On the edge of America, the U.S. Census started in a tiny Alaska town on the Bering Sea. Toksook Bay, population 661, is only reachable by plane, and isn’t an easy place to live, much less report. The temperatures hover around zero, and daylight is scarce this time of year.
Alaska news editor Mark Thiessen and San Diego photographer Greg Bull traveled 500 and 4,200 miles, respectively, to get to the windswept community, several days before census officials and most media showed up. The census always starts in rural Alaska out of tradition and necessity: the ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds.
Thiessen spent months preparing, planning flights, arranging lodging (there are no hotels, so they slept on a classroom floor), planning meals (frozen burritos, to avoid paying $5 for Campbell’s soup), and making connections in the community. His planning and knowledge of the travails of rural Alaska travel paid off: Many news organizations didn’t make it because the weather got much worse after Thiessen and Bull arrived.
Toksook Bay is the ultimate small town, and residents can be distrustful of people they don’t know. Spending four days in the community, Bull and Thiessen got rare access to day-to-day life, showing residents fishing, celebrating and playing in the snow. Their story, photos and video introduced the rest of the world to the small town and its Yup’ik people, giving rich details of a world unlike any other place in the United States.
Even their crude living arrangements came in handy. Their cell phones didn’t work, so when Thiessen went to the school to use the phone to try reach the family of the first person who was to be counted, he found out the woman’s granddaughter was a teacher. She helped translate a key all-formats interview with 90-year-old Lizzie Chimiugak, who speaks Yugtun, the Yup’ik language.
When the Census director finally arrived, delayed by bad weather, and the work officially started, Thiessen and Bull were able to quickly file the spot news that the Census had begun.
The story got wide play in the U.S. and beyond, with NBC doing a Twitter thread promoting the work. The Anchorage Day News, the top member in the state, relied on AP’s story and posted a special photo presentation online. The work ran on front pages of newspapers as distant, literally and figuratively, as the Tampa Bay Times.
Thiessen and Bull even found time to do a panel discussion with a high school government class about the role of journalists and government accountability. The teacher who asked said they’d never get another opportunity like that.
For covering the news in a far-flung part of the country, providing a window into a remote way of life, and overcoming myriad technical obstacles and very cold fingers, Thiessen and Bull win this week’s Best of the States award.