San Francisco State University Lecturer of Journalism Joanne Derbort was part of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat team that won a Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Monday for coverage of the deadly wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties. Derbort was an assigning city editor for the newspaper at the time of the October wildfires, the costliest wildfire in the state’s history. For at least three weeks, she and the other editors were glued to their desks for 16 hours a day, she said.
The fires started October 9 and spanned several counties in the North Bay. At least 43 people died, 8,900 homes and buildings were destroyed and more than 245,000 acres burned. “There were no breaks,” Derbort said. “[The reporters and photographers] were all very determined and they never took their eyes off the ball.”
What stood out to Derbort about the Press Democrat's coverage was the pathos that came across in the writing, and the depth of connection to — and understanding of — the community that was under siege by the disaster. It may be that the judges saw that, too, Derbort said. “The community responded with gratitude, reaching out and thanking us,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
San Francisco State’s Department of Journalism held a small celebration for Derbort Monday afternoon. Associate Professor and Acting Department Chair of Journalism Venise Wagner said she’s impressed with how deeply Derbort has connected with students since she began teaching at SF State this semester. Currently, she is the faculty adviser to the Xpress Magazine, a student publication at SF State.
“The fact that you won this Pulitzer shows me that not only are you taking from your professional experience, you’re also showing them what excellence is in journalism,” Wagner said during her toast. “I’m so proud to be your colleague.”
Derbort said she’s been energized by her students’ enthusiasm.
“It inspires me that they have this incredible dedication and belief in the values of journalism,” she said. “The first day of class, I drove home on a cloud because they have this energy and this purpose and there’s a certain dollop of righteous indignation that every good reporter should have.”
During the weeks of the fire, the Press Democrat was transformed into part newsroom, part shelter for displaced family members of Press Democrat employees. Derbort said she didn’t lose anything in the fire, but several friends were forced to flee.
“Eight families I knew had to evacuate, and they probably all lived a two to three hours drive from one another,” she said. “You don’t realize the physical scope of the devastation until you see it for yourself.”
As for celebrating, Derbort said she planned to join the team that night in Santa Rosa. When asked if it was hard for the reporters to get back to work after all the excitement, she said it’s the opposite. They’re buckling down so they can leave work early to celebrate.
Derbort worked for the newsroom for 14 years and held magazine, newspaper and online positions. The last position she held was as an assigning city editor before leaving in December. She also worked at the San Francisco Examiner for more than a decade. The last time the Press Democrat won a Pulitzer was in 1997 for Spot News Photography.
— Jamie Oppenheim
- 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting, The Press Democrat
- Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Press Democrat for Wildfire coverage, The Press Democrat, April 16, 2018
- SF State Alums Win Pulitzer Prize, SF State News, April 28, 2017
- Golden Gate Xpress Magazine
- Journalism Department
Photo: Lecturer Joanne Derbort (left) celebrates her Pulitzer Prize with Journalism Department Chair Venise Wagner.