It is something every journalist secretly dreams about their whole
career. But, few will ever receive it.
The Pulitzer Prize.
However, one former Blue Earth Area High School graduate has accomplished that goal in just her first two years in the news business.
Kristen Painter, BEA class of 2003, learned on Monday, April 15 that she and some fellow reporters at The Denver Post had won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage.
“Actually, we found out just 10 minutes before the news broke that there had been bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon,” she says.
That was a little ironic, since it was their coverage of another tragic act of violence that earned The Denver Post staffers their Pulitzer.
The Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting.
“We won for our coverage of the event as it happened and also for our continued coverage which included a special 12-page section that came out two days later,” Painter says. She was heavily involved in that coverage of the tragic shooting and in two days time did a series of things that might be called the worst things a journalist has to ever do.
“I worked on trying to compile a list of the victim’s names,” she says. “That included a trip to the Arapahoe County Coroner’s office. I was there when the bodies were being brought in.”
She says they were not getting much information from either the police or sheriff’s office, so they had to do a lot of investigating on their own.
That included cold calling some of the family members of the some of the victims.
“That night I went to the first candlelight vigil held for the victims,” she says. “I met and talked to some of the family of the victims there.”
Six months later she was invited to one of the victim’s family’s home, for dinner and more talk of how they were trying to cope with the loss.
“She was a single mom who had lost one of her two sons, he was shot and killed in the theater,” Painter says. “The boy’s girlfriend was at the house, too. She had survived the shooting.”
That was difficult, seeing the pain people are going through.
“We can’t really touch the depth of that pain,” she says. “We can only observe it.”
After the vigil on the night of the shooting, Painter was back at the office working on stories under deadline for the next day’s edition.
Then she went home for a three hour “nap.”
That following day she covered the search of the suspected killer’s apartment.
“I was right across the street, surrounded by reporters from every national news organization,” she says.
Painter explains how the police were worried the doors and windows to the apartment were booby trapped with bombs.
“They sent in a robot first,” she says. “It was a little scary to be so close.”
Painter tweeted every detail of the apartment bust. The newsroom used her tweets as the basis for a story.
“And I gained hundreds of followers in just a few hours,” she says. “The power of social media. It was reporting the news in real time.”
From there it was back to the office to work on the 12-page special section.
The Aurora theater shooting was not the only big national event Painter reported on.
“Our sister publication is the Hartford (Conn.) Courant,” she says. “Our parent company owns both. They sent five of us reporters from Denver to Newtown, Conn., to cover that school shooting.”
The Courant won second place in the Pulitzer competition for that coverage.
Her supervisor at the Denver Post, senior reporter Joey Bunch, has high praise for Painter and her work.
“Kristen is a remarkable person, not just a remarkable journalist,” he says. “Her compassion for others and strength of character from her upbringing is evident in everything she does, personally and professionally.”
Bunch adds that Painter is very proud to be from Blue Earth and mentions it often.
She moved to Blue Earth just before she started eighth grade. Her father, Dennis, was a minister in town, while her mother, Ruth Ann, taught at the school.
“I was active in choir, track and cross country,” Painter says of her BEA career. “I went on to Lacrosse (University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse) and ran cross country there.”
After that she went to graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“From there I was hired at The Denver Post,” she says. And wound up being in the right place at the right time to win the Pulitzer Prize.
“It is just so unbelievable,” she says. “I am not sure it has really sunk in.”
Maybe, she adds, this year might be a little less hectic. Besides, after winning the Pulitzer, what could top that?
“There is a $10,000 cash award with the Pulitzer,” she says. “We are donating that money to the hospital and blood center that helped the Aurora theater shooting victims that night.”