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Pulitzer goes to ND grad

Maddie Hanna | Friday, April 21, 2006

When Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast last fall, 2000 Notre Dame graduate and New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Michelle Krupa was faced with the daunting task of covering the biggest domestic news story of the year, one devastating day at a time.

That dogged reporting won the 27-year-old Krupa – and the entire Times-Picayune staff – a Pulitzer Prize.

She’s the third Notre Dame graduate and Observer employee to win the award in the past six years.

The Pulitzer Board awarded the 2006 breaking news reporting prize to the Times-Picayune staff for “its courageous and aggressive coverage of Hurricane Katrina, overcoming desperate conditions facing the city and the newspaper.”

The paper won a second Pulitzer for public service “for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper’s resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.”

For Krupa, a city hall beat reporter who served as editor-in-chief of The Observer during the 1999-2000 academic year, the award is “bittersweet.”

“We’re thrilled to have been recognized for our work, but at the same time, there were reporters in our newsroom whose houses still are destroyed who are living in trailers or living with relatives,” Krupa said Wednesday. “Our newsroom, our building, is sort of an island. …

“It’s the proudest moment in American journalism and so many of our staff will go home to a FEMA trailer.”

Krupa and the Times-Picayune staff, who saw Katrina from a different perspective than reporters covering the story from vantage points around the nation, provided a crucial window into the unfolding disaster.

“At the very beginning a lot of big papers were telling these intellectual stories about the role that race might have played in the evacuation … our job was to tell people from New Orleans what was happening inside New Orleans,” Krupa said. “For a month our main task was to tell people, what does it look like inside the city?”

Krupa, who majored in American Studies and Spanish, said she chose Notre Dame precisely because it did not have a journalism program at the time.

“I felt like to be a good journalist you should study lots of other things,” she said.

But she joined The Observer almost immediately after arriving at school – the Sunday night before classes began freshman year. Her first night shift as assistant news editor lasted until 8 a.m. the next morning.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack from all the coffee I had drank,” Krupa said.

Later as editor-in-chief, she fought the University’s ban on advertisements from the Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GALA-ND/SMC) in The Observer. The several-year dispute came to a head when Krupa decided to run an ad for gay student group OUTreach ND in November 1999.

And she won, continuing to print advertisements for the gay and lesbian organizations – which prompted both on-campus support and favorable coverage in the local media.

Then-University President Father Edward Malloy appointed an internal ad hoc committee to examine the University’s relationship with The Observer, but the committee never issued a public decision.

In the years since Krupa’s stand, The Observer continued to operate as an independent newspaper without outside editorial influence.

While her leadership had a lasting impact on The Observer, the paper shaped Krupa’s future as well.

“You stay up until three or four or five in the morning until everything gets done, and that was a really important training ground for me,” Krupa said, “to be wholly responsible for something every day and seeing it through to the end and having people in the newsroom be your best friends and totally trusting them – and that’s what we had to do [here at the Picayune].

“We had to get in trucks and boats with our colleagues,” she continued, “with colleagues carrying a gun to protect themselves. I have a lot of faith in journalism and the kind of people who become journalists. We’re public servants, we’re gathering information to tell somebody else and those are the kind of people I found at The Observer … staying up till dawn and doing it to the end and that’s what’s expected.

“There’s a long tradition and you walk into it and become a part of it and that’s how I feel after this.”

Walt Collins, a journalism professor who taught Krupa during her last semester at Notre Dame, said he was “not at all” surprised to hear of the Pulitzer.

“There’s been half a dozen students in the past few years that wouldn’t surprise me,” Collins said, “and Michelle is one of the preeminent.”

He said he “vividly” remembers a story Krupa wrote for his Literary Journalism class that also appeared in The Observer on April 7, 2000. In “One Victim’s Voice,” Krupa leads readers through the crisis faced by “Emily,” a Notre Dame junior and rape victim.

It was “a stunning piece of enterprise journalism,” Collins said.

After graduation, Krupa – an Arlington Heights, Ill. native – went to work at the Beacon News in Aurora, Ill., a city 40 miles west of Chicago.

She continued her journalism education, spending one year in a University of Maryland graduate program before joining the staff of the Times-Picayune, where she has now worked for four years.

While the Pulitzers signify a concrete achievement for the Times-Picayune, in Krupa’s eyes, the Katrina story is far from finished.

“I don’t know if there’s been a single story I’ve written since Aug. 29 that hasn’t had the word ‘Katrina’ in it,” Krupa said. “We’re going to be writing this story for 20 years.”

The other two recent Notre Dame Pulitzer winners are also former Observer staffers. 1995 graduate and Saint Paul Pioneer Press reporter George Dorhmann won the 2000 beat reporting award for a series on academic fraud within the University of Minnesota’s men’s basketball program, and 1994 graduate David Kinney was a member of the Newark Star-Ledger’s Pulitzer-winning staff in 2005. The staff won for its coverage of the resignation of New Jersey governor James McGreevey after he admitted to appointing his extramarital male lover to a state security leadership post.

At least two other Notre Dame alumni have won individual Pulitzers, according to Assistant Vice President for News and Information Dennis Brown. 1939 graduate Edwin O’Connor won for fiction (“The Last Hurrah”) in 1962, and 1927 graduate and sports columnist Red Smith won in 1976.

Mary Kate Malone contributed to this report.