The twenty year road to the Pulitzer.
Photojournalist Beth Schlanker, daughter of Pamela and Dr. Tomas Vybiral of Thurmond, won a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting on April 16 for her work with the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat newspaper.
Schlanker was part of a reporting team that was awarded the most prestigious award in American journalism for their coverage of the devastating wildfires in Sonoma County last October.
Press-Democrat writers and photographers were recognized by the Pulitzer committee for what it said was “lucid and tenacious coverage of historic wildfires that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, expertly utilizing an array of tools, including photography, video, and social media platforms, to bring clarity to its readers — in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting.”
The fires hold the record for having the most devastating toll of any California wildfires. The number of deaths reached 42, property damage totaled more than $1 billion, and more than 160,000 acres burned in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties.
Having only briefly returned to work from maternity leave, Schlanker spent almost two weeks in mid-October photographing the fires, working 14-hour days away from her husband Ramin Rahimian and their two daughters Emerson (then 4) and Farah (then 5 months). She, along with fellow photographers and writers, had to wear masks and fire gear, and risked their safety to inform readers and document the breathtaking destruction.
The Press-Democrat team was in competition in this category with larger newspapers, including The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle and The Las Vegas Review Journal.
Winning the Pulitzer came as a complete surprise to Schlanker, who was spending time with her younger daughter at home when she heard the news. While juggling her duties as a mother, she had actually forgotten that the Pulitzer was being awarded that day.
“I am shocked. It’s such an amazing honor,” she said. “This isn’t something that I ever really considered winning.”
On Facebook, she wrote, “I am so proud to be a part of this amazing team at The Press-Democrat. Our little staff worked tirelessly during a disaster from which our county is still recovering. This award honors everyone at our newspaper who put their lives on hold to cover the fires, including those at our company who lost homes, and even our carriers that delivered newspapers through thick smoke.”
It has been a westward trek for Schlanker to The Press-Democrat and the Pulitzer. After graduating from the Salem Academy in Winston-Salem in North Carolina, she went on receiving her Bachelor’s of Journalism degree in 2004 from the University of Missouri in Columbia. She then worked at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, covering small communities in the Twin Cities area, and later moved to Ogden, Utah, for a position at the Standard-Examiner newspaper.
In 2010, she married Rahimian, a freelance photographer, and began her job at the Press-Democrat. The couple lives in the community of Petaluma, California, south of Santa Rosa, which is surrounded by rolling grassy hills, shared by dairy cows and vineyards.
In addition to raising their two daughters and working full time, Schlanker also has begun the process of establishing a foundation, The Petaluma Children’s Art Initiative, to fund K-6 visual art education in the Petaluma City School District.