The Pulitzers and the future of journalism

By Roy J. Harris Jr.
Monday, April 12, 2010; 12:00 AM

When the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes in journalism are announced later today, they'll serve a dual mission. The first order of business, of course, is recognizing the work that deserves the profession's highest accolade in each of 14 journalism categories. At the same time, though, the 19-member Pulitzer board of editors and academics will offer subtle guidance to a business sorely in need of direction. The prizes will give journalists some sense of the way forward, and give readers an idea of what sort of journalism they should expect to see more of.

The Pulitzers have played a proactive, standard-setting role since press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer first devised them in the early 1900s. Back then, Pulitzer's own brand of "new journalism" was struggling to establish its credentials, after years of partisan and sensational journalism. The prizes helped to legitimize the profession, elevating journalists by associating them with such literary leading lights as Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and Eugene O'Neill.

The prizes also encouraged the industry to see value in watchdog and investigative reporting, which won special attention from the Pulitzer board beginning with the Boston Post's unmasking of the investment charlatan Charles Ponzi in 1920. Not coincidentally, most newspapers began designating a reporter, or even teams of them, for special investigative duties. That practice, inspired in part by the Pulitzers, laid the groundwork for such achievements as the New York Times's publication of the Pentagon Papers and The Washington Post's Watergate series.

In recent years, the Pulitzers have helped to help maintain journalistic values amidst financial challenges. The prizes have continued to honor exemplary work at big-circulation papers, such as the Boston Globe's 2002 disclosures about sex abuse by Catholic priests and The Washington Post's 2007 revelations about Walter Reed Army Medical Center mismanagement. Yet the Pulitzer board has also signaled that important public service journalism need not be restricted to the big players. Last year, for instance, the Las Vegas Sun won its first Pulitzer ever, for its exploration of construction worker deaths on the Las Vegas Strip. And a local reporting prize went to reporters for the tiny East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz. These awards emphasized the importance of small-budget investigative efforts -- sending a special message in these frugal times for newspapers.

To be sure, there's been some criticism that the journalism Pulitzers have been overly bound by the journalistic traditions they helped to establish, and slow to embrace newer forms of journalism. Indeed, last year was the first in which online-only entries were allowed. But no example of reporting in that form was a winner or finalist. And the board made little reference to online components in its winner citations, although it credited the New York Times for breaking the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal on its Web site and cited the St. Petersburg Times's PolitiFact feature for using "the power of the World Wide Web" to verify political claims. Animated editorial cartoons have received a bit more attention from the board. Still, a pretty thin result given how much news organizations are investing in online operations.

It's possible that, rather than being slow to recognize online journalism, the Pulitzer board has determined that, so far at least, nontraditional reporting forms haven't been up to competing with traditional print-based reporting. This year, though, there are some strong nontraditional candidates under consideration, and I expect the board to find one or more of them worth honoring, either as winners or finalists. Those winning efforts will then act as guideposts for journalists trying to figure out their roles in a transitioning profession.

Another relatively new practice that may garner Pulitzer notice is the use of collaborations between news organizations and independent, privately funded groups. The largest of these groups, ProPublica, has already received recognition from two competitions often considered "predictors" of Pulitzer Prizes. The University of Southern California's Selden Ring Award went to a ProPublica-Los Angeles Times expose of insurance for contractors in war zones, and a ProPublica-L.A. Times project exploring a nursing scandal was a finalist in the same competition. Meanwhile, Harvard's Goldsmith Prize competition named as a finalist another ProPublica investigation -- this one on improper New Orleans police activity -- in partnership with The Nation Institute, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Public Broadcasting's Frontline. Some newspapers have turned to such collaborations to help offset the high cost of investigative operations. After a Pulitzer nod, these partnerships would be valued for both their cost-savings and their standard-setting results.

Increasingly, the news business needs confirmation that important models of whatever is to become this century's "new journalism"-including models that involve online-based reporting and investigative collaborations-are legitimate, Pulitzer-quality approaches. The Pulitzer Prizes have offered guidance to the profession before. The media, and those who consume it, will be watching today for signals that the Pulitzers are ready to set the tone once again.

Roy J. Harris Jr., author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism," will be online to chat with Post readers when the awards are announced this afternoon. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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