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Safety stories earn Pulitzer Prize for Sun

Las Vegas Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon and her editors said Monday that they think the Pulitzer Prize-winning stories they produced about construction safety brought an end to a spate of worker deaths at resort projects on the Strip.

“I think it’s great recognition for the newspaper and for everyone,” said Berzon, who estimated she wrote more than 50 stories on the subject.

Berzon was at a hearing of safety regulators when she was summoned back to her office and surprised with word that the Sun won journalism’s most prestigious award in the public service category

“We spent basically a year on this story,” said Berzon, who called herself “totally shocked” by the award. “To see things change as a result, that is really a satisfying thing as a reporter.”

The newspaper was cited by Pulitzer judges for “courageous reporting” by Berzon, whose stories about lax enforcement of safety rules on the Strip led to changes in policy and improved workplace conditions.

Also, two newspapers hit hard by a historic downturn won Pulitzers on Monday for exposing sex scandals that brought down a governor and a big-city mayor.

The New York Times received five Pulitzers in all, including one for being the first to report that then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer was a client of a high-priced call girl ring, a discovery that led to his resignation. The Detroit Free Press won for obtaining a cache of steamy text messages that destroyed then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s political career.

Three Pulitzers were awarded for coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election. But not one prize was handed out for the other big story of 2008: the financial meltdown. Some suggested the press failed to sound enough of a warning.

“If I had to guess, I feel like there is going to be some reluctance to give prizes for after-the-fact reporting no matter how good it is, period,” said Dean Starkman, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review’s The Audit, which focuses on the business press.

The death toll among construction workers on the Strip had reached nine in 16 months as casino companies undertook a $32 billion building boom.

The Sun stories, starting with “Pace is New Peril,” on March 30, 2008, described how the rush to build quickly and at congested work sites led to safety shortcuts that contributed to deaths of workers.

Three more workers died before workers walked off the job in June 2008, calling for improved safety. Congressional hearings followed, and the Nevada Legislature has proposed mandates for safety training and proper oversight by government agencies.

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to a Nevada newspaper once before, in 1977 to the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal for editorials challenging the power of brothel operator Joe Conforte.

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