By Julie Reynolds

The “small but mighty” newsroom at the Chico Enterprise-Record was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News this week.

Working in collaboration with the Bay Area News Group — which includes the San Jose Mercury News and East Bay Times — the Enterprise-Record staff worked night and day covering California’s worst wildfire in history, even as their community burned around them. Ten employees lost their homes in the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise.

The award was given for “committed coverage of an epic California wildfire that consumed more than 18,000 buildings in 150,000 acres, and took 86 lives,” the official announcement stated. reported on the Chico’s newsroom’s exceptional work in December.

The papers are owned by the Digital First Media chain. Under marching orders from its owner, vulture hedge fund Alden Global Capital, Digital First has cut staff at twice the national rate and recently shrunk its newsrooms (again) in Boulder, Southern California and St. Paul.

Despite being stretched so thin, DFM journalists continue to produce award-winning work.

“Seeing what you all did in that newsroom, and what came out of it, really bolstered my faith in journalism,” tweeted Mercury News business and tech reporter Ethan Baron to the ER’s now-retired editor David Little.

The Camp Fire, from the roof of the Chico Enterprise-Record. | David LIttle

Little has seen the ER’s newsroom shrink from a high of 45, including the copy desk, to 10 full-time employees. There’s still a copy desk but it’s now a frenzied regional “hub” called the NorCal Design Center that’s designing and copy editing at least 17 other papers.

“The Enterprise-Record and staff is small but mighty. There were 10 full-time newsroom employees and four part-time journalists to cover the worst wildfire in state history. Thankfully, there were reinforcements,” stated a story in the Mercury News about the award.

After Little asked for support, Mercury News editor Neil Chase rushed Bay Area News Group reporters and photographers to help cover the fire.

“There’s something about covering a big story that unites everybody,” said Chase, who has since left the paper and is now chief executive of the nonprofit news site CALMatters. “Your sister publication who you love and respect needs help, you jump in.”

Karl Mondon, a Bay Area News Group photographer who answered the call for support in Chico, tweeted his congratulations to the Chico staff, adding a message of support to Little’s successor, Mike Wolcott, wishing him “strength in leading coverage that is far from over.”

Chase posted that he was “so proud” of the papers for being Pulitzer finalists. “Best journalists anywhere, despite having the worst owners.”

Chase said that under Alden’s cuts, daily coverage of City Hall and other important local institutions has suffered at its papers. “When the big story happens, we do have the horsepower for that,” he said, although reporters have to work with far fewer resources than in the past. “Twenty years ago, I’m sure it was let’s rent the helicopter and RV and send a thousand people up there.”

A number of former Digital First journalists were also honored by the Pulitzers for their excellence. Bay Area News Group reporter Robert Salonga tweeted about the DFM-Pulitzer Diaspora, congratulating former colleagues from the now-defunct Contra Costa Times: Malaika Fraley, Matthias Gafni, John Simerman, Rick Hurd and Hannah Dreier.

But the Pulitzer wasn’t the only prize to recognize the work of DFM journalists. Thomas Peele and Harriet Blair Rowan of Bay Area News Group, or BANG, were honored by the Best of the West Awards for their investigative reporting. Ryan Kartje of the Orange County Register took first place in sports reporting, while BANG’s Randy Vazquez won second place in news photography.

The Boulder Daily Camera won 10 prizes at the Colorado Press Association awards, taking first place for best series, best news photograph, best sports photograph, best multimedia and others.

Chase said the prizes highlight the fact that Digital First’s journalists are top-rate, despite enduring near-constant downsizing and layoff threats.

“These are people who carry fire gear in their trunk. They’re going to jump in their car and go,” Chase said. The national recognition for their work, he said, “does keep people aware of the fact that we’re going to need new owners for these papers.”