NEWS

Author tells the stories behind Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism

Karen Goulart

Roy Harris Jr. leans forward on the edge of his seat, the book laid open in his palms. With equal parts of gusto and choking emotion, he reads about the story of an Illinois mine explosion in 1947.

But there is more to this story than the disaster itself, which killed 111 men. Almost as compelling is the work that reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did.

One reporter found a copy of a memo that had been tacked inside the mine entrance. It implored the governor to ‘‘please save our lives’’ by making sure that safety regulations were enforced.

Post-Dispatch reporters who went inside the mine found farewell letters that miners had written to their families.

The newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its coverage, which exposed corruption, led to industry changes and helped soothe a town’s broken heart.

But the details of how this story and nearly a century’s worth of Pulitzer public service prize winners came to be were being lost to time.

Harris, 61, a longtime journalist who lives in Hingham, decided he had to capture those details.

‘‘My idea was to try to keep these stories alive,’’ he said. ‘‘In a way, the newspapers did that themselves in the way the stories were written.’’

‘‘Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,’’ released Jan. 17, is the first comprehensive chronicling of the human dramas, large and small, behind the coveted award.

Of course, there is a story behind this story, too.

Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and now an editor at CFO magazine, did not originally intend to write a book.

In 2002, on 100th anniversary of his father’s birth, Harris presented a program on the public service prize at the St. Louis University School of Law. His father, Roy, was a Post-Dispatch reporter and won the prize in 1950. He also helped the paper win three of the five prizes it won from 1937 to 1952.

As Harris prepared the program he would present, he was startled to find how little the paper knew about its own gold medal-winning history.

‘‘I was haunted, in a way, because I found the Post-Dispatch to be a lot like other papers.,’’ he said. ‘‘It astounded me that so little was written - nothing as a genre - so I took the leap.’’

With a laugh, Harris said he was fully prepared to drop the project if he discovered that a book on the topic had already been written, but that never happened.

Without taking time away from his job at CFO, Harris spent the next five years digging and talking to journalists, from the New York Times to the Lufkin News of Texas.

In 2006, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald won prizes for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

In his own words and the words of reporters and editors, Harris tells in vivid detail how the papers managed to thrive even as the comforts of modern newsrooms disappeared. Reporters who hunkered down in basement rooms and rode bicycles from one storm-ravaged neighborhood to another were able, with their firsthand accounts, to quell rumors and calm fears.

The public service awards are traditionally given entire newspapers; seldom are individuals singled out. But in order to get these stories, Harris made every effort to go to the sources.

‘‘Of course it’s a team effort, but that’s like talking about the Patriots without mentioning there’s a guy named Tom Brady.’’ Harris said. ‘‘...Not all of the (winners) were as intricate a team operation, but by and large, they were.’’

Harris initially viewed the book as something of a guide and inspiration for journalism students - something that would enable them to see the best reporting and how it was done. Perhaps it would also be of interest to history buffs, he thought.

But now he is hoping for a broader reach. In a time when newspapers compete with ‘‘celebrity journalism,’’ sound bites and video clips, Harris hopes the book will remind people that some newspapers are still committed to public service.

‘‘If you don’t have the basics - someone at court, someone at city hall ... - then democracy suffers,’’ he said, noting that the reporting on the Watergate scandal, which brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon, began as the handling of a routine crime story.

That’s something ‘‘all Americans should be interested in,’’ Harris said.

Karen Goulart may be reached at kgoulart@ledger.com.

The Patriot Ledger