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Journalists Go To New York To Collect Pulitzers

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Journalists from across the country will be awarded one of the most coveted prizes in journalism Thursday — the Pulitzer. Alexandra Berzon of the Las Vegas Sun will receive her Pulitzer for public service. Berzon talks with Steve Inskeep about her award-winning stories on construction deaths on the Las Vegas strip.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The city of Las Vegas was in a construction boom when a story appeared in the local paper. The Las Vegas Sun reported on a construction worker at a new casino. He was 59 feet above the ground when he lost his balance. He fell through a hole in the floor that shouldn't have been there. He kept on falling because he wore no safety harness. He fell to his death, right past the place where a safety net should've caught him.

It was one of a string of construction deaths highlighted by reporter Alexandra Berzon. She's being presented today with a Pulitzer Prize. She's doing what fewer people seem to make a living at these days: basic journalism, just plain finding out what's happening in their communities. So we're going to talk with her about it.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. ALEXANDRA BERZON (Reporter, Las Vegas Sun): Thank you.

INSKEEP: How did you first learn about these construction deaths?

Ms. BERZON: Well, actually, it was something where I learned about in my job interview with the Las Vegas Sun. And a bunch of folks in the newsroom had been kind of noticing in the other paper in town, actually, quick stories every time a construction worker died. And…

INSKEEP: It'd be that little paragraph…

Ms. BERZON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: …that fills a little bit of space in the paper - construction worker dead. No real details.

Ms. BERZON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Ms. BERZON: Right. Yeah, no follow-up after that, too. And when I came in for my job interview, they said, you know, this would be something we'd like you to take a look at if you came to work here. And I just thought, wow. That's the kind of journalism I want to do.

INSKEEP: So what were you looking for beyond the bare facts of a number of men dying?

Ms. BERZON: Were there any sort of common threads or brute causes? I think one of the really common things in Las Vegas that we found was that this attitude that it's inevitable that some number of workers are probably going to die and it's really tragic and sort of the cost of this construction that we're doing.

I really wanted to challenge that and to say, okay, well, what are the other things that could be going on here? As well as the cost as far as the families go and the stories behind just what had happened, the very basics of the deaths.

INSKEEP: You said you also wanted to document the price here. What was the price that was being paid by the families?

Ms. BERZON: Well, one of the things that we found that was very difficult for the families was that OSHA - which is the agency that investigates the accidents - one of the things that we found that they were doing was withdrawing citations, have an informal conference, and without a lot of explanation, they would withdraw the citations.

INSKEEP: So somebody dies, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration fines and cites safety violations, and then some guys talk quietly among themselves and all of a sudden the citations go away?

Ms. BERZON: That's exactly what happens.

INSKEEP: You said when you first heard about this story at your job interview with the Las Vegas Sun, that was the kind of journalism you wanted to do, and so you dove right in. Why - and I guess I'm only being half facetious in asking this - why didn't you just, you know, sit around in your pajamas and write a blog?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BERZON: When you write a blog - I mean, I have respect for people that do that. And the job that I had actually before I came to the Las Vegas Sun was doing very quick online journalism. A lot of it is your own thoughts and your own analysis of things.

But I think that there's also still a really important role for reporting, which just means calling people up, asking them questions, finding documents. And that kind of thing is not generally what bloggers do.

INSKEEP: I hope they put out a couple of bucks for some kind of celebration when you won the Pulitzer Prize.

Ms. BERZON: We had some champagne.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BERZON: It was nice, you know. It felt good for everybody at the paper, and it was something that everyone kind of shares in, too. So…

INSKEEP: Well, Alexandra Berzon, congratulations and thanks very much.

Ms. BERZON: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: She's a reporter with the Las Vegas Sun. Her stories on construction deaths on the Las Vegas strip won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

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