Capital Gazette staff members stayed silent and somberly exchanged hugs when the Maryland newspaper won a special Pulitzer Prize citation for its coverage and courage in the face of a massacre in its newsroom.

Before the announcement, newspaper employees gathered in their newsroom to remember the five staff members who were shot and killed last June in one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in US history.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” said reporter Chase Cook.

“Since it’s so connected to something so tragic, there was no euphoric pop-off of excitement.”

Pulitzer Prize Newspaper Shooting
Editor Rick Hutzell, centre, gives a speech to his staff including Chase Cook, Nicki Catterlin, Rachael Pacella, Selene San Felice and Danielle Ohl at the Capital Gazette (Ulysses Muoz/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

The Capital Gazette, based in the Maryland state capital of Annapolis, published on schedule the day after the shooting attack. The man charged in the attack had a longstanding grudge against the newspaper.

Capital Gazette editor Rick Hutzell said the paper had submitted entries in five categories, including a joint entry with The Baltimore Sun for breaking news.

Although the Capital Gazette did not win in any of the five categories, the Pulitzer board awarded the citation with an extraordinary 100,000-dollar grant to further its journalism.

The Pulitzer board said the citation honours the journalists, staff and editorial board of the newspaper “for their courageous response to the largest killing of journalists in US history in their newsroom” and for an “unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief”.

Mr Hutzell said he thought the Pulitzer board handled its decision admirably.

“Clearly, there were a lot of mixed feelings,” Mr Hutzell said. “No one wants to win an award for something that kills five of your friends.”

He also said the paper was aware it would be facing stiff competition.

“It’s very difficult when you are reporting in some ways on yourself,” he said. “That’s not what we do. We’re behind the camera, not in front of it.”

Employees John McNamara, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman and Rob Hiaasen were killed in the attack last June 28.

The shooting did not stop other workers from covering it and putting out a newspaper the next day, with assistance from colleagues at The Baltimore Sun, which is owned by the same company.

Joshua McKerrow, a photographer for the newspaper, said the staff remained “stone silent” for about a minute after learning about the citation.

Capital Gazette reporter Rachael Pacella said the citation provided a “big sense of validation for the staff”.

“It’s been a challenge returning to work,” she said. “It lets you know that the additional stress you’ve endured going back to work has been worth it and appreciated.”

Features reporter Selene San Felice said she had to compose herself in a bathroom before the prizes were announced.

She initially was not sure how to react to the special citation.

“At first, I thought that meant they just feel bad for us. And that’s not true, because there are a lot of people you can feel bad for right now. We’ve really earned this,” she said.

Jarrod Ramos, the man charged in the newsroom shooting, had a history of harassing the newspaper’s journalists. He filed a lawsuit against the paper in 2012, alleging he was defamed in an article about his conviction in a criminal harassment case in 2011. The suit was dismissed as groundless.

Ramos’s trial is scheduled to start in November. He pleaded not guilty last year to first-degree murder charges. April 29 is the deadline for lawyers to change his plea to not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.