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Dr Alison McCulloch

Writing for Columbine

The April anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre will be remembered vividly by a former student of the University's School of Journalism who was part of the newspaper team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its breaking news coverage of the tragedy.

Dr Alison McCulloch, currently a deputy chief subeditor at the New York Times the American title is backfield editor won newspapers' highest accolade for coverage of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings when working as a copy editor (American for subeditor) at the Denver Post.

America's Pulitzer Prizes were begun by 19th century newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer as an incentive to excellence . Rewarding works in journalism, letters, and music, they are regarded as being among the most prestigious honours possible in literature: past winners range from Ernest Hemingway to John Kennedy.

In the tragedy of 20 April,1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 of their classmates as well as a teacher, and wounded more than 20 others. The winning Denver Post coverage began with the dramatic breaking news: Two students, cloaked in black trench coats and armed with guns and bombs, opened fire Tuesday at Columbine High School, killing as many as 25 people and wounding at least 22 others in the worst school shooting in U.S. history.

It also included evocative reportage of the carnage through the eyes of the participants and the witnesses. One piece began: Fanned out across the Denver metro area at work and in their cars, they heard the first sketchy rumors. Trouble at Columbine. Gunshots. Suddenly, existence boiled down to what matters most. And strange kids in trench coats were threatening to yank it away. The result was the most intense moments that some 4000 Colorado parents have ever known. They screamed. Cried. Hyperventilated. Prayed…

Alison is quick to emphasise the award was for a writing team. It was not to me personally. Yeah, I got a plaque, but I was merely one of the many editors involved. That one got improved in the telling, which is a little embarrassing and now means I'll never be able to come home again!

A graduate of journalism's class of 1982 when it was part of the old Wellington Polytechnic, Alison has had a distinguished career in journalism. After graduating alongside home-grown notables including television personality Kerre Woodham and Investigate magazine editor Ian Wishart, she began real life as a rural reporter for Radio New Zealand.

She subsequently worked as a reporter and Gallery reporter for The Dominion newspaper, where she covered, among other things, the first Ma-ori challenges over fisheries and other resources that began when the Labour Government started its state-owned enterprises policy.

In 1990 she joined the new Rainbow Warrior on its trip to Mururoa investigating and protesting French nuclear testing, her reports carried in The Dominion and the New Zealand Listener. On moving to Washington State, she completed an MA in philosophy. After moving to Denver she started a PhD, which she completed in New York in 2003. It's about Kant, Alison says. Not at all journalism related, but I love philosophy, and I'm still trying to work out a way to combine the two. There has to be a way, don't you think?

As a backfield editor on the Foreign Desk at the New York Times, Alison works alongside nine others maybe four to five on at any one time under the foreign editor and deputy foreign editor. Backfielding is one step up the editing food chain from the copy editors, she says. You work pretty closely with the reporters. Given that it's the foreign desk, they're from all over the world, and I haven't actually met half of them.

How much writing, rewriting, etc., of stories depends on things like what the story is hard news, feature, analysis the reporter, the demands from above, etc. It's a great job, though I find it more stressful than I'm used to.

Alison has fond memories of her time at the School of Journalism. We put out the [now defunct community newspaper] Mt Cook Messenger a few issues a year I think we even delivered it. Notable in my sketchy memory were the trips out of town. I went to Taumarunui to work on the local paper there, and there was also a trip to Carterton - or was it Greytown, or Masterton? Hmmm, I can't remember: it was somewhere in the Wairarapa.

We learned a lot of useful practical stuff, photography, developing pictures okay, I guess that's all been superseded by digital typing, shorthand and newspaper production from go to whoa. I loved all that stuff!


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