Minnehaha grad helps team win Pulitzer Prize
by Maggie PelisseroTalon staff writer
“The whole day was a blur,” said Michelle Ma, who graduated from Minnehaha Academy in 2003.
Ma says that she was just looking at emails on her phone when she came across a breaking news alert from The Seattle Times saying she and her coworkers had won the Pulitzer Prize.
“I was working the night shift that day, and I hadn’t yet gotten to work,” Ma said. She remembers not really understanding what was happening at first, but then realized that it was the day of the official Pulitzer Prize announcement.
“And then it started to sink in,” said Ma. She walked into the newsroom, which was occupied by more people than a typical work day. There was the exchanging of hugs and congratulations, and then everyone gathered into the main newsroom where editors and reporters spoke about the award.
“I remember that everyone was extremely proud of the newsroom, but in a subdued, respectful way,” said Ma.
Despite the excitement buzzing around the newsroom, the entire staff knew the story they covered in order to receive such an award.
“On all of our minds was that what started it all was a tragic event – the slaying of four police officers – and that fact is always remembered even as we celebrate the award,” said Ma.
“I’ve always loved writing”
“I’ve always loved writing, Ma said. “As a child, I used to fill notebooks full of ongoing stories or ‘chapter books’ I’d make up, but it wasn’t until high school that I found journalism. I loved that I could interview folks and attend interesting events, then write about them. For me, it was the ideal combination of getting to write while learning about fascinating people and subjects.”
Ma’s parents, Nancy and Dave, reflect, “when she was young, we read to her a lot and she loved to draw her interpretation of the stories she heard. We finally bought a long roll of paper for her artwork. We have always thought the drawings helped her with her later writings.”
Just like many students, Ma also struggled sometimes when it came to writing about a topic that seemed difficult to dissect and then report on.
“What has helped me plow through is remembering that it’s a privilege to tell these stories, no matter how mundane or difficult they may seem,” she said.
At Minnehaha, Ma was also highly involved in sports, which included taking on the responsibility of being a co-captain in Nordic skiing and co-captain in cross country running.
“She was one of the most delightful, hard working students I have ever coached,” Nordic ski coach Anne Rykken said.
Likewise, Joan McCord, Minnehaha’s upper school nurse, remembers Ma fondly: “I remember her as a great young woman. She had a very joyful way about her.”
Ma believes being part of these endurance sports helped her develop into the person that she was in high school and is today.
“The physical and mental challenges required in both sports taught me perseverance and how to hang in there when you want to quit,” she said.
“Living, breathing newsroom”
After learning to endure and overcome the challenges she faced in high school, Ma continued at Northwestern University. Being a part of student publications at Minnehaha was what really had gotten her “excited about reporting,” because she had plenty of hands-on experience in high school and was able to build up her communication and writing skills.
The AP courses she participated in at Minnehaha, including AP English as well as AP European and American history, helped prepare her for college courses with plenty of reading and writing.
Despite the work-load of college, she interned at several different newspapers. She spent two summers reporting on various topics at the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota and one quarter of her junior year at The Oregonian as part of Northwestern’s residency program. After graduating in 2007, she was an intern at the Star Tribune.
“My internships at the Star Tribune, St. Cloud Times and The Oregonian let me experience working as a reporter in a living, breathing newsroom,” Ma says. “I think internships are so great in college, because you are working right alongside professional journalists and are encouraged to write and report as a regular staffer. I reported on a collection of issues that helped me find my strengths, work on my weaknesses and develop a love for certain topics.”
She found one of those loves to be environmental issues. She thinks there is a need to explain climate changes and how that affects communities throughout the world.
“I’ve always hoped to make a difference with my work,” Ma said.
She landed her first job as a reporter at the Daily Triplicate in California. After working at the Triplicate, she got accepted for the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting 10-month fellowship, where she was then placed at The Seattle Times.
New Places New Faces
How does one move around so many times? Although that question often wanders around Ma’s mind, she says, “I think I crave adventure and fresh places, and that’s what keeps me seeking new places and different jobs.”
From the beginning, Ma knew that journalism would present her with new surroundings, people and the ever-daunting task of packing and unpacking numerous times. Although the homesick feeling still visits her every so often, she feels fortunate enough to have amazing friends, scenery and outdoor activities to enjoy in Seattle.
Not Just Another Day
The Seattle Times has brought Michelle many new tasks to accomplish in her days of work. When her day starts at 5 a.m., she is the first producer on the homepage and it is her responsibility to find out what’s going on and bring to attention any news that needs to be covered.
She produces the online home page, which involves finding stories to publish; connecting with readers via Facebook and Twitter; editing captions, headlines and summaries; and getting in touch with departments for content needed on the website.
Ma’s day continues with a morning meeting where she will update everyone on what’s going on with the website and discuss plans for the following day. However, Ma’s day can change with the blink of an eye when breaking news occurs.
This became evident on November 29, 2009, when four police officers were shot while at a coffee shop where they were working on their laptops. Then, the manhunt began.
“I was scheduled to work the night homepage shift the day the shooting happened, which was a Sunday,” she said.
“I reported to work early, along with a crew of reporters, editors, producers and photographers who dropped what they were doing on that weekend day to help,” said Ma. “I helped with updating the home page and stories as the manhunt ensued. I stayed through the night that first day until about 6 a.m. to update the site as our reporters and photographers stayed on the scene and called in, emailed and tweeted in updates.”
“We were so thrilled and proud of her,” wrote Ma’s parents. “She and the team worked hard on that story, which continued over many days. We were visiting at the time and shared with her the excitement of online producing and reporting.”
It is evident what a dedicated journalist Ma is. She says her thoughts on that day were that this was her job, and although there was a frenzy due to this horrific event, she knew it was essential to ensure people were staying informed, literally minute-by-minute. The manhunt ended with the suspect getting killed by a patrolman searching a stolen vehicle.
The Seattle Times staff were awarded the Pulitzer Prize this year for their coverage, both in print and online, of the tragedy. As a result, Ma said the already great respect she has for her colleagues was strengthened because they were all able to collaborate so well to produce the story they needed to get to their readers. She emphasizes how appreciative she is to have such “talented, thoughtful, ethical and dedicated journalists” to work with.
“Creating a natural balance”
While trying to balance work and friends, Ma is often left with little to no time to relax. However, she said she has learned to “separate myself from the ins and outs of work when I’m able to, because it’s easy to constantly check Twitter or email on my phone.”
Many people seem to fall victim to the deception that we all need to constantly be in contact with everyone in our lives, however Ma is still able to find time to enjoy nature by taking long bike rides or going for a hike, helping her, as she says, “create a natural balance.”
Her hectic work schedule seems to be more bearable though since her family has always been so supportive. Her family encourages her to keep pursuing her dreams and taking on new things.
“We think it’s great and we are so happy for her,” wrote her parents. “We always thought she had the gifts and potential to work in the field of journalism.”
Ma doesn’t know yet what her future holds for her but says, “I love where I’m at now.”