WASHINGTON — Former Gazette reporter Elizabeth McGowan learned she won a Pulitzer Prize on her 52nd birthday, when an Associated Press reporter called asking for comments.
"I had no idea why he was calling," McGowan said.
When the AP reporter hung up, McGowan called a friend to check online to see if it was a hoax.
"I was too nervous to look myself," she said. "My stomach popped out of my throat. It all seemed too surreal."
The friend confirmed McGowan and two other reporters from a scrappy little Web-only publication called InsideClimate News won a Pulitzer in national reporting.
They were honored with journalism's highest award for a multi-part narrative about a ruptured pipeline in Michigan. The pipeline dumped more than a million gallons of a controversial form of oil—known as dilbit—into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
Because the spill happened on the heels of BP's monumental oil spill in 2010, the media barely noticed it. The series, "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," began in June 2012.
"Environmental journalism rarely gets this kind of validation," McGowan said. "It means that someone recognized what went into writing this story. It was totally unexpected."
The nonpartisan InsideClimate News covers energy issues and climate science with a staff of only seven people, a nonprofit business model and no office. It is only the third online publication to win the impressive award.
"People often look at online journalism and they think blog," McGowan said. "But this is real journalism. We worked and we worked on this thing. We knew we had something. The most difficult part was convincing the publisher and managing editor that it was worth our time."
For seven months, McGowan worked 12-hour days and weekends to make the narrative flow. Long ago, she learned that any journalism worth a darn has to tell a human story. She traveled to Michigan to talk to people who lived near the ruptured pipeline and were displaced from their homes. She poured through 300 pages of Congressional testimony. She slogged through long telephone conversations with regulators and Enbridge officials, who owned the ruptured pipeline carrying bitumen—the dirtiest, stickiest oil on the market.
"You tell the story as eloquently as you can," McGowan said. "You honor your sources who took the time to talk to you. You get it right."
In the end, the series beat out 50 other entrants and two heavyweight finalists—the Boston Globe and The Washington Post.
"Newspapers are not going to go away," McGowan said. "But this is real validation for real journalism practiced in a different way."
McGowan sent an email to friends and colleagues announcing the honor before attending the Pulitzer luncheon in New York City last week. Reflecting her sense of humor, the tagline on her email read: "Elizabeth McGowan finally makes something of herself."
A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, McGowan has worked for daily newspapers in Wisconsin and Vermont and for a variety of publications including Nature Conservancy Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine and Outdoor America. She wrote for The Gazette from December 1987 until spring 1991, when she covered the cities of Milton and Edgerton. She left to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Longtime friend Kris Koeffler of Milton was thrilled by the news.
"I'm just dazzled," Koeffler said. "I'm excited her writing is under the spotlight. Elizabeth is a moving spirit who never takes a moment of life for granted."
InsideClimate News Executive Editor Susan White praised McGowan's ability to persuade people to talk with her, even when they would rather not.
"She does it not only by being persistent, but by being genuinely friendly and interested in their concerns and in their lives," White said.
McGowan recently left InsideClimate News to finish writing a book about her journey with cancer. At age 15, she watched her father die of malignant melanoma. Since age 24, she has been duking it out with the often-deadly cancer.
In the decade after discovering a skin lesion on her upper back, the illness spread to her lymph system, right lung, gallbladder and liver. Many treatments involving immunotherapy, chemotherapy, extensive surgeries and the McGowan fighting gene kept her chugging along.
Her longtime doctor, a Waukesha oncologist, urged her to tell her success story as an inspiration to others struggling with serious illness. McGowan weaves her tale into the details of a solo cross-country bike trip in 2000.
"I have a big manuscript," she said. "It's all in there. I just have to write it prettier."
McGowan does not have a publisher yet but knows that being a Pulitzer winner will make finding one easier.
In addition to doing some serious writing, McGowan hikes and builds trails with her life partner Don Looney, whom she married in 1997. They live in Washington, D.C. She also sings in a group that performs in nursing homes.
"I write because that is how I make sense of the world," she said. "I sing because it makes me happy."
At the end of the day, McGowan does not write to win Pulitzers, but winning one is a validation by her peers. The $10,000 cash award, split three ways, isn't bad, either.
She hopes the award will encourage other small staffs to focus on in-depth investigative reporting.
"If our little staff can pull this off," she said, "so can others."
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.