SF State alumni’s efforts lead to a Pulitzer Prize


David DeBolt, reporter of East Bay Times and alumni of SF State journalism department, poses for a portrait at the office of East Bay Times in Oakland, Calif. on Monday, April 24, 2017. (Lee Kin/Xpress)

Several SF State alumni were part of the team that won the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize earlier this month for breaking news coverage of the Ghost Ship fire for the East Bay Times.

The fire broke out in December of last year at a warehouse party hosted by the Ghost Ship Artist Collective in Oakland, killing 36 people trapped inside.

David DeBolt, 32-year-old SF State alumnus and former Golden Gate Xpress editor-in-chief, worked on the Pulitzer Prize winning team. “On one hand, I’m really proud of being a part of a team here in East Bay Times,” DeBolt said. “On the other hand, it still hurts because we won awards for such a great tragedy.”

David DeBolt, reporter of East Bay Times and alumni of SF State journalism department, poses for a portrait at the office of East Bay Times in Oakland, Calif. on Monday, April 24, 2017. (Lee Kin/Xpress)

The Pulitzer is given nationwide for outstanding journalism, literature and musical composition. The recognition also comes with $15,000, according to The Pulitzer Prize website.

Craig Lazzeretti, an SF State alumnus and the East Bay Times metro editor, said that prize money will be added to another $10,000 they won with the Scripps Howard Award for the same breaking news coverage and will be donated to families of the victims.

We decided that it would be appropriate to donate it to those most affected by the fire, given that the tragedy affected so many lives,” Lazzeretti said. “I think we’re still deciding which specific agency to donate the money to.”

DeBolt and other East Bay Times reporters continue to investigate what caused the fire and are constantly updating the local community with their findings.

DeBolt reported on the events and went further to connect the fire with the Bay Area housing crisis. He explained in one of the articles that won Pulitzer recognition, that many local artists can only afford to live in illegally structured warehouses like the Ghost Ship due to recent rent spikes in Oakland.

He said this story originated when he was talking with one of the warehouse community members who told him, “Hey look, this is a symbol of housing crisis.”

The East Bay Times investigative reporter Thomas Peele has worked with DeBolt for a couple of years. “David is a very good reporter,” Peele said. “He is great to work with. He does a great job.”

Cecily Burt, the East Bay Times deputy metro editor and SF State graduate, said the coverage was a team effort made up of dozens who wanted to highlight local news for a local paper.

“I would say that we really made our mission to try to find out what was going on and what was behind the fire and sort of circumstances of it,” Burt said. “In that regard, we have continued to provide extra level and continued to provide stories behind the tragedy.”

“I think that it goes to show that our former students and graduates can work in any venue to get great reporting done no matter whether it’s New York Times or the East Bay Times,” said Cristina Azocar, the journalism department chair.

The East Bay Times came to be last year as a result of the Bay Area News Group consolidation, which merged the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, Daily Review and the Argus, cutting nearly 20 percent of total newsroom staff, according to SFGate.

While the East Bay Times is now recognized for its local coverage and continues to fulfill its mission to serve the local community, copy editors at the East Bay Times face layoffs despite the organization’s recent Pulitzer Prize win.

Digital First Media, an owner of the Bay Area News Group, announced that it will shut down the East Bay copy desk and consolidate editorial production in Southern California, according to the Pacific Media Workers Guild.

“Hopefully the coverage will prevent other such tragedy from happening and hopefully the award will bring attention to the tragedy itself nationwide,” Lazzeretti said.

This is the first time since 2010 that SF State alumni won a Pulitzer Prize.

“A lot of people say journalism has died, it’s going away,” DeBolt said. “Journalism is alive and well.”