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Tiny news outlet in California celebrates after the Pulitzer Prizes were announced

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Champagne flowed in the office of a tiny news outlet in Santa Cruz, Calif., this week after the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. Lookout Santa Cruz journalists won for breaking news coverage of the devastating floods that hit the coastal county in January 2023. The online publication was recognized for its, quote, "detailed and nimble community-focused coverage." The big win comes less than four years after the Lookout's launch. And the first question I asked CEO and founder Ken Doctor was what he felt when he heard they'd won a Pulitzer.

KEN DOCTOR: Ecstatic and a little nervous 'cause it was only a phone call, and there was no paper trail (laughter). So - but we're journalists.

FADEL: You're like, is this real?

DOCTOR: Yeah. Is it real? And still, I don't think we still have gotten any kind of written communication. I actually called Pulitzers to find out something.

FADEL: So your news outlet, it's 3 1/2 years old. It's an online news outlet. What does it represent for the landscape of news?

DOCTOR: We are a community newspaper that happens to be digital. That means two things. It means showing up, as we talk about, in the community. We have 10 people, six correspondents, and they are out there talking to people every day. The other part of it is that it's digital. And so by being digital, we don't have paper costs. We put 75% of all of our expenses into people, most of them newsroom expenses. So the business can be run efficiently. And you have to be fierce in terms of business, as well as mission, to raise revenue, advertising, membership. It's the old advertising and circulation in a new guise, but the model is there.

FADEL: I want to talk about the work that won. I mean, what was the strategy behind the work that you were doing? And what do you think put you over the top?

DOCTOR: So this is New Year's Eve, December 31. The first rains were hitting. And we're used to rain here, but then we started to see that there was flooding, and so it was all hands on deck. And really, for the next 30 days-plus intensively, people were working 12-hour days and getting to the far reaches of the county, whether in the mountains - really hard to get to - over the slides on the highways. And we were able to get to all those places and communicate with each other.

You have the need to really vet factual information at warp speed in this kind of crisis. And then we could use these digital means. So, for instance, we could use text as well as email, and even places that the internet wouldn't reach, text goes through. So we use every means that you can use to reach people and do that in a crisis.

FADEL: What does this recognition mean for your local community, your specific outlet? And what are your plans for the future of Lookout Santa Cruz?

DOCTOR: I'll call us a newspaper here. A community newspaper is a symbol of the community. And so it's a symbol of community pride. So we know two things - one, that this model works. It's not easy. It's really hard work. But for people to embrace it, they need to be offered it. This needs to happen more across the country. So as much as Lookout itself expands, importantly, I hope people look at this and say, with the right amount of intention, model, capital and the right people, it can be done and, you know, to stop kind of complaining about hedge funds and actually replace them.

FADEL: Ken Doctor is the CEO and founder of Lookout Santa Cruz, the winner of the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Congratulations, and thanks for taking the time.

DOCTOR: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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