Willamette Week writer wins Pulitzer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Nigel Jaquiss stared off into space, his eyes brimming with tears when word hit the tiny alternative weekly’s newsroom that he had won a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s most-coveted award, for uncovering a 3-decade-old sex abuse scandal involving a former governor.

"I never thought it would happen to me," said Jaquiss, 42, a former Wall Street oil trader who is now an investigative reporter at the Willamette Week, a Portland weekly known for its edgy critique of Oregon politics.

Following up leads that larger papers had overlooked, Jaquiss documented a three-year-long sexual relationship in the 1970s between Neil Goldschmidt, then mayor of Portland, and a 14-year-old girl who baby sat for his children. After serving as mayor, Goldschmidt went on to become governor, and Secretary of Transportation in the Cabinet of President Jimmy Carter.

Willamette Week published Jaquiss’ story last May.

The Oregon newspaper is the fifth alternative weekly to win a Pulitzer, said Roxanne Cooper, director of marketing for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, in Washington, D.C. The Village Voice has received three and the Boston Phoenix received the fourth, she said.

"I think most of us know how unusual it is for a paper our size to win this award," said Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week, which has an unpaid circulation of 90,000.

Steve Forrester, one of the paper’s original founders and now the editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian on the Oregon coast, said the newspaper started out with the specific aim of competing against The Oregonian, the region’s largest newspaper.

"And they sure did," he said. "It’s rare for an alternative weekly because so many of them have not lived up to their promise and their opportunity – they are essentially lifestyle papers and not much more."

"We offer them our heartfelt congratulations," said Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian. The daily, which has won three Pulitzers over the past five years, also was a finalist this year for a series it ran on methamphetamine use.

Rumors of the prize spread throughout the morning, prompting one Willamette Week editor to dash out for six bottles of champagne.

Shortly after noon on Monday, the newspaper staff gathered around a speaker phone in Zusman’s office for an incoming phone call. It was Western Union, calling to say: "You were awarded the Pulitzer prize."

The room erupted into applause and soon after, Jaquiss – whose face was frozen in meditative silence – was bathed in champagne. So was Zusman, the newspaper’s editor.

Zusman pointed to Jaquiss and said, "This guy isn’t done yet."

Willamette Week, founded 30 years ago, has carved a niche for itself with its unflinching look at Oregon politics and its whimsical reviews of rock bands and inexpensive restaurants. The back pages sport racy personal advertisements and ads for male and female escort services.

But it has also established a name for going after hard news.

Foremost was Jaquiss’ pursuit of a rumor that Goldschmidt, a revered former governor and one of the most respected politicians in Oregon, had sex with his children’s baby sitter while he was Portland mayor.

When the Willamette Week approached Goldschmidt’s lawyers and informed them of their plans to publish the story, Goldschmidt resigned from his position on Oregon’s Board of Higher Education, citing ill health.

As the weekly newspaper prepared to publish its story, the politician called a meeting with editors from The Oregonian newspaper in which he acknowledged that he had sex with the 14-year-old while he was Portland mayor.

In his seven-year career at the weekly, Jaquiss has won numerous awards. In 2001, his reporting on toxic mold at the Whitaker Middle School led to the school being shuttered and laid the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit by parents.

This past January, Jaquiss was leaked confidential papers that raised questions about whether the Texas Pacific Group’s planned buyout of Portland General Electric, the state’s largest utility, was in the public interest. Last month, state regulators blocked the proposed sale, saying it would not benefit the public.

After the initial outburst on Monday, but before the champagne was popped, Zusman heard a voice on his speaker phone.

Zusman replied: "Hello? Is this Western Union? Have you been holding this whole time? I’m sorry.