In defense of the Pulitzer Prizes

A few hours before the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, Albritton’s Jeff Sonderman tweeted: “Food for thought: Is journalists’ pursuit of journalism awards (Pulitzers) bad for journalism? Does it mislead priorities?”

The question reflects a percolating cynicism toward, if not outright backlash against, the prizes and journalism awards in general over the past few years.

Journalism-sacred-cow-tipper Jeff Jarvis has written several posts criticizing various aspects of the Pulitzer Prizes and culture (distilled: they turn “the profession into a circle-jerk of mutual self-love”). Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton wrote an anti-Pulitzer post on the occasion of the 2008 Pulitzer announcement, arguing that “these self-congratulating awards, and the attention devoted to them, are symptomatic of the decline of the newspaper industry.” The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus joined the parade last year with an essay in Columbia Journalism Review titled “Newspaper Narcissism” (subscription required to read more than a preview; I don’t have a CJR subscription, but read a slightly longer bootlegged preview).

I’m a world-class cynic, and I’m all for tipping sacred cows when warranted. But I just can’t hop on this bandwagon (or bandtricycle — I don’t want to fall into the false-trend trap, either). While the list of the news industry’s problems and self-inflicted wounds is long, I don’t think the Pulitzer Prizes belong on it.

There’s certainly been some valid criticism of the prizes. In 2006, Jarvis urged the Pulitzer committee to consider journalism in any medium. With last year’s award to PolitiFact and this year’s to ProPublica (also a finalist), along with various citations of online coverage in awards over the past couple years, the Pulitzer committee seems to have taken this advice to heart.

That same year, Will Bunch lamented that no “old-school local enterprise reporting” won a 2006 Pulitzer. (Bunch’s Philadelphia Daily News blog doesn’t have his pre-2008 posts, so I’ve only read part of his Pulitzer post via Jarvis’s post.) Subsequent years’ Pulitzers have been awarded for such reporting, including an Investigative Reporting award to the Daily News this year.

Aside from those two specific points, most of the criticism I’ve come across is overly vague, relates more to journalism as a whole than to the Pulitzers, or assumes an attitude among journalists and newsrooms that I find hard to believe at the scale the accusations describe:

“It’s sad [the lack of 2006 awards for local enterprise reporting], because while urban news organizations had slashed true enterprise reporting in the face of the job cuts, we are pathologically unable to stop covering the exact same stories that everyone else is.” — Will Bunch (again via Jarvis)

Hear, hear to the latter. News organizations absolutely must stop wasting resources on redundant or unnecessary reporting, what Jarvis calls “commodity news.” But just because A) the Pulitzers did not reward old-school local enterprise reporting in 2006, and B) many news orgs produce some redundant commodity reporting; it does not follow that C) ALL news orgs, or the entire reporting staff of any newsroom, produced ONLY redundant commodity reporting in 2006, or more importantly that D) the Pulitzer’s 2006 local-enterprise-reporting snub has anything to do with news orgs’ tendency to redundantly report commodity news.

“Until now, I saw too many papers edited for the Pulitzers, not their publics. They did investigations, all right, but they were grandiose, multipart, eye-numbing probes aimed at pleasing a prize jury, not at news that affects the lives of the people living in their communities. — Jeff Jarvis

But what’s the difference between a grandiose, eye-numbing probe that doesn’t affect people’s lives and a grandiose, edge-of-your-seat probe that does? Some examples would have been very helpful here.

“The danger is that coverage of communities, neighborhoods and events is slighted while reporters do 12-part series on politicos.” — Jeff Sonderman

I guess that’s a danger if you assume a 12-part series on politicos is fluff or totally boring and not newsworthy. But what if those politicos were corrupt or horribly ineffective, or contributed to a bad business deal that leaves taxpayers on the hook for millions? Couldn’t a 12-part expose on these subjects count as a kind of Bunch’s “old-school local enterprise reporting”?

“Rather than impress colleagues with the seriousness of their reporting, US newspapers need to engage a readership that is drifting off to television and the internet. Pulitzer-winning journalism will win Pulitzers; it won’t save an industry which is experiencing double-digit annual declines in advertising revenue.” — Nick Denton

Wish he had provided some examples of Pulitzer-winning local enterprise reporting that has not engaged readers. Also, those ad revenue declines would have occurred with or without “Pulitzer-winning journalism” thanks to Craigslist, the real estate crash, the recession, and a general (not Pulitzer-specific) lack of plan to deal with that whole Internet thing.

Denton argued that the Pulitzers are the apotheosis of American newspapers’ true focus, which has been to “impress colleagues with the seriousness of their reporting.” This focus was “a luxury” enabled by newspapers’ local monopolies; “the same monopolies which have allowed a public-service mentality to flourish have also left newspapers unprepared for new competition.” British papers, on the other hand, are in better shape because of “vicious competition”; they’re “way livelier” (though “standards … are as sloppy as ever”) and can “pander to readers” because “editors fear the loss of their jobs, not their honor.”

But most American journalists don’t want to be like their British counterparts. The great challenge for American journalism is to maintain some semblance of the public-service mentality while learning to live (or at least survive) with the new competition.

“Over the past ten years, The Washington Post has won nineteen Pulitzer Prizes. But over that same period, we lost more than 120,000 readers. Why? My answer, unpopular among my colleagues, is that while many of these longer efforts were worthwhile, they took up space and resources that could have been used to give readers a wider selection of stories about what was going on, and that may have directly affected their lives.” — Walter Pincus

Still no specific examples of a single Pulitzer winner, finalist, or entrant that wasn’t worth it. And to the extent that those 120,000 readers left because the paper wasn’t relevant to them anymore, I doubt the handful of Pulitzer-style stories was the culprit. There was plenty of remaining space and resources for the Post to widen its selection of stories. Like most papers, the Post may not have done enough rethinking of the kinds of stories it covers and how to better reach today’s audience. But that’s a holistic, institutional-definition-of-journalism issue, not a matter of devoting too many resources to enterprise reporting.

Let me pause here to do what these critiques haven’t done, and mention some specific Pulitzer winners and finalists.

  • 2010 Public Service winner: “The Bristol (VA) Herald Courier for the work of Daniel Gilbert in illuminating the murky mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners in southwest Virginia, spurring remedial action by state lawmakers.”
  • 2010 Investigative Reporting winner: “Sheri Fink of ProPublica, in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine, for a story that chronicles the urgent life-and-death decisions made by one hospital’s exhausted doctors when they were cut off by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.”
  • 2010 Investigative Reporting winner: “Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News for their resourceful reporting that exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal.”
  • 2010 Investigative Reporting finalist: “Michael Braga, Chris Davis and Matthew Doig of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for their in-depth reporting and computer analysis that unraveled $10 billion in suspicious Florida real estate transactions, triggering local and state efforts to curb abuses”
  • 2009 Public Service winner: “Las Vegas Sun, and notably the courageous reporting by Alexandra Berzon, for the exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip amid lax enforcement of regulations, leading to changes in policy and improved safety conditions.”
  • 2009 Investigative Reporting finalist: “Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for their powerful revelations that the government was failing to protect the public from dangerous chemicals in everyday products, such as some “microwave-safe” containers, stirring action by Congress and federal agencies.”
  • 2008 Public Service winner: “The Washington Post for the work of Dana Priest, Anne Hull and photographer Michel du Cille in exposing mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, evoking a national outcry and producing reforms by federal officials.”
  • 2008 Investigative Reporting winner: “The Chicago Tribune Staff for its exposure of faulty governmental regulation of toys, car seats and cribs, resulting in the extensive recall of hazardous products and congressional action to tighten supervision”
  • 2008 Local Reporting finalist: “Chris Davis, Matthew Doig and Tiffany Lankes of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald Tribune for their dogged exposure, in print and online, of predatory teachers and the system that protects them, stirring state and national action.”
  • 2007 Investigative Reporting winner: “Brett Blackledge of The Birmingham (Ala.) News for his exposure of cronyism and corruption in the state’s two-year college system, resulting in the dismissal of the chancellor and other corrective action.”
  • 2007 Local Reporting winner: “Debbie Cenziper of The Miami Herald for reports on waste, favoritism and lack of oversight at the Miami housing agency that resulted in dismissals, investigations and prosecutions.”

I wonder which of those (or the many other winners and finalists I didn’t list) are eye-glazing wastes of space that readers didn’t care about and that were done only to win the admiration of fellow journalists.

“Of course, I’m not saying that all Pulitzer-winning journalism is bad; of course, not,” Jarvis wrote in one of his 2006 posts. Of course not!

“Pulitzer winners are probably exceptions. Its the thousands of overwritten projects *aiming* for awards that are problems,” Jeff Sonderman wrote in our brief Twitter conversation.

This is ultimately the primary argument against the Pulitzers: They’re so revered and so central to today’s journalism culture that much of journalists’ everyday behavior and work is shaped by a desire to chase the big prize.

I just don’t buy it. One of my biggest problems with journo-geek commentary (including my own) is its tendency to treat news organizations as monolithic entities that can change attitudes, practices, and technologies as easy as any journo-geek can. But a news organization is a complex entity that functions not only on institutional traditions and processes, but also on the beliefs, attitudes, frustrations, and general messy humanness of each individual journalist in the organization.

To truly believe in the Pulitzer’s perverse power, you have to believe that each of these individuals goes to work every day — makes every phone call; assigns, creates, edits every story — thinking, “How the heck can I work this to maximize my chances of getting a Pulitzer nomination?” And that most news organizations’ institutional culture is built around this attitude.

I’m certainly not privvy to any survey data that says journalists and news orgs don’t behave this way. But it hasn’t been my experience. And it doesn’t make much sense on a human level. Most people think about things like how they can finish their tasks to get home in time to eat dinner/put the kids to bed/watch telly. Or how much their colleagues are annoying them that day. Or how to please their boss. Or maybe how to craft the perfect lead, or whether they shot the perfect photo. But sustained, mutual daily obsession with the Pulitzer Prizes seems like a stretch.

Jack Shafer wrote the best Pulitzer critique I’ve seen, in a 2004 Slate column. The prizes themselves don’t seem to bother him too much, since he’s under no illusions about the formula for picking winners (“one part log-rolling, two parts merit, three parts ‘we owe him one,’ and four parts random distribution”). But he argues sensibly for toning down coverage of the Pulitzer winners because 1) Pretty much nobody cares, and 2) “If another trade association gave itself awards … would its winners get Page One play? Never.”

Journalists’ outsized and blinded sense of self-importance? That’s a monolithic attitude I can believe in.

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4 responses to “In defense of the Pulitzer Prizes

  1. I appreciate your very detailed look into this, Josh.

    I don’t think we’ll find truth at either extreme here. No newsroom can honestly say it cares nothing for awards. Also no newsroom is crafting it’s entire enterprise budget around the available awards categories.

    I think most of us can agree though that it is very important to keep these awards in perspective. Journalism should be measured by the readers it serves and the impact it has, regardless of awards it receives. Award, from Pulitzers down to your local SPJ chapter, are fine for calling attention to good work. But journalists should place more stake on how readers respond, not a panel of judges.

    I would like to see a massive “Reader’s Choice Awards” developed where the users vote on the best investigations and breaking news of the year.

  2. That sounds like a nice middle ground to me :)

  3. Great commentary, Josh. My vote would be to keep the Pulitzers as the Oscars of journalism — i.e. the only real national contest — and to replace most of the other national and regional contests with the sort of “readers choice” awards suggested by Jeff Sonderman. That would provide a nice blend of perspectives.

  4. Thanks, Jeff. It would be an interesting experiment if SPJ regional chapters replaced or supplemented their traditional awards for a year with “readers choice” type of awards. I suspect that in some (many?) cases, readers would honor the same stories SPJ judges would have selected.