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'Oregonian' doubles its treasure

Sandy Rowe, editor of The Oregonian in Portland, knew her paper had strong entries for this year's Pulitzer Prizes, but she didn't get overly optimistic. "We were hopeful, but you never expect to win two," she says. "You never even expect to win one."

The Oregonian hit the jackpot last week, capturing two Pulitzers.

The prize for public service, considered by many the most prestigious of all, recognized The Oregonian's news coverage and editorials about an array of problems within the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), both in Portland and elsewhere in the United States.

Longtime Oregonian reporter Tom Hallman Jr. won the Pulitzer for feature writing for "The Boy Behind the Mask," a four-part series on a 14-year-old boy who endured life-threatening surgery to correct a massive facial deformity.

While both of the Pulitzers recognized areas that tend to be distinctly different, Rowe says the winners have similarities. "They have in common a respect for the reader," she observes. "They don't pander in any way. They both have really rigorous attention to the ethics involved."

The Oregonian's exhaustive probe of the INS revealed human-rights violations, separation of families, suspect jailings, and a questionable deportation record that led to the early retirement of the Portland INS director. The stories were written by Kim Christensen, Richard Read, Julie Sullivan, and Brent Walth, and edited by Amanda Bennett, managing editor for projects, and Jack Hart, weekend managing editor. Associate Editor Rick Attig wrote the editorials.

Bennett says the series evolved from daily news stories about local INS problems when editors sensed that if there are immigration problems in predominantly white/homogenous Portland, they likely could be found nationwide.

"We decided to turn what appeared to be the reason we shouldn't do the story into the reason we should do the story," Bennett says.

The team faced tremendous bureaucratic hurdles within the INS: For instance, it took three months and 39 Freedom of Information Act requests just to get information on where the INS houses prisoners nationwide.

"It was enormously rewarding because the paper is giving a voice to people so outside the system that they really had no voice at all," Hart says of the immigrants wrapped up in INS red tape.

Hart, who has contributed frequently to E&P over the years, also edited Hallman's Pulitzer winner for the story of Portand teen Sam Lightner.

Hallman, 45, a Pulitzer finalist twice before, learned of Sam from a reader who contacted him after seeing his phone number in a tagline at the bottom of a story in 1999. "This guy calls me and says, 'I read your stories. I know what you do,'" Hallman recalls. "'I'm a friend of a family that has a boy who looks like the Elephant Man, and they've never talked to anybody about it. If they did, you'd be the guy.'"

Like his colleagues covering the INS story, Hallman faced many challenges, including winning the trust of Sam and his family, getting doctors and hospitals to consent to watching Sam's grueling operations in Boston, and overcoming his own squeamishness.

"I'd never been to an operation before," he says. "Before I went to Boston, I called a surgeon here and say, 'I don't know if I am going to pass out there.' She let me come to a breast reconstruction. It was very helpful." Hallman has a daughter Sam's age, and she gave him pointers on how to talk to teens.

Rowe, who supervises an editorial staff of 430, joined the paper in 1993 -- and it has now won three Pulitzers and had eight finalists during her tenure.

"We set a very high bar journalistically in this newsroom, and we're never satisfied," she says. "Even today, we're not sitting around saying, 'Oh, isn't this wonderful?' We're saying, 'What else do we need to do to get better?'"
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Title Annotation:Government Activity
Author:Davis, Joel
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 23, 2001

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