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Inquirer wins Pulitzer Prize for public service

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for its coverage of violence in the city's beleaguered school system, the newspaper's 19th Pulitzer and its first since 1997.

The announcement said the paper received the prize for exploring the "pervasive violence in the city's schools" with powerful print narratives and video to illustrate crimes committed by children against other children.

The reporting of the seven-part "Assault on Learning" series, the citation said, helped stir reform to improve safety for not just students but teachers too. The series ran from March 27 through April 2, 2011, after reporters John Sullivan, Susan Snyder, Kristen A. Graham, Dylan Purcell and Jeff Gammage spent a year examining violence in the city's school system.

"We were talking about whether we'd win awards and we were hopeful," Graham told her colleagues in the ebullient newsroom after the award was announced, "but honestly we said if we made a difference in the lives of kids, then we did our jobs, and thank you all for letting us do that."

Many reporters at The Inquirer, which has been hit with layoffs and wracked with uncertainty in recent weeks amid layoffs and new ownership, said the timing for the prize could not have been more perfect.

"It couldn't have come at a better time, and I think we're all hoping that it starts a new era for this newspaper and this whole media company," said Rose Ciotta, project editor for the "Assault on Learning" series.

Earlier this month, a group of powerful local business leaders announced it had bought the Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and their website for approximately $55 million, a fraction of what investors paid for them in 2006. It marked the fifth time in six years the newspapers were sold.

There have been rounds of layoffs and buyouts over the past few years and last year the newspapers' iconic white tower headquarters was sold to a developer. Both papers and their website, philly.com, will move into a former department store building across town this spring.

Sullivan, who was on the project team but has since left the paper for Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, was back Monday to celebrate with plastic cups of champagne and tearful hugs from his former colleagues.

"This just gives us so much joy ... because we've seen what you guys have gone through the past 10 years, all that we've endured and seeing our friends walk out of the building," he told the newsroom, yet "everybody here just continues to do great journalism."

The Inquirer last received a Pulitzer in 1997, winning that year in the explanatory-journalism category for a series chronicling how critically ill patients and their families confronted death. Two years ago, the Daily News won a Pulitzer for reporting that exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal.

"When I allowed myself to daydream about this," Purcell told the newsroom, "I thought, I wish we had something like the Stanley Cup trophy that we can each take a day with, because I think everyone deserves it."

The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, and specifically reporter Sara Ganim, were honored for local reporting for breaking the Penn State sexual abuse scandal that ultimately brought down football coach Joe Paterno.

Pennsylvania Newspapers 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."

Associated Press Writer Patrick Walters contributed to this report.