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MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow Bob Young on team awarded Pulitzer Prize

The Seattle Times staff receives award for breaking-news reporting.
A view from a Washington Army National Guard helicopter shows trees that were at the top of the hill when the mudslide occurred now lie across the slide's width like a woven belt.
A view from a Washington Army National Guard helicopter shows trees that were at the top of the hill when the mudslide occurred now lie across the slide's width like a woven belt.
Photo: Matthew Sissel/Samantha Ciaramitaro
Bob Young
Bob Young

This week Bob Young, 2014-15 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, was among those awarded a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news reporting at The Seattle Times. For more than 12 years, Bob Young covered politics and urban affairs at The Seattle Times. After Washington became one of the first states in the nation to legalize the production and sale of marijuana, Young transitioned into a new role as the paper’s primary marijuana reporter. He has been using the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) Fellowship to strengthen his understanding of the science of addiction and the effects of drugs on brain development.

Last March, just before he was selected as a Knight Fellow, Young became one of the Times reporters pulled into a massive project to report on a deadly mudslide in Oso, Washington, a small rural community in Snohomish County, northeast of Seattle. Which means that he’s also one of the team members being honored this week with the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting.

On Monday, April 20, Columbia University announced the Pulitzer winners in 21 categories. The breaking-news award went to the entire staff of The Seattle Times, “for its digital account of a landslide that killed 43 people and the impressive follow-up reporting that explored whether the calamity could have been avoided.”

I spoke with Young about the award on Tuesday, April 21. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Q: How did you first learn of the Oso mudslide?

A: It came on a Saturday, when I was off. The news of its severity crept out slowly. This is a remote, somewhat rural area, 90 miles from Seattle. There is one east-west road that this community is on, and that road was blocked [by the slide]. For a variety of reasons, the severity of the slide was not appreciated until sometime Sunday, maybe even later on Sunday.

Monday morning, I went into work, and by that time we understood the parameters. First thing Monday, the morning managing editor came up to me and said, “We need your help. We need you to put down your beat.” It was all-hands-on-deck. But there was a lot of talent in the newsroom and it was well deployed by our leaders.

Q: What was your assigned role?

A: My role, basically throughout, was to try and identify the victims. I spent the next six days doing that. It’s an example of our talent and our focus that after the slide hit, our researchers were able to identify all of the properties in the area through property records. Through the property records, they were able to identify the owners of the properties. Through the owners, the researchers have access to databases that allow them to look up phone numbers. So what they presented us with, at some point on Monday, was a spreadsheet with all the names of the property owners and all the names they could round up for the victims themselves and, more importantly, for the friends and families, because the calls to the victims’ phones were, of course, going unanswered.

That began it. Our researchers provided us with a great resource to work from, and then it was just a matter of cold-calling one person after another, in an ever-widening net from family members to friends and friends-of-friends.

We had a high standard to confirm that somebody was in the slide and was lost. We had to have a family member do that. In some cases, I was talking to the friends of victims who were telling me wonderful stories about the victims, but we couldn’t use that, because our standard was that it had to be confirmed by a family member.

Q: It must have been a fine line to walk, between the aggressive reporting that you have to do to get the details the public needs, and respecting what these people were going through.

A: The bottom line is, I think The Seattle Times did a really good job of honoring the victims and the community, which was just phenomenally strong in how it rallied to both try to rescue people and then to comfort the families who lost people. The people who lived in the path of the landslide did so because this was a spectacular place to live, with a towering hillside on one side and the Stillaguamish River on the other. It kind of ripped the heart out of this community, to lose 49 homes in the path of the slide.

The other thing that has to be stressed — far more than my small contribution — is that we really upheld the duty of accountability journalism. Immediately, public officials were saying that there was no warning, no indication that this was going to happen. What we found that there was ample evidence that this danger existed. So much so that county officials had, a few years before, considered buying out everybody in the community, because of the danger. They had been warned by scientists and others. You had a heavy rainfall that year, and you also had some clear-cut logging close to the ridge that collapsed. The Seattle Times has a fine and proud tradition of doing this, and we really went after the accountability angle.

I’m proud in this case of the balancing act where we did the accountability journalism, we had a strong explanatory component where we reported on the science — it was fortunate that we have reporters like Sandi Doughton, who had just written a book about the threat of earthquakes in the Northwest and was well-sourced in this area — and I think we were quite compassionate toward the victims.

Q: What was it like to be one of the reporters calling family members who’d been so recently traumatized?

A: It was a little stressful to cold-call family members who had just lost, or in some cases didn’t know if they had lost, a loved one. Some of them obviously didn’t want to talk to reporters. Some of them were being besieged by reporters.

What gave me comfort was writing a story about a young couple who were planning a marriage when the disaster struck. The mother of one of the victims told me I was the only reporter she was talking to, because when I approached her she found my approach respectful and compassionate. I asked her if she wanted to pay tribute to her son in any way through telling us about his life. That was my pitch, and she liked that. She said that so many of the other reporters would stick a microphone in her face and say “How do you feel?” He feeling was that they were just trying to elicit a teary response. Of course she had strong feelings, but she didn’t want to share that with the public through an intrusive reporter.

That’s a long way of saying, I felt it was a difficult assignment, but I felt comfortable about my work, because of the way the paper handled it all.

Q: How was the whole coverage operation organized in the newsroom?

A: The investigative team was taken off whatever ambitious projects they were on, to focus on the accountability aspect, along with some of our government reporters. We had environmental and science reporters focusing on the natural disaster. (It’s just stunning, the way this entire hillside collapsed and buried some of these structures under 60 feet of debris; people were getting accounts that were just chilling about the deafening roar of these huge, towering fir trees that were just being snapped like twigs.) We had another team that was sent up to the area and getting as close to the site as they could and going to the daily press conferences and talking to community members and neighbors about their amazing volunteer rescue efforts, and their pain. Then we had another team that was about a half-dozen strong, who were given this huge spreadsheet of phone numbers [of the victims and their families] and told to just call, call, call.

We were writing, at first, brief little bios, and when we got enough we would expand those into full-blown articles, something between a feature and an obituary. Meanwhile, the other teams were all funneling their reporting to a writer or two or three who would then shape that into a comprehensive daily story.

We knew when we started on Monday that we’d have two blank pages in the Sunday paper to fill with biographies of the lost and the missing. I was probably responsible for the bios of six or so of the victims. But when you got a story like the one about this young couple, which was so poignant, you went to an editor and said, “Hey, I have something that should run the next day,” and you’d stop for a minute and write something for the front page.

Q: The Seattle Times submitted its Pulitzer Prize entry in the name of the entire staff, rather than trying to call attention to individual reporters. Why was that the paper’s approach?

A: I think it was a good move to have the entire staff named. We have so many good people who might not have had a byline. Like the tremendous researchers, whom I can’t say enough good things about — they are the ones who dug up these phone numbers. All the people in production, page design, copyediting. The graphic artists were tremendous. The photographers.

But here is a better answer: It’s a common practice at The Seattle Times that when we have these really big breaking news stories, they are bylined “by The Seattle Times staff,” and the many reporters who contributed are named below. The chief writers are named ahead of them or right after them. We have a tradition of sharing credit in these big endeavors, because that’s what they are.

As to the Pulitzer Prize, I think that so many of my colleagues are deserving. It’s great for a regional paper like The Seattle Times that is struggling to survive in this environment to show that it’s capable of winning yet another Pulitzer. That’s something I’m terribly proud of. It’s no secret that Seattle is a great place, and because of that we attract tremendous talent who want to live and work in the area and work for the very smart editors of the Seattle Times.

What I want to say above all is that the Times quickly appreciated the severity of the story and smartly deployed most of the newsroom, from graphic designers to investigative reporters. Teams hunkered down on the accountability aspect and science of the slide; on the community as it bravely grappled with enormous loss; and on telling stories about the lives of the lost. Every day those teams rolled out individual stories and components for overarching dailies — with an emphasis on digital-first publishing.

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