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Former Voice intern wins Pulitzer

Mountain View High and Voice alum Jose Vargas wins Pulitzer at the Post

For his work covering the Virginia Tech shooting last year, former Mountain View High School student Jose Vargas has won the Pulitzer Prize.

Vargas, 27, is now the resident expert on the Internet at the Washington Post, where he specializes in the "fascinating, forced marriage between politics and the Internet."

The former Voice intern tried to be humble about his accomplishment, saying, "I won this as part of a team, that's important. I didn't cure cancer."

His big Pulitzer Prize-winning break came while dozens of reporters were sent to Blacksburg, Va. to cover the shootings at Virginia Tech. He was back at the office, watching TV coverage a few hours after the shooting, when witness Trey Perkins was briefly interviewed.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, this guy has got more to say,'" Vargas said.

So Vargas looked Perkins up on Facebook, and found his profile. "Basically, I clicked "add to friends" and he was actually sitting at his desk at that moment," Vargas said. After Perkins accepted, "his page opened up and I saw his AOL name. I instant-messaged him, and I said, 'Hey, this is Jose, I know this is really weird but I'm a reporter from the Washington Post.'"

Vargas managed to get Perkins on the phone for 25 minutes and quickly filed the short story. It turned out to be the best account of what happened that day and went on the front page.

"I owe my Pulitzer to Facebook reporting," he joked.

His other Pulitzer winning submission in the Post's package of articles was a story describing how Virginia Tech students were using the Internet to communicate during the disaster. It was headlined, "Students make connections at a time of total disconnect."

Last year, Vargas said, he convinced his editors to put him on the presidential campaign trail. "You need someone to cover the campaign who has a Facebook account and who looks at YouTube every day," he told them.

More recently, he's been examining the world of video blogging. He may be the first reporter at a major newspaper to take a look at the practice, which grew out of people using YouTube, instead of written blogs, to record their thoughts.

"I've covered everything from video game culture to HIV and AIDS in Washington to national presidential campaigns," he said. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm way too lucky. It hasn't quite literally sunk in yet."

Vargas credits his success to his time at Mountain View High School, where then-Principal Pat Highland gave him a laptop for his birthday one year and English teacher Kathy Dewar encouraged him to go to a journalism camp in San Francisco in 1998. They also helped him get a scholarship to San Francisco State University from a local venture capitalist.

It wasn't an easy time for him. He had emigrated from the Philippines in 1993 and he was living with his grandparents, a security guard and a food server.

"If it wasn't for that high school," Vargas said, "I don't think I would have had the self esteem, and the belief in myself to think, 'I can do these things.'"

During college, he got a job as a copy boy at the San Francisco Chronicle and worked his way up to a reporting job. He also had stints at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post before landing his current job four years ago. He also credits his two years at the Voice, during his junior and senior year in high school, for some early lessons. He says the embarrassing routine of having to talk to people on the street for "Voices Around Town" was valuable training. He also recalled his first front-page story, about a house fire on Farley Street near where he grew up.

Even while touring with Hillary Clinton on her campaign plane, "I still think of myself as the boy who went to work at the Voice wearing Hawaiian shorts," he joked.

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