2020 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

The Fisherman’s Secret

About the Project

Sunken treasure is a seductive starting point for any story.

An elusive prize that may or may not be what it seems makes the story even better. Add a struggling fisherman who happens upon it and his obsessive years-long effort to recover it. Stir in some maritime history, a fading fishing fleet, and some huge legal and economic obstacles standing in the way of the hunt, and you have “The Fisherman’s Secret.”

The Chronicle’s Tara Duggan and Jason Fagone tell the story of Giuseppe “Joe” Pennisi, a third-generation fisherman from Northern California who, while trawling for groundfish in the Pacific outside the Golden Gate, caught a glimpse of a shiny yellow object glinting on the ocean floor, something he was certain had to be gold from a sunken ship.

After Pennisi shared a tantalizing image of his find by text message with Duggan, The Chronicle began a months-long effort to learn and tell the full story. The fisherman was cautious, slowly revealing how he happened upon the golden objects deep in the sea, and refusing to reveal the location of his find, fearing the federal government or other treasure hunters might sink his dream.

The reporters had to be cautious in how they reported the story, careful not to expose too much about Pennisi’s secret while interviewing experts about maritime law and the international rules regarding sunken treasure.

Ultimately, it became clear that this would not be a tale about a fisherman’s unlikely recovery of lost gold, but a deep dive into the nature of obsession, a story Duggan and Fagone told in a richly detailed and compelling narrative.

We are proud to nominate “The Fisherman’s Secret” in the Feature category of the Online Journalism Awards