Roy J. Harris Jr., formerly a Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in the Economist organization, is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.”
Joseph Pulitzer — publisher of the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch until his death in 1911 — created the Pulitzer Prizes through his will, back when national awards were rare. He wanted the prizes to go to the year’s best in journalism and in American arts and letters, as a way to elevate public esteem for the media. As anticipation builds in America’s newsrooms for Monday’s announcement of the 98th round of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University, let’s examine some of the myths surrounding the awards.
1. Pulitzer Prizes honor the best of American journalism.
Actually, the journalism Pulitzers are newspaper-centric and limited in their scope. Designed as honors for the nation’s dailies and the wire services that serve them, the prizes never have been extended to TV news or magazines, except those that appear as newspaper supplements. So, for example, Seymour Hersh won multiple awards but not a Pulitzer for his 2004 New Yorker exposé of Abu Ghraib prison torture. Hersh, while with a small wire service, did earn a Pulitzer in 1970 for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
In 2009, new rules allowed the consideration of material that has run in online publications unconnected to a newspaper, but the prize categories are still narrow: Eight are reporting-based, with the others honoring opinion writing, criticism, cartooning and photography. One obituary writer I know notes that there’s no category that would include his work.
2. Small news outlets don’t stand much chance against major newspapers.
It may seem that way in years when one large publication grabs a hefty number of prizes, as when the New York Times won seven Pulitzers in 2002 or when The Washington Post took home six in 2008. But there always seems to be at least one smaller winner in the group of 14 — and often in the public service or breaking news categories.
In 2012, the Tuscaloosa News staff won the breaking news award for coverage of a tornado that devastated that Alabama city, and Sara Ganim and other staffers of Harrisburg, Pa.’s Patriot-News won the local reporting prize for reporting on the Penn State sex abuse scandal. My favorite David-and-Goliath public service award went to the Point Reyes (Calif.) Light in 1979. The 7,000-circulation weekly exposed how an anti-drug-abuse group became a dangerous cult.
Smaller outlets can win in other categories, too. A writer for a Seattle weekly, the Stranger, won a feature writing prize in 2012 for a beautifully written story about a murder case. And recent collaborations between bigger news organizations and online upstarts augurs well for future Pulitzer honors for small enterprises.
3. There are few Pulitzer surprises.
Unlike the Oscars, whose finalists are known weeks in advance, the Pulitzers don’t disclose who was in the running until the day the prizes are announced. While there once were widespread leaks of finalists — by a group of journalists called “the Cabal” that made a practice of rooting out a list after the jury selections — in recent years it’s been more of a guessing game.
Much of today’s Pulitzer secrecy stems from the board’s efforts to shore up the leaks. But the Pulitzer organization always has been tight-lipped, including about why one entry wins out over other finalists. And the secret deepens when no award is given in a category. No prize was awarded in 2012 for editorial writing or in 2011 for breaking news reporting, for instance. In the arts, the most shocking omission was also in 2012, when no fiction prize was given.
In the days between the Pulitzer board’s final selections and the Monday announcement, some editors of winning publications get word. But plenty of winners still are caught off guard, such as Alexandra Berzon, whose stories on construction-industry deaths helped the Las Vegas Sun win the public service prize in 2009. Berzon was covering a court hearing when the Pulitzer was announced; she found out about it when a receptionist congratulated her when she returned to the newsroom.
4. The quest for Pulitzers does a disservice to readers.
As the Pulitzers evolved, the winners gave newspapers models for great reporting. The soaring reputation of the Pulitzers in the 1920s and ’30s led editors and reporters to try harder to win them: More projects were planned, and more resources were put into investigative teams. That also meant there were some cases of chasing prizes first and serving readers second.
But Pulitzer-winning projects can produce monumental change. After the Las Vegas Sun exposed safety violations and how casinos, regulators and even unions put a low priority on worker health, deaths on the city’s work sites stopped. The Boston Globe’s articles that won the 2003 public service prize, uncovering sexual abuse of young parishioners by Catholic priests, sparked global reforms. And The Washington Post’s investigation of mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the public service winner in 2008, succeeded in “evoking a national outcry and producing reforms by federal officials,” the Pulitzer board said.
As newspapers navigate financial hardships, many are keeping their investigative teams, even if investors sometimes see them as inefficient.
5. The Pulitzers are stuck in the 20th century.
Certainly, the Pulitzer Prizes have been slow to change — almost as slow as the newspaper business has been to adapt to the Internet. But lately, some of the best online news reporting and multimedia storytelling are being honored. And the Pulitzer board has had a number of younger, non-newspaper members join it lately, bringing more experience in digital and multimedia journalism.
This year, there’s speculation that the Pulitzers might honor the work of the British-based Guardian’s U.S. Web site and The Washington Post for its coverage of National Security Agency surveillance. A Pulitzer based on highly classified information from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden would be controversial, though hardly more so than the award given to the New York Times 42 years ago for its coverage of the top-secret Pentagon Papers.
Last year’s national reporting winners, staffers from the tiny, online InsideClimate News, show how an upstart news organization can turn great reporting into a Pulitzer. The site exposed flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines. And the 2013 prize for feature writing went to John Branch of the New York Times for his inventive “Snow Fall” narrative, about skiers killed in an avalanche, which combined video, audio and interactive charts in an entirely novel way.
And then there’s the most common myth of all: how to pronounce the prizes’ name. For the record, it’s pronounced “pull-it-sir,” not “pew-lit-sir.” Even some winners get it wrong.