HARRISBURG, Pa. — A young reporter helped an old newspaper win its first Pulitzer Prize on Monday, as Sara Ganim and members of The Patriot-News of Harrisburg staff won for local reporting for their coverage of a child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University that led to criminal charges against two administrators and toppled legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
Dozens of newspaper employees and executives who had gathered nervously around a newsroom conference table erupted in cheers at the news. The prize was "for courageously revealing and adeptly covering the explosive Penn State sex scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky."
Patriot-News publisher and president John A. Kirkpatrick called it "an unbelievable moment" in the newspaper's 157-year history.
"This is our first Pulitzer ever and it came ... not by luck or it didn't come out just because it was handed to us," he told the staff. "It came out because of Sara's hard work, the work of other reporters here, the work of other editors here."
The newspaper broke the news that a grand jury was investigating Sandusky with a front-page story in March 2011, and was the first to report in November that prosecutors were filing child sexual-abuse charges against the former defensive coordinator.
Those scoops were followed by a series of reports regarding the allegations, including stories about the alleged victims and how the matter was handled by Penn State administrators and officials with The Second Mile, a charity founded by Sandusky.
The paper's coverage was led by Ganim, 24, a police and courts reporter who had graduated from Penn State and then worked at the Centre Daily Times before joining the Patriot-News in January 2011.
According to the paper, Ganim tracked down rumors about Sandusky until she located an alleged victim, then learned there had been an investigation into a previous incident.
As the story grew in importance and size, two moments stuck out for Ganim. The first was in early 2011, before she'd written her first story on the scandal, when the list of alleged victims she'd discovered grew to include a third — a 2002 assault allegedly witnessed by a team graduate assistant on Penn State's campus. The revelation made her sick to her stomach, she said.
The second moment occurred in the wake of the grand jury's Nov. 5 report, when Paterno was fired as coach, stunning the college football world.
She and the newspaper's editors hadn't anticipated such fallout, she said.
"We really were so focused on following the facts, and not thinking about what the consequences might be, which I think is actually a good thing because we weren't distracted and we were able to see the whole picture," she said.
The newspaper's editor, David Newhouse, said they worked to keep the focus on the alleged crime and victims, even as the connection to Paterno generated a tidal wave of attention.
Another Pennsylvania newspaper won a Pulitzer on Monday. The Philadelphia Inquirer won for public service for its coverage of violence in the city's beleaguered school system, the newspaper's 19th Pulitzer and its first since 1997.
Pennsylvania Newspaper Association president Teri Henning called the two papers' wins a great day for Pennsylvania journalism.
"These awards are so well deserved and show the high quality of journalism that is happening at newspapers of all sizes in Pennsylvania," Henning said. "The series of stories that led to the awards were difficult to investigate and highly charged. The journalists who worked on them have done a great service to their communities and beyond."
Through the end of December, the Patriot-News had written 109 stories for its print edition and posted 587 news items and videos about the Penn State scandal on its website.
The newspaper's coverage had previously earned several other prominent journalism prizes, including a public service journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists, a distinguished writing award for local accountability journalism from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the George Polk Award for sports reporting and the Scripps Howard award for community journalism.
The paper's circulation is 67,000 weekdays, 117,000 Sundays.
Sandusky, 68, is confined to his home while awaiting a June trial on 52 criminal counts, allegations he has repeatedly denied.
Also facing trial are Penn State administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, charged with lying to the grand jury investigating Sandusky and failing to properly report suspected child abuse. Curley, the school's athletic director, is on leave, and Schultz has retired as vice president for business and finance.
The scandal toppled Hall of Fame coach Paterno, who received a report from a graduate assistant in 2002 regarding Sandusky in a team shower with a naked child. Paterno passed on the report to Curley and Schultz, but he later said that in hindsight, he wished he had done more. Paterno was fired by the board of trustees before the end of the football season and died in January of lung cancer.
The Sandusky scandal also led to the departure of university president Graham Spanier, who remains a faculty member.
The Pulitzers are awarded annually by Columbia University on the recommendation of a board of journalists, academics and others. Except for the public service award, which is a gold medal, each award carries a $10,000 prize.