Mark Mahoney, The Post-Star's editorial page editor, has won the editorial writing category of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes, journalism's top honors.
The national contest annually recognizes the best reporting and writing published in a calendar year, and the honorees generally come from the biggest and most well-known newspapers in the country.
The Post-Star has never before been recognized as a Pulitzer Prize winner or finalist and, with a 34,000 daily circulation, it was the smallest paper among this year's winners.
Only one other paper with less than 100,000 circulation - The East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., a co-winner in the local news category - was among the winners.
All the others were large metropolitan papers, such as The New York Times, which won five prizes.
Mahoney was first picked as one of three finalists - the other two were editorial writers from The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. In the final round of judging, Mahoney was picked as the winner.
Each entrant in the editorials category had to send in 10 examples of his work.
Mahoney's editorials focused on issues to which he has returned many times over the years - governmental openness and accountability, freedom of information and First Amendment rights.
Mahoney's specialty, recognized by the judges, is to take on complicated, contentious issues with clarity and wit. He has a gift for making dry topics, like the Freedom of Information Law, readable through entertaining examples and comparisons.
"In the time it takes you to read this sentence, it will have spent about $20,000," Mahoney opened a recent editorial about spending by state government.
Beneath Mahoney's easy style is an ability to marshal powerful arguments in a logical way, so readers feel borne along, sentence by sentence, to an inevitable conclusion.
Editor Ken Tingley said Mahoney's win made him think of the line from the movie "Hoosiers," when the basketball coach is urging on his small-school team to the championship.
"This is for all the small newspapers out there that never got to play in the game," Tingley said.
Tingley, who has served in recent years as a Pulitzer judge in other categories, also recalled Mahoney's reluctance to enter the contest. But, he said, he was convinced by his experience as a judge that Mahoney's work was good enough to win.
"When I was a judge last year, I came back and said to Mark, 'We can play in this league. You can win this thing.' "
Rick Emanuel took over as The Post-Star's publisher about six months ago.
"To me," he said, "it's the highest honor in the industry, and Mark Mahoney is one of the most talented editorial writers in the country. He deserves national recognition for writing about hometown issues."
Mary Junck, chief executive officer of Lee Enterprises, which owns The Post-Star, called the news "fabulous."
"He's a wonderful writer," she said. "I'm thrilled the (Pulitzer) board has honored him in this way."
On Monday, Mahoney was out of the office when the prizes were announced. Emanuel reached him on his cell phone, calling him back for an impromptu office announcement.
Mahoney, stunned into silence, sat while the staff cheered and applauded. A few minutes later, after stammering through an interview with The Associated Press, Mahoney left the office "to get some air," he said.
He returned in about half an hour to field more calls from around the country.
Mahoney, 45, started at The Post-Star in 1988 as a general assignment reporter. He began writing occasional editorials in 1994 and became the paper's primary editorial writer in 2000.
He became the editorial page editor in 2003 and regularly writes more than 200 editorials a year on local issues.