GULFPORT - The Sun Herald on Monday received a Pulitzer Prize for public service, and three of the newspaper's editors were listed as finalists for a prize in editorial writing.
"Today is your day, Sun Herald family," Executive Editor Stan Tiner told employees gathered in the newsroom shortly after they erupted in applause at the announcement. "You are truly the best. And to this newsroom I say this: Never have so few worked so hard and so long to tell such a story - an unending story, as you all know."
Tiner dedicated the Pulitzer Prize gold medal to the people of South Mississippi.
"Finally, this Pulitzer Prize, this gold medal, is dedicated to the people of South Mississippi whose magnificent hearts and spirit moved us every day that we have been privileged to tell the story of their struggle and triumphs," he said. "They will not be defeated, not by Katrina, or anything."
Publisher Ricky Mathews told employees: "It's been a hell of a journey, you guys, and this is the ultimate honor." Mathews said the newspaper has been "a reflection of our community: the pain, the joy, the unbelievable agony and everything that comes with that" and added that "Our best journalism is still ahead of us because this Sun Herald is in a community that has never been in the situation that we're in right now. We're in no-man's land."
The Sun Herald and the Times-Picayune of New Orleans each were awarded a Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service. The Sun Herald was recognized "for its valorous and comprehensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina, providing a lifeline for devastated readers in print and online, during their time of greatest need."
Tiner and editorial writers B. Marie Harris and Tony Biffle were finalists in the Pulitzer editorial writing category "for their passionate editorials in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that empathized with victims while pleading for relief from the outside world."
Also named as finalists Monday were reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson for beat reporting and Clarion Ledger cartoonist Marshall Ramsey for editorial cartooning.
Sun Herald staff writer and columnist Jean Prescott, a 32-year Sun Herald veteran and newsroom matriarch, said the newspaper's Katrina coverage "felt really important. It feels important when we're doing it."
"I don't normally give a rat's ass about prizes," Prescott said. "I don't usually enter contests any more - you never know who's judging them or what crazy criteria they're going to use. But I gotta tell you, this is a whole different story."
Prescott lost a sister and brother-in-law and her house to the storm.
Staff writer Anita Lee rode out the storm at the Sun Herald's DeBuys Road building, reporting before, during and after the storm despite the loss of her home and all her belongings.
"We all just had to suck it up and do our jobs," Lee said. "That's what we did. That's what we were here to do. When I went down to East Biloxi and saw the body bags lying on the sidewalk, I didn't feel so bad about losing my house. I realized how lucky we were to be alive. I feel lucky to be here."
Mathews and Tiner praised the entire paper's staff, and parent company Knight Ridder, for their hard work keeping the paper running and printing - not missing a single day's publication - and keeping the staff fed and sheltered for weeks afterward.
"This award is almost as surreal as it was driving down the beach after the storm," said Sun Herald Vice President of Operations Marlene Kler. "I don't know if people can fully imagine what people at this newspaper went through personally, but put it aside to serve the community."
Gov. Haley Barbour congratulated the paper Monday.
"No newspaper ever deserved a Pulitzer Prize for public service any more than the Sun Herald," Barbour said. "The newspaper's management and staff lived through the darkest hours of Hurricane Katrina with its readers, forming a oneness that continues to this day. Even in the most adverse conditions imaginable, the newspaper never missed a beat as a valued source of vital information for its readers. Indeed, it never missed publishing even one day."
Tiner said: "If I could turn back time and somehow remove Aug. 29, 2005, from history and take away all of the enormous pain and loss suffered across our beautiful Coast I would do so. But I cannot.
"So I look back across the fog and chasm of the months since and I remember not just the death and devastation, but also the courage and the spirit, the love and the hope, and the many, many helping hands that pulled us from the rubble to begin the journey to a future that we are traveling each day with sweat and dignity."