In this year’s American Society of News Editors, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Scripps Howard competitions, Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel was runner-up for its gripping series exposing widespread reckless speeding by off-duty cops and the death and injury it caused in South Florida.

So how did the Tribune Co.-owned Sun Sentinel emerge this week with the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, considered the gold standard of journalism awards?

The answer can be traced to the Pulitzer process itself and to certain qualities of the 19-member Pulitzer board, which, in secret deliberations, makes the final decision. Among the qualities: a maverick streak and willingness to use the prize to send subtle messages to the news business as a whole.

Board members generally don’t comment on their decisions, deferring to longtime Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler, who, in turn, deflects most questions by saying the award citation “speaks for itself.” Still, he concedes in an interview, “there’s always a certain pleasure in finding a smaller news organization that’s done outstanding work.”

Indeed, dark-horse winners of the public service prize haven’t been that unusual over the Pulitzers’ 97-year history: Most recently, the tiny Bristol, VA, Herald Courier won in 2010 for its stories on mismanagement of mineral-rights royalties, and in 2009 the Las Vegas Sun got the nod for detailing, and helping to halt, a spate of construction worker deaths.

But, the Pulitzers often do go with the favorites: the 1972 gold medal to
The New York Times for the Pentagon Papers, for example, with the next year’s going to The Washington Post for Watergate. The Boston Globe’s 2003 gold medal came as a shock to exactly no one who’d been following its monumental disclosures about sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church. (Last year’s was won by another long-time Pulitzer powerhouse, albeit now-diminished, The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

Asked about this year’s choice—and past dark-horse winners from Bristol and Las Vegas—Gissler says, “We pay attention to cases where there’s an extraordinary use of limited resources,” while, naturally, keeping standards high.

Limited resources? We’ve got those! says Sun Sentinel editor Howard Saltz who, in an email response to questions, reports staff cuts had more than halved the newsroom to 150 members by the time he arrived from Denver-based MediaNews Group in August 2011. “We got more investigative reporting at the Sun Sentinel not by adding staff but by shifting priorities,” he says, adding: “If anyone thinks this isn’t working, I can ask my new friend, Mr. Pulitzer Prize, to share his thoughts.”

The public service award—the one that comes with the familiar gold medal, and only goes to a news organization, never to individual journalists—is the first Pulitzer of any kind for the Sun Sentinel.

“It had that every-person appeal,” says Peter Bhatia, editor of Portland’s Oregonian and one of seven public-service jurors who picked the Sun Sentinel’s “Above the Law” series as one of its three finalists in the first round of the Pulitzer competition in February. “We all say when we see a speeding cop, What’s that about?” The six-time Pulitzer juror, on his first public service panel, was impressed, too, by the ingenious plan devised to measure what seemed immeasurable: both individual cop-car speeding cases, and how fast each car actually sped. “They thought big, and made something happen.”

At the paper, the first inkling that an investigation might be in order came after a very public incident in October 2011. A Miami police officer going to a second job as a security guard was clocked going 120 miles an hour on a local highway when a state trooper pulled him over. News of the arrest went viral online, and the Miami Herald devoted much more initial coverage to the case than the Sun Sentinel, but Sally Kestin, who eventually became the Fort Lauderdale paper’s lead reporter on the story, says, “We saw this kind of thing all the time, and we thought it was the tip of the iceberg…We asked ourselves, How can we prove that?”

Kestin came up with the idea of using “SunPass” toll-booth records, getting raw material in readings from 3,915 police-car transponders—which officials initially refused to produce, arguing they weren’t public. Those records helped document the high frequency of high-speed driving by police officers done off-duty, or in non-emergency cases. The problem, then, was to prove how fast they actually drove.

Roy J. Harris Jr. is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, magazine writer and online editor, and the author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.