Former Enterprise reporter, NYT staff are Pulitzer finalists
SARANAC LAKE — A former reporter for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Christopher Mele, was part of a group of New York Times staff honored this week as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for breaking news coverage.
The slate of Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners — chosen by juries as the best in journalism, letters and the arts last year — were announced on Monday and included awards for breaking news reporting, investigative reporting and local reporting, among other categories. Winning a Pulitzer Prize in journalism is considered among the highest honors in the field.
Mele, 58, runs the New York Times’ breaking news desk, known as the Express Team, on the weekends. The work that put his team in the running for a Pulitzer Prize began on a Sunday last year, Jan. 9, 2022, when New York City’s deadliest fire in decades broke out at an apartment building in the Bronx.
The first indication that a fire had started came in around 11:15 a.m., Mele said, around 15 minutes after it began.
Mele was working from his home at the time. He first heard that 10 people were injured in a Bronx high rise fire, maybe seven of them critically.
With breaking news, there are different levels of urgency and severity. Sometimes, the event does little to shift the course of history, change lives or change the landscape of a place. Other times, it does just that. Over the years, Mele said he’s developed something of a “sixth sense for things,” and he’s learned how to quickly understand how big a story is and what type of resources are needed to cover it.
“I’m Radar from M.A.S.H.,” he said. “I can hear the helicopters coming.”
After the initial reports, he started listening to the police scanner.
“It was increasingly apparent how bad it was,” he said.
In breaking news, there’s a “gold standard,” according to Mele. It’s a lesson many reporters learn over the course of their careers. It’s a skill that he used while reporting at the Enterprise between 1986 and 1988, when he covered Harrietstown and Saranac Lake, in addition to a variety of other things depending on the need of the day. Making calls from a newsroom is one way to approach gathering information, but in the case of breaking news, it’s not the best way.
“The instinct is always to make sure you get there as fast as possible,” he said. “There’s nothing that beats being at the scene.
“It’s more about the idea of doing the reporting first hand and gaining access, photos, interviews, witnesses,” he added.
For the Times’ Express Team, “If things are blowing up, dying, crashing, catching fire, (they’re) sort of the trip wires,” Mele said. “We’re covering it first and holding down the fort until we can get reinforcements.”
Mele’s role in the Times’ coverage of the Bronx fire was “in the really early beginnings, getting it coordinated, getting the first version of the stories up,” he said. That includes sending reporters and photographers to the scene.
At 12:36 p.m., the Times published its initial story on the fire, according to Mele.
Ultimately, 17 people died in the fire, including eight children, and 44 people were injured. An investigation by the Times found that the building’s main fire safety system — intended to compartmentalize the fire and curb the spread of smoke and flames to other areas of the building — had failed. Though no one died in the fire itself, smoke from the fire was able to fill the building’s 19 stories quickly because multiple self-closing doors didn’t close properly, the Times reported.
The Times’ Pulitzer submission included seven articles created by a team of writers, editors, photographers, videographers, graphic designers and other news staff members. Mele estimated that in total, more than 100 people contributed to the newspaper’s coverage of the fire.
The Pulitzer committee cited the Times’ “urgent and comprehensive coverage of New York City’s deadliest fire in decades, expertly combining accountability reporting across platforms with compassionate portraits of the 17 victims and the Gambian community that had long called the Bronx high-rise home.”
The winners of the Pulitzer Prize in the breaking news category were the staff of the Los Angeles Times, for reporting that revealed racist comments by Los Angeles City Council officials, which were caught on tape, and for coverage that followed of the subsequent backlash and conversations about racial issues in local politics.
Originally from the Bronx, Mele arrived at the Enterprise after graduating from college. He was 22 years old; the Enterprise was his first full-time reporting gig. He was hired by Bill Doolittle, a former owner, editor and publisher.
“When I started, I had no concept of the Adirondacks, small-town politics or municipal government,” he wrote in a 2016 blog post. “I did not know a village board from an ironing board.”
At that time, the Enterprise had three staff reporters and a sports reporter, in addition to the sports and news editors. He remembers covering everything from municipal government to Saranac Lake schools, local prisons and sometimes news from the neighboring village of Lake Placid.
Repeated exposure to more lower-level types of breaking news, such as car crashes, helped prepare him for the type of breaking news he deals with now, like mass shootings.
“I owe a lot of my early learning about covering breaking news from my days as a cub reporter cutting my teeth at the Enterprise,” Mele said in a statement.
After leaving the Enterprise, he joined the Plattsburgh Press-Republican in 1988, where he ran the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid bureau. He left the Press in 1992.
He has worked as an investigative reporter and editor at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, as a business reporter at The Journal News in Rockland County, and as executive editor of The Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He was hired at the New York Times in 2014.