breaking News award, given the level of competition.

The reporting team learned that it had won the prize while watching live coverage of the announcements at an East Bay Times office. David DeBolt, a reporter with the newspaper, and Peele both said the announcement left them in disbelief.

Erin Baldassari, one of the East Bay Times reporters who covered the fire, said she had originally forgotten about the announcement and was reminded of it after seeing a post on Twitter. She added that she was “speechless” and “astounded” when the Pulitzer board made the announcement.

“At the same time, you recognize that it was work born out of tragedy. … At the end of the day, this was a story we never wanted to write,” Baldassari said. “It was a scene we never wanted to witness. … It’s an honor that comes with a heavy heart.”

Contact Shayann Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shayannih.

A previous version of this article may have implied that the East Bay Times is only a year old. In fact, it was formed in 2016 when the already-established Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, Daily Review and Argus were consolidated.