It’s not often you have to write an obituary for a town. Yet that’s what Martha Mendoza and Jocelyn Gecker were tasked to do, with Gillian Flaccus producing a compelling video component. Their tribute to Paradise, California – leveled by a devastating wildfire that killed so many residents – painted a picture of all that was lost. Paradise was a gold prospector’s town, then a lumber town, and until two weeks ago was the home of 27,000 people “who lived and loved here; they built homes and businesses, schools and houses of worship, parks and museums that proudly honored Paradise's place in American history.”
The pace was relaxed. It was a lovely place to retire, where people had yards and dogs. Mendoza worked from the field, in the ashes of the town, with Gecker in San Francisco tracking down leads, helping to write the finished piece and finding photographs to illustrate “the town’s history and spirit, its seasonal colors and its many festivals.”
Gecker found the town’s de-facto photographer who allowed AP to use his images for powerful before-and-after visuals and create a photo transition of the town’s Gold Nugget Museum, using an earlier image on a blue-skied, flower-filled day that matched up perfectly with a picture Mendoza shot in ruins.
Mendoza and Gecker’s careful, nuanced reporting, along with that of many colleagues, drew forth tales of town holidays – the Golden Nugget Days and Johnny Appleseed days – and residents ruminating whether those staples of small-town America would continue. The preparations for an outdoor ice skating rink and rehearsal for the local “Nutcracker” ballet have now turned into crews pulling human remains from homes and a toxic, smoky air that covers the wreckage. They worked with newsfeatures editor Jerry Schwartz in New York, who told them, “This is not a story about the fire. I would like to know what it was like living in this town. And what the world has lost when it loses a town like this.”
A senior editor called the text piece “pure poetry.” The accompanying video by Gillian Flaccus of a long-time resident describing what used to stand where buildings now lie in rubble, was emotional and unique. The video, recorded during a ride-along with the resident, complemented the text piece by showing street after street of utter devastation over the man’s narration.
The text story had 26,388 pageviews, and an average engaged time on AP News of nearly a minute. It also was used widely by California customers, and the video was used widely by international customers.
Paradise is gone, and until it rebuilds in some fashion, Mendoza, Gecker and Flaccus have given the world the definitive piece on what it represented. For their deft depiction of the town behind the headlines, the trio wins AP's Best of the States.