The Service Behind the Prizes

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Washington Post was awash in Pulitzer Prizes last week -- six of them, the most ever for The Post.

In the world of newspaper journalism, Pulitzers are the pinnacle. But the prizes are awarded by journalists to journalists. Do they mean anything to readers, especially in this perilous time of newspaper contraction?

It may be easier to say what winning doesn't mean: It doesn't mean that declining circulation will rebound. It doesn't mean that there will be more advertising. It won't stop the employee buyout going on in the newsroom.

But the prizes, especially so many in one year, meant this to reader Mark LaBarre of Rockville: "Pulitzer recognition is a universally understood measure of a newspaper's reputation, yet it's also more. It's a signal that here's a paper that nurtures, encourages and empowers its writers. This signal helps attract the best in the field, and this cannot help but be a boon to the everyday readers."

Right. So let me drop the scolding this week and continue that theme:

It means that suffering Iraq war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center got help because of reporters Dana Priest (her second Pulitzer) and Anne Hull (her first) and photographer Michel du Cille (his third), who won the most coveted Pulitzer, the Gold Medal for "a distinguished example of meritorious public service." That series hit a nerve with readers everywhere; never in my career has a piece of journalism brought such admiration and gratitude.

Their work comforted the afflicted and caused the hospital's commander and the Army's secretary and surgeon general to lose their jobs. The Post is continuing to cover this story, which earned the newspaper its fourth Gold Medal and third in a decade.

It means that Post readers know more about the shadowy world of U.S. military contractors in Iraq because of Steve Fainaru, who won the international reporting prize, one of only two Pulitzers won for reporting from Iraq, both by The Post. As managing editor Phil Bennett said, Fainaru "got inside this closed brotherhood of hired guns [and] found a billion-dollar industry running wild."

It means that Post readers had outstanding coverage of a story that most people hated to read -- the Virginia Tech massacre. The prize, in breaking news, went collectively to the Post staff. While there were 11 bylines in the entry, 50 other staff members, mostly from Metro, contributed. The 11 are Michael E. Ruane, Brigid Schulte, Ian Shapira and Tom Jackman of Metro; Tammy Jones and Jose Antonio Vargas of Style; Alec MacGillis and Michael Shear of National; Sari Horwitz of Investigative; Adam Kilgore of Sports; and master writer David Maraniss, who wrote the powerful reconstruction. The entry also included coverage for washingtonpost.com.

It means that readers now know just how powerful Vice President Cheney is and just how much he dominated federal policy in the areas he cared about. National reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker (she's now at the New York Times) spent a year documenting how far and wide Cheney's tentacles went. The series, called "Angler" for Cheney's Secret Service code name, won the national reporting prize.

It means that readers who pay attention to financial columnist Steven Pearlstein would not have been surprised by the subprime mortgage crisis and the ensuing financial mayhem. He's been writing about it for a year and in language that is understandable and makes readers better informed. Pearlstein is the first business columnist to win the commentary prize.

It means that maybe the next time you hear a street musician you may listen a bit more closely. Post Magazine columnist and funnyman Gene Weingarten won the Pulitzer in feature writing for pulling off an outrageous stunt and then writing about it beautifully. He talked violin virtuoso Joshua Bell into playing his $3 million Stradivarius at a downtown Metro station and then chronicled how almost no one paid any attention to his sublime music.

Behind every prize are editors who don't get mentioned in the prize citations, who smoothed and tucked the copy and caught mistakes, wrote headlines and designed pages, in print and online, to attract readers. There is not enough space here to credit them all, but here are the main editors: Maraniss for the Walter Reed series; David E. Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news, for Fainaru's stories; Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations, and his deputy, Lawrence Roberts, for the Cheney series; Magazine editor Tom Shroder for Weingarten's story; and Sandy Sugawara, assistant managing editor for business, and economics editor Maralee Schwartz, for Pearlstein's columns. Several editors were important on the Virginia Tech coverage -- Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for Metro; his deputy, R.B. Brenner; and Virginia Editor Mike Semel.

And one researcher, Julie Tate, was credited for important contributions to three Pulitzer-winning entries. Washingtonpost.com editors packaged and supplemented the coverage. In Weingarten's case, it was an even better story online, where you see and hear Bell play.

The Post has won 47 Pulitzer Prizes since Eugene Meyer bought The Post in 1933, most under publishers Katharine Graham, his daughter; Don Graham, his grandson; and Bo Jones, who was publisher until February, when Meyer's great-granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, took over. Twenty-five Pulitzers have been awarded since Len Downie became executive editor in 1991, the most for any editor in history.

Reporters are the newsroom's most important people. Good owners and editors guide them to do their best for those who count most -- the readers.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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