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Emerson Student Interns with Pulitzer-Winning News Team

The front page of the December 2, 2015 Los Angeles Times. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for their coverage of the San Bernardino shootings. 

Shannon O’Connor flew out to Los Angeles last May to become an intern with the Los Angeles Times. What she became was a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team.

O’Connor was interning at the Times in December 2015 when a married couple opened fire on a San Bernardino, California, county health department holiday party, killing 14 people and injuring 22. The Timescoverage of the carnage and immediate aftermath won the nation’s fifth-largest daily a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News—its 44th Pulitzer.

“It was really cool to be a part of it and see how everybody worked together and see how everybody did their part,” said O’Connor, who will graduate on Sunday with a degree in Journalism. 

Times editor and publisher Davan Maharaj said in the paper’s own coverage of the Pulitzer win, “This prize belongs to the entire newsroom. This is a newsroom that rises to the occasion to serve readers when everything is on the line—and delivers every time.”

O’Connor was assigned to the digital team, where she helped attract and keep web traffic on the paper’s site. She said she doesn’t remember a lot about the moments when the first reports of the shootings came in, but she remembers the newsroom’s response.

“It happened really quickly and kind of suddenly, and it was kind of all hands on deck,” she recalled.

O’Connor’s job was to make sure every one of the constant updates was linked to previous coverage, as well as photo galleries and a live blog that the Times was using to keep up with the story.

“We have to make sure we keep that massive readership on our site and not [let them] venture off to other places,” O’Connor said.

That frantic pace kept up for maybe a week and a half, she said. But the story had legs well after the initial breaking news, as reporters uncovered the couple’s history and sympathy to violent Islamic extremism, the victims’ stories, the indictment and trial of the man charged with supplying the weapons, and the recent standoff between the FBI and Apple over hacking into perpetrator Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone.

The San Bernardino massacre actually was the third major story of mass violence to break on O’Connor’s watch. She was there in June 2015, when a gunman shot and killed nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in a racially motivated attack.

“I also was there when the [November 2015] Paris bombings happened,” O’Connor said. “It was crazy, but it wasn’t as crazy” as the San Bernardino shootings, she said, citing the latter’s geographic proximity to the newsroom.

O’Connor was back in Boston for the spring semester but continued to intern for the LA Times remotely. After graduation, she will head back to Los Angeles and to the Times newsroom to complete the internship she said she hopes she can parlay into a full-time job.

Paul Niwa, chair of the Journalism Department and one of O’Connor’s instructors this spring, said he gets four to five calls or emails a week from media outlets who want him to send them Emerson interns and graduates.

He estimated that 90 percent of Journalism majors do at least one internship with a professional media organization, and about 60 percent do more than one.

“Emerson Journalism students have a reputation for being ready to work,” Niwa said. That reputation for hard-working, technologically savvy, and well-prepared students means the department is in a unique position to negotiate more paid internships for Emerson students, he said.

Niwa congratulated O’Connor on her work with the Times.

“I’m just really happy when a student as spectacular, as interested, as curious as Shannon is…I’m really glad she gets the recognition and some fantastic opportunities,” he said.

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