Tiny Central Coast newsroom Lookout Santa Cruz wins Pulitzer Prize

More than a dozen people sit at a conference table and raise their arms in celebration.
Lookout Santa Cruz staffers react Monday after winning the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
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As legacy publications celebrated their Pulitzer Prize wins Monday, bottles of champagne were also uncorked at Lookout Santa Cruz, a fledgling 10-person newsroom based on the second floor of a former bank on Santa Cruz’s quiet, tree-lined Pacific Avenue.

“What a day!” said Ken Doctor, the Lookout’s chief executive and founder. “It’s incredible!”

The online news organization won the prize for its breaking news coverage of Santa Cruz County’s catastrophic January 2023 floods. The community-focused organization won out over the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the fatal Lunar New Year shooting and the Honolulu Civil Beat’s reporting on the Maui wildfires.


Doctor said the package submitted to the Pulitzer board included on-the-ground reporting, as well as blogs, newsletters and texts produced for readers as the storms hammered California’s Central Coast, causing landslides, levee failures and widespread destruction.

“We supplied not just news and photos and video; we supplied information, that basic information that you need in any kind of crisis,” Doctor said.

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He believes it was “the full and complete commitment” of the newsroom that swayed the Pulitzer judges. The staff, he said, focused on answering such questions as where does one go for shelter, how to get food, which roads are closed and when the next storm is coming.

“We’re this machine that knows this community, our staff is part of this community, and we’re going to find that out,” he said.

Doctor started the paper less than four years ago.

A former news editor, executive and analyst, Doctor saw an opening for meaningful, well-reported, nonpolitical and unbiased reporting in his community.

He said he raised $2.4 million to get the online paper started and insisted on hiring an adequately sized and skilled staff — “enough to offer the public a trustworthy product and offer advertisers enough of an audience.”


He said Lookout Santa Cruz is now “one of the largest newsrooms per capita in the country.”

The outlet employs 10 newsroom staffers and five people on the business side.

He said they are branching out and starting a Lookout in Oregon’s Eugene/Springfield area and hope to continue expanding in similarly sized, community-oriented areas throughout the nation.

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Winning the Pulitzer shows that the publication’s model works.

“The value of quality, independent, local journalism cannot be overstated,” said Zach Friend, a Santa Cruz County Supervisor and news junkie. “In an age where credible information can be hard to find, this is a reminder about how important community journalism is to helping provide context to our life’s events and meaning to issues we all care about.”

Friend noted that Santa Cruz County has a long, proud history of journalism.

“We may be a small community,” he said, “but this shows that in journalism and many other spaces, we have the talent and voice to make a real impact.”