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Posted at 10:14 AM ET, 04/25/2011

Pulitzer Prizes: Rule change needed?

The Pulitzer Board might want to rethink the rules for its breaking news category. This year it gave no prize in that category. I can think of at least two news organizations that can plausibly claim to have been robbed: The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, both of which did tremendous work on the gulf oil spill, which was the biggest breaking news story of the year.

There are others who might also complain, namely the three finalists in the Breaking News category. The board reportedly couldn’t reach a majority vote (so, um, why not make it a plurality rather than give no award?).

And I should note that the Journal didn’t go unacknowledged: Its oil spill coverage was a finalist in the National News category. The winner in that category was Pro Publica, for coverage of Wall Street shenanigans (by the way, over on the arts and letters side of things, when will the P’s give Michael Lewis the prize he’s earned more than once?). But unless the Journal somehow botched its entry and forgot to include its best work, I find it hard to believe that the board could have looked at the Journal’s package of coverage and concluded that it wasn’t worthy of a Pulitzer in some category.

I suspect the real problem is that the breaking news category stipulates that the work be “local.” Why make that stiipulation? There’s already a separate category for Local News.

The Journal was very good in its coverage early and often, with superior enterprise pieces that were the first to lay out precisely what went wrong on the terrible night of April 20, 2010, as shown in company documents and emails. That work, by Ben Casselman, Russell Gold and other WSJ staffers, set the standard for every reconstruction story that followed.

And let’s not forget the AP: It was on top of the story from the get-go and never let up. Along the way, the AP had a terrific enterprise piece on the abandoned wells that continue to pose a spill hazard. For its oil spill coverage, the AP won a George Polk Award.

Now, you might argue that the spill was not truly “breaking” news, except for the first couple of days. You would be mistaken. It was ALL breaking, for three months, every day different from the last.

As a news organization covering a repeatedly breaking story, you have to be nimble in multiple platforms and at different scales of enterprise, from one-sentence news alerts to double-truck takeouts. I might define even an enterprise story, months in the making, as part of the overall package of covering the breaking-news event.

“Best” is inherently subjective, and although I know a bit about this topic, others might come to a different conclusion about which organization had the superior spill coverage. There were a number of folks in the business who were consistently outstanding, and I’ll name just a few, with apologies to those I leave out (and to my own colleagues — it goes without saying that I’m proud of our work): Ian Urbina of The New York Times had one big story after another that no one else could match, as did his colleague Justin Gillis, and the Times had a source in the BP war room that let the Times break important stories about the attempt to kill the well. David Hammer of the New Orleans Times-Picayune had the most detailed and sharpest reporting on the testimony before the Marine Board of Inquiry. Tom Fowler of the Houston Chronicle and the FuelFix blog were required reading.

This was a highly competitive story and a lot of first-rate organizations gave it their all. No one did work deserving of a Pulitzer?

I suspect there was a hitch in the machinery here.

There are worse things in life than being overlooked for a prize. The work itself is its own reward. There is satisfaction that comes from knowing that you’ve done well, and done your best, under challenging circumstances; that you’ve done right by your readers. But official recognition from one’s peers would surely come in handy years later, when the words have been mulched under layers of time, and the echo of the attaboys in the hallway have long ago faded away.

By  |  10:14 AM ET, 04/25/2011

 
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