Four more Pulitzers -- but does it matter?

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, April 18, 2010; A15

It didn't take long for cynics to weigh in after Monday's announcement that The Post had won four Pulitzer Prizes.

"Who cares! WaPo is dying, strangled by the neocons," wrote an online commenter.

"Congratulations to the lunatic-left's bible," said another.

And this from a reader who noted the declining fortunes of newspapers: "Why does this matter any more?"

In many ways, it doesn't.

Although The Post won more Pulitzers than any other newspaper, its prizes didn't boost circulation. No new readers cited the prizes when subscribing last week, said circulation vice president Gregg J. Fernandes. Online traffic didn't soar.

Nor will winning the most prestigious honor in American journalism mean giant advertising gains. The financial situation for The Post, which lost money last year, continues to improve but remains challenging.

And National Editor Kevin Merida said Pulitzers aren't needed to lure talent to the newsroom. "Recruiting isn't a problem," he said. "It's a buyer's market. There's nothing but great journalists out there. People want to come here."

At most newspapers, winning a Pulitzer is a once-in-a-career rarity. At The Post, it's commonplace. But in two critical ways, this year's Pulitzers have outsized importance among the 64 The Post has won since 1936.

First, they haven't attracted new subscribers, but they may help retain existing ones. Readers' loyalty has been tested by recent subscription rate increases on the heels of content reductions and the most dramatic redesign of the paper in more than a decade. First-quarter circulation figures, to be released soon, are expected to show worrisome erosion.

There's evidence that local readers hold The Post in higher regard when it wins Pulitzers. After being awarded six (its most ever) in 2008, a Post survey of more than 3,000 adults showed 37 percent in the core circulation area said the prizes increased their confidence in the product. If that sentiment remains, it may save some wavering subscribers. "Reputation is important in life," said Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer Prize administrator at Columbia University. Pulitzers can "validate the wisdom of a reader's loyalty."

The second impact is harder to measure, but it was evident as the Pulitzer winners spoke to staffers in the Post newsroom shortly after the awards were announced Monday afternoon. A conspicuous sense of pride could be seen returning to a staff that has endured a tumultuous year of organizational upheaval and the continued loss of some of the nation's most respected journalists to cost-cutting buyouts. These were the first Pulitzers won for work under the leadership team headed by Marcus W. Brauchli, who become executive editor in the fall of 2008. It was as if the newsroom had rediscovered the end zone.

"The effect on the morale of a staff is so strong that it does translate to something you see on the page," said Roy J. Harris Jr., a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism."

The impact of a Pulitzer on a newspaper's journalism is "kind of diaphanous, it's hard to put your fingers on it. I just know it when I see it," he said. "Everybody in the office begins to think, 'I can do this kind of work.' The standard is high. It makes everybody sharper."

To many who win a Pulitzer, the jubilation is fleeting. The Post's Gene Weingarten, who won his second prize for feature writing, recalls getting an e-mail from "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau after winning his first Pulitzer two years ago. "Congratulations," it read. "The euphoria will last until your next deadline." Sure enough, Weingarten's editor called about 20 minutes later to complain that he'd just submitted a mediocre column.

"So in some ways," Weingarten said, winning "means almost nothing."

In an online chat Tuesday, Weingarten said it's "a bit of a crapshoot." Indeed, the odds are long. There were about 1,100 entries. Earlier this year, scores of top-flight journalists spent several days at Columbia narrowing them to three finalists in each of 14 journalism categories. The separate 19-member Pulitzer Board selected the winners.

The process is rigorous. It's also imperfect. Finalists, like The Post for its coverage of last year's Fort Hood massacre, fall heartbreakingly short. Some superb entries don't even make the finalist category.

Quality is subjective. Winners may not always represent last year's best work. But they almost always reflect truly exceptional journalism.

"None of us comes to work every day with the aim of winning a Pulitzer," Brauchli told the newsroom on Monday, "but it sure is nice when it happens."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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