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Pulitzer History and the 2008 Winners

Roy Harris Jr.
Author: "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism"
Tuesday, April 8, 2008 10:00 AM

Roy Harris Jr., author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism," was online Tuesday, April 8 at 10 a.m. ET to examine the winners of and finalists for the 2008 Pulitzer Prizes, and to take questions about Pulitzer history.

The transcript follows.

Harris is senior editor of CFO magazine. Previously he served from 1971 to 1994 as a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, including six years as deputy chief of its 14-member Los Angeles bureau.

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Roy Harris Jr.: Welcome to the Pulitzer Prize Q&A, all.

It was a triumphal day, of course, for The Washington Post, winning an amazing six Pulitzer Prizes-and in such a wide variety of the 14 Pulitzer journalism categories. Besides the brilliant Walter Reed medical center reporting that won Public Service, there was Breaking News (for Virginia Tech coverage); National Reporting (the role of Dick Cheney in the White House); International Reporting (the Blackwater private militia in Iraq); Commentary (business columns of Steven Pearlstein), and Feature Writing (Gene Weingarten's magazine piece on Joshua Bell playing incognito as a subway musician.)

Whew!

The only other such display of multiple prize-winning came in 2002, with the New York Times's seven. And many of those were for work that related to one horrific event and its global, national and local fallout.

But there were messages in this Pulitzer day, too, I think, for American journalism, which for 91 years has used these prizes as something of a barometer for the excellence in newspapers across the country. While some great mid-sized and small papers around the U.S. were acknowledged as finalists-typically there are two finalists, along with a winner-in each category, the top award went to the Post or Times in eight of 14 cases.

With the big Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe winning two others, only in Local Reporting, Editorial Cartooning and Feature Photography did the prize go to staffers a papers that wasn't in the giant category: the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Concord (N.H.) Monitor and Investor's Business Daily, respectively.

Beyond that perhaps disturbing tally, it's best at Pulitzer time to concentrate on the winning work, rather than the numbers-although I think the Post will be thinking of the number six for quite a while to come.

My specialty the last five years has been following the Public Service prize-winner. But in doing so, I've learned a lot about the other prizes, and how the Pulitzer judging system has evolved to its current, I think, very high level.

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Washington: How often does a humor columnist end up winning for a feature story? Rarely, right?

Roy Harris Jr.: It is rare, indeed. Jack Fuller, a former Chicago Tribune editor and Pulitzer board member, told me it was one of his concerns that funny material didn't do well in the Feature category. Gene Weingarten did it VERY well this time. What an amazing story. I could only think of the irony of such a beautiful piece of journalism being passed over by unappreciative readers, and perhaps ending on the bottom of the bird cage, while oh-so-few realized it for the gem that it is.

Of course, now it has its recognition. It's worth a reread.

By the way, I'm in Boston and not a Post reader, so reading Weingarten was a first for me.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there a Web site where I can see the photography winners and read the winning articles for this year? I've seen archives for previous years but haven't yet seen this year's winners.

washingtonpost.com: The 2008 Pulitzer Prizes. Select a winner, then click the "Works" tab.

Roy Harris Jr.: The site above has links to all the current winners, and past winners going back to '95. It's working on filling in the earlier decades. The Pulitzer site often links to the newspapers' own sites, and they're eagerly touting the work, of course.

This year, with The Post winning six, looking up winners seems like a bit of "one-stop shopping."

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Washington: Weingarten? Really? This must be a dark day in Pulitzer history. When was the last time a guy and his moustache won a Pulitzer?

washingtonpost.com: Pearls Before Breakfast (Post, April 8, 2007)

Roy Harris Jr.: I guess being provocative is a good feature in a feature writer. As for the moustache, Gene Shalit works on TV and isn't eligible.

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Charlottesville, Va.: I was surprised the Times didn't win one for the whole Spitzer saga. Any thoughts? Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Pulitzer Prize submission rules (.pdf): "Competition for journalism and book prizes is limited to work published during the calendar year, ending December 31."

Roy Harris Jr.: I was in New York when the tabloids "distinguished" themselves with "Bad Girl" headlines and photos. Even Newsday (a finalist this year in Public Service, and a paper with a stellar Pulitzer-winning past -- although it doesn't do as well at holding onto its gold medals.)

The Times did stellar work, I think. But there's a lot of 2008 left.

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Arlington, Va.: Why'd it take so long for Weingarten to win a Pulitzer? He's been pumping out brilliant long-form feature stories for years. Nice of the voters to finally wake up.

Roy Harris Jr.: Yes, provocative seems to be the word for Weingarten.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I am one of thousands of adoring fans of Gene Weingarten, and thought his Joshua Bell story was great. But what was it about the feature that the Pulitzer committee found so attractive, in comparison to hundreds of other feature stories that were written this year?

Roy Harris Jr.: While we're on the subject, I just read one of the finalists: the Los Angeles Times' vivid, visceral narrative of a grizzly-bear attack to a father-and-daughter in Glacier National Park. (It also covered their recoveries.)

What a job it is for jurors to compare and contrast such diverse work.

My reading of the two? Weingarten's work was genius, and I'm eager to find out about how it was planned and edited. If you read it, you'll know why it won.

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Bethesda, Md.: Which reporter has won the most Pulitzers, and how many did they get?

Roy Harris Jr.: Tough question, which can be answered in part by going to the www.pulitzer.org site and going to the "archives" and entering a name under "winner."

But that search will only give you the guys and gals with names on the certificates. The Pulitzers have made some funny decisions about such things. Woodward and Bernstein are not listed on the certificate; The Post won in 1973 for Public Service (a prize that always goes to a paper.) Although individuals may be listed on the certificate -- as Anne Hull and Dana Priest and photographer Michel du Cille were this year.

Bob Woodward told me he does not consider himself a Pulitzer-winner. (It's in my Watergate chapter.) Oh, common, Bob. Give yourself a break.

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Washington: I am surprised that no editorial was found worthy of a Pulitzer. Any thoughts on why this might be?

Roy Harris Jr.: I found this absolutely shocking. The editorial is supposed to be the soul of the newspaper. You can take that to the next step if you want....

However, the Pulitzer Board has a guideline of not giving a prize if it can't get a majority in favor (of 19 members.) It did that a few years ago with Feature Writing, which I believe also sent a signal about how features were being written -- perhaps with prizes in mind, rather than the readers.

But the standard of winning a majority of the board does help prevent a case of a good editorial or feature article winning an Pulitzer just because nothing is better that year. That would be a bad precedent.

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Washington: With Weingarten's piece it was one piece that won, but with many of the others there seemed to be a litany of articles on the topics. What accounts for the difference?

Roy Harris Jr.: Newspapers can enter any way they like, within reason. (The Los Angeles Times grizzly entry contained two stories.)

For example, they're limited to 20 entries in Public Service (and maybe other categories as well.) When the Boston Globe won for its Catholic Church coverage in 2003, it had written 900 stories on the topic during the year.

The 20 it picked made it a runaway choice of the jury, and later the Board. I suspect that was the case this year with the Post's Walter Reed coverage. I've got calls in to the jurors, and will try to board. Stay tuned.

As for Weingarten's Joshua Bell piece, I wouldn't have put it in with anything else. It was a solitary diamond, and should have been.

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Broomes Island, Md.: Mr. Harris: While congratulations are in order for the excellent Washington Post, I am wondering if the pool of Pulitzer-worthy papers is decreasing? I recently visited a medium-sized city in southern New York, and I was astonished at the lack of heft (in both ways) that I found in the daily paper. All the articles of merit were wire-service stories ... and that was 80 percent of the paper. It made me realize what a treasure we have in The Post.

Roy Harris Jr.: Serious, serious question. And a sad one, I fear. The newspaper business has yet to find a new operating model, one that makes print and online pay, and allows for growth.

I believe there are many oases of great journalism--not reflect in this year's prizes, I fear. After studying the Public Service prize, and writing about how reporters got the story, and how papers ran with it to that level of excellence, I was constantly amazed by the examples. Take the Wall Street Journal exposing stock-option backdating abuses to win last year, as one recent example.

But papers like the Oregonian and Times-Picayune (both owned by Newhouse, and thus private) are dedicated to maintaining a strong "project reporting" presence. And S.I. writes the checks for it. The New York Times, Boston Globe, and, clearly The Post do that, too (even if the stockholders might like them to cut more from the budget.)

There are still many, many great newspapers. And great reporters keep getting drawn into the business. Don't forget that it's the reporters who make this happen, as long as they're given a long lead by the editor and publisher.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: How many Pulitzers did The Washington Post win for figuring out the prelude and early march to Baghdad were a complete fraud? Surely that would have merited some investigative reporting trophies. Thanks much.

Roy Harris Jr.: Ouch. The whole news business feels that pinch.

I can just say that without exposing Blackwater, and letting us know about the White House power structure, and, of course, the heartbreaking betrayal that Walter Reed represented for veterans, it'd be much, much worse.

Congrats, Washington Post. And learn a lesson, everybody else!

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Philadelphia: When you state that no award if given if the Board can not reach a majority, it made me wonder: how many ballots do they use in their voting? Do they deliberate like a jury and keep revoting, or do they just vote a set number of times?

Roy Harris Jr.: It's a secret body, and we don't know what goes on in the World Room of Columbia's Journalism Building. But I'd think that if the members didn't majority vote, they'd do everything they could to win a majority -- and give up only, like a jury, they were "hung."

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Alexandria, Va.: Given the decline of newspapers across the country, how long will it be before the same 20-30 people win a Pulitzer over and over again ?

Roy Harris Jr.: I'm not worried (yet) about the number of people -- that is, journalists -- doing great work. In almost every newsroom you'll find reporters who'd be snapped up by The Post or New York Times, or Boston Globe if those editors knew about them.

The problem is that those eager reporters, who won't take no for an answer, too often aren't getting a chance to ask the questions!

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Honesty: If The Washington Post had not won any Pulitzers this year, would you still be hosting this chat on this site? Answer truthfully.

Roy Harris Jr.: I wanted to save this one for last. I'm glad they hosted it (and asked me, a non-Post reader, to help out.)

But I did notice that the Wall Street Journal buried the Pulitzer story (using the AP version by the way.) And unless I missed it, it wasn't even mentioned in "What's News." What's that all about? And it DID have a finalist?

The New York Times? Page C15 of the Business Day section, but with plugs on the front page.

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Herndon, Va.: Congratulations to all the winners. I was just wondering why the editors of the winning features are not mentioned, only the reporters.

Roy Harris Jr.: This is one of the concerns that led me to write a history of one of the prizes, the Pulitzer Public Service gold medal. Too often it's the editor who makes the story great, and she/he should be acknowledged.

Also, it's very often that a team of journalists -- editors and reporters -- is responsible, and that the group is too large to be individually identified. (They don't all get bylines, either.)

Notice the Post's Breaking News award for "the staff."

I love the stories behind the stories. But they're usually not very easy to get.

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Bethesda, Md.: Who is eligible to submit nominations for the Pulitzers? Can individual reporters submit? Do they lobby their editors or newspaper management, or are the powers-that-be supposed to choose the best? Would a paper the size of The Post nominate something for each category? Can they nominate more than one article/series (e.g. if the reporters of the grizzly bear piece also were at The Post, could The Post have submitted that and Weingarten's Joshua Bell story)? I noticed that Pearlstein's entry was sent in by the business editor after the paper in general passed. Who submits in the literature category -- or does the selection committee chose from all available work that year? Thanks!

Roy Harris Jr.: Every paper is different. Most entries are self-nominated. But some papers have panels of editors that assemble "award lists" during the year.

Individuals do enter their own work, however. And sometimes win.

In some of the cases of Public Service awards I studied, the Pulitzer Board actually went to the paper and suggested that it enter. In 1977 the Lufkin News in East Texas (now called the Daily News) wasn't going to enter its stories about how the Marine Corps had lied to a family about how a young local recruit had died in training. It had exposed the truth--that the young man, who was retarded, it turned out, was beaten to death by other recruits in an exercise--but the editor hadn't thought that such a small paper had a chance.

In addition to having the Pulitzer Prize in the office in Lufkin, it also has the letter that the Pulitzer Board member had written it asking for a nomination!

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Arlington, Va.: Does the Pulitzer selection committee look at a given submission in isolation, or is consideration given to a journalist's entire body of work? Thank you.

Roy Harris Jr.: The 14 journalism categories of Pulitzer don't have a body-of-work element.

Generally, the jury of journalists first, and the board later (working with the jury recommendations) deals only with the entry as submitted. But the Board members can and do request more information, and will often investigate if it has questions.

It will never forget the legacy of Janet Cooke, who, on a much darker day in Post history, in 1981, had the paper surrender her prize after it was disclosed that she had invented characters in her narrative.

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Troubled Newspapers: You alluded to the Pulitzers as an indicator of the health of print journalism. How are you assessing the results? As someone who was born and raised on the Baltimore Sun when it was not just a good paper but arguably a great one, its death of a thousand cuts is painful to watch. That is pure understatement. I'm curious, is this the health -- or lack thereof -- to which you allude?

Roy Harris Jr.: That's the kind of story that shows newspapers to be seriously ailing. But Pulitzer time is the best time to look at -- and, really, to wonder at -- how much great journalism remains in small and mid-sized papers around the country.

Look at the result those papers accomplished--not just winners, but finalists. This is where the industry needs to build from. How it builds is the worry.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is it really "breaking news" with cable TV and the Internet? The category seems a bit outdated, no?

Roy Harris Jr.: The Pulitzers have changed category names repeatedly over the years since 1917 (when there were only three journalism categories.)

Breaking News is covered as breaking, same day, by papers. You'd be comfortable with the designation after reading the three days of Virginia Tech shooting reports.

But, yes, by today's standards there's a lot more "news analysis" in Breaking News entries. There has to be. And that started with TV, not blog posts.

By the way, papers need to do more these days to correct blog inaccuracies in their coverage. It was one of the hallmarks of the Times-Picayune's remarkable coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans -- bloggers ran wild, and printed rumors like crazy. The community needed the investigative powers of the Times-Picayune turned on that subject, too.

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Rancho Mirage, Calif.: What other stories were contenders for the Public Service award?

washingtonpost.com: Newsday: The LIRR Gap; The Charlotte Observer: Sold a Nightmare.

Roy Harris Jr.: Newsday was a Public Service finalist for stories that looked at railroad-train safety. Can't wait to dig into that one for the "second edition" of "Pulitzer's Gold." (Only the winners are posted on the Pulitzer site.

The other finalist was the Charlotte Observer, for its work digging into the mortgage and housing crisis. If its work stood above the other reporting on that topic, it must be special.

But it was the year for the Walter Reed scandal to take the gold.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How often are Pulitzer Prizes taken back, and for what reasons have people been stripped of their Pulitzer Prizes?

Roy Harris Jr.: It's extremely rare. Besides Janet Cooke, the debate about Walter Duranty's coverage of the Stalin years is the other case of prize-debunking that's discussed. There's a discussion of that on the Pulitzer site, as well.

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Washington: While you're reasoning may be true about why no editorial won a Pulitzer, I personally think the quality of editorial writing in newspapers has significantly declined. First, I feel like most newspaper readers don't read editorials, so maybe they're not aware of the poor quality of writing in most of our country's best newspapers' editorials (I'm looking at you, New York Times). I resolved a few years ago (as a journalism student) to start regularly reading the editorials of newspapers, believing -- as you said -- that they were the soul of a paper. What I've realized is good editorials are few and far between; the amount of poorly written, poorly argued and poorly researched editorials far outnumber the impressive and well-written ones. Perhaps your reasoning for no editorial winner is true, or perhaps it's just that the quality of editorial writing truly is lacking.

Roy Harris Jr.: Could be an explanation. If the Pulitzer Board sends that message, editors should take notice.

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Richmond, Va.: When the Walter Reed stories broke, it seemed inevitable that Dana Priest and Anne Hull would win a Pulitzer. How often does a story/series of stories seem like a slam dunk for the prize?

Roy Harris Jr.: Slam dunks are rare. And I know from talking to scores of Pulitzer Board members and jurors about their act ivies over the years.

The Boston Globe Church stories fit that description. And I think the New York Times for creating the "A Nation Challenged" Section after Sept. 11 (the Public Service winner in 2002.)

But sometimes when you think it's a no-brainer -- like the reaction to a storm, for example, the jurors and Board members are cautious. They look harder at stories where a prize is "expected."

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Washington -- Proud of Dana!: I just wanted to say that, odd as it may sound -- because I've never met her and probably never will -- I am so proud of Dana Priest! She's one heck of a journalist and a brave, brilliant woman. Her stories (and let's not forget her colleague who worked with her one the Walter Reed pieces) effect change. I feel fortunate that she's out there doing what she's doing, illuminating situations for the rest of us and helping to make people accountable for their actions. Tonight I'm going to go home and tell my daughters about her and show them what brave women can do! Way to go, Dana!

Roy Harris Jr.: Great wind-up comment. The Walter Reed stories -- as is often the case with the Public Service Pulitzer-winner -- seem the cream of a very rich crop of winners.

And the courage of reporters is visible in these awards on many levels. Just "gambling" on a story that looks like it might not pan out -- as is often the case -- takes a bit of nerve, when there are other stories beckoning.

Many of these great stories are literally "unbelievable" at first. Who would imagine that Walter Reed would have come to that, with all the focus on veterans returning? Who would have thought of the extent of sexual abuse of parishioners by priests, and that the Church would cover it up rather than deal with the anguish caused?

I know the Boston Globe didn't expect it to go as far as it did. And I suspect it was a bit of a surprise to Anne Hull and Dana Priest as well.

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Roy Harris Jr.: Thanks to all, across the country, for such an enlightening discussion. This kind of interaction is one of the great things about newspaper technology. And, of course, it's changing the nature of the Pulitzer Prizes as well.

Online components are a growing part of Pulitzer entries now. And how wonderful for reporters to get the instant feedback as they work.

Again, congratulations to all the Pulitzer winners this year -- and to the readers of the winning and finalist papers for supporting great journalism.

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