Roy J. Harris, Jr.
Author, 'Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism'
Monday, April 12, 2010; 3:00 PM
Roy J. Harris Jr., author of Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism, was online Monday, April 12, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this year's award winners and the changing role of today's journalism.
The Pulitzers and the Future of Journalism (Post, April 12)
Harris spent 23 years with the Wall Street Journal, including six as deputy chief of its Los Angeles news bureau, before becoming a senior editor in The Economist Group organization. He lives in Hingham, Mass.
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Roy J. Harris, Jr.: The Pulitzer Prizes again grab the attention of American journalists in a little while, as the Columbia University-based administrators of the 94-year-old annual award system - the oldest and most respected -- gear up for a 3 p.m. announcement.
To be revealed: 14 prizes for newspaper print and online journalism, led by the coveted Public Service gold medal, given to a news organization, rather than individuals. In the broader world of arts, letters and music, seven Pulitzer Prizes will be bestowed. Broadcast and magazine-based journalism isn't included in the Pulitzers.
Our online discussion this year covers the journalism prizes rather than those for the arts. And it likely will reflect some of the big questions on the mind of reporters and editors - even beyond what will win in such areas as Investigative Reporting, Breaking News Reporting, Local Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, National and International Reporting and Feature Writing, along with Commentary and Criticism, Editorial Writing and Cartooning, and both Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography.
Journalists, for example, have been especially interested in whether the Pulitzers will take another step toward recognizing online-based reporting, and a relatively new breed of collaborative investigations involving nonprofit organizations like New York-based ProPublica. While the Pulitzers have officially welcomed entries for primarily-online publications the last two years, and those operations and the new collaborative reporting efforts have done well in other competitions, the Pulitzers have yet to award the top prizes on one. Yet online publications continue to crop up around the country as a way of more economically delivering the news, and all types of publications have turned to the collaborative investigative models.
In the past, winners have been actively leaked by Pulitzer jurors and others eager to get the word out. But over the last two years, the Pulitzer organization has succeeded in plugging the leaks. So most of the awards are likely to be surprises. And in some years, there are clear-cut front-runners, based on how powerful the stories were. In 2003, for example, the Boston Globe won the Public Service medal for its disclosures of the surprising extent of sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic priests, and the Church's efforts to cover it up by shuffling abusers from parish to parish. Then in 2008, the Washington Post surprised no one by claiming the Public Service prize for its shocking disclosures about mismanagement at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The biggest buzz in this otherwise quiet pre-Pulitzer season has surrounded the National Enquirer's entry for the work it did to expose an extramarital sex scandal involving former Democratic presidential candidate and North Carolina senator, John Edwards. Most other media shunned following the National Enquirer exclusives over the past two years. But when Edwards admitted to his affair, and announced that it had produced a child, the work of the Enquirer -- a supermarket-distributed, tabloid-sized paper that has never won a Pulitzer (although it has entered in the past) -- got some new respect. Whether that respect will translate into a Pulitzer Prize in either of the two categories it entered, Investigative Reporting or National Reporting, is another question.
I look forward to a discussion about winners, losers, and the journalism Pulitzers in general, when the news is out. Thanks for your interest.
Harrisburg, Pa.: In researching your book, have you noticed any patterns in what types of writers and articles are more apt to win Pulitzer Prizes, beyond the listed standards for winning?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: The greatest pattern was stubbornness in reporting -- being skeptical about what officials told the reporter, and then not taking no for an answer if "no" didn't make sense.
My favorite stories over the 94 years of the prizes have been those David-v-Goliath tales. And they're also the most fun to re-tell.
The pattern imposed by the Pulitzers themselves, however, involves getting results. For the Public Service award, the Pulitzer organization looks for work with a measurable impact on the community. In the last few years, for example, the Walter Reed Army hospital expose cleaned up a terrible situation; the Boston Globe's priest sex-abuse scandal changed Catholic Church policy, and ended a horrific cover-up of crimes; the Wall Street Journal's revelations about stock-option backdating helped correct those abuses.
washington post.com: 2010 Pulitzer Prize Winners
Fairfax, Va.: How did the "legitimate" news organizations react to the Pulitzer board allowing the National Enquirer to enter into the competition for their coverage of the John Edwards scandal? And, how real are the chances that they would win?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: First off, whatever you think of the National Enquirer, it was definitely a legit news operation in its pursuit of the Edwards story. Other papers should have followed its disclosures.
Smart members of the MSM saw the Pulitzer board's decision to accept the Enquirer's entry as a given. All that meant was that the Pulitzers considered the Enquirer a newspaper -- hardly a revelation. (For a short time, the Pulitzer administrator noted that the Enquirer itself described itself as an entertainment magazine -- and that magazines are excluded from Pulitzer consideration.) By all the definitions I know, the weekly Enquirer, and its Web site, are newspaper operations whose work should be allowable for Pulitzer consideration. Plus, the Enquirer has entered multiple times in the past, although not for a number of years.
My feeling before the Pulitzer announcement: their chances were small, not because they were supermarket tabloid or didn't do a good job. They DID get a great, blockbusting story. My concern was that the stories weren't well-enough sourced, and that there was sure to be terrific competition among papers that got the goods, and source their stories better. I believe that some reporters I know, if given the Enquirer's tips to check, would have been able to get named sources to go on the record.
Of course, people criticized the Post's Watergate coverage for not having enough on-the-record sources in 1972 -- and that was one of the all-time great Pulitzer-winners. But we know from "All the President's Men" how Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee agonized over their difficulty getting sources to allow themselves to be named. And I think the difficulties in covering a White House-led cover-up were much greater than even those great obstacles facing the National Enquirer in exposing the Edwards scandal.
Actually, I think the Enquirer may change a bit to reflect this brush with Pulitzer immortality.
Washington, D.C.: Congrats to the Washington Post and its four winners. Absolutely love the feature Gene Weingarten won for (and all his other feature writing as well).
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Another stellar performance for the Post, indeed, with four prizes and finalists, too.
Washington, D.C.: Great news that Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer for his amazing piece on children left in cars by their parents. It was a courageous piece of work. Here's to hoping that this award brings more attention to this tragic issue. And -- Gene -- congratulations!!
washington post.com: Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? Gene Weingarten Reports. (Post, March 8, 2009)
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: I remember scrambling a couple of years ago to get caught up on that Joshua Bell-in-the-subway story, which was remarkable. But with so many terrific feature writers around the country, winning a second prize is a remarkable recognition.
washington post.com: Pearls Before Breakfast (Post, April 8, 2007)
I 4 a record for the paper?: Four awards in the same year -- is that a record both for Pulitzer and the Post?
Congratulations to the paper and especially the honorees, btw.
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Nope. Not to put a damper on an amazing year, but the Post hit a near-record six in 2008, that last time Weingarten was a winner. The New York Times won seven in 2002, with many of those awards reflecting its work covering 9/11. Its Public Service prize was a classic, for the creation of "Portraits of Grief" within its "A Nation Challenged" section.
Germantown, Md.: The Breaking News category has been around for about 12 years. Was that created to acknowledge the speed of the Web?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Breaking News's first year was 1998, when there was a bit of a realignment in the prizes that got away from terms like "Spot News." It's certainly a more relevant name now that online coverage is the first order of the day.
The Seattle Times has been a bridesmaid for Pulitzers a number of times recently. They were very proud of the work they did in this police-shooting story. They've got a great staff to mobilize for such work.
I'm eager to go back and read the stories, and the finalists from the Post (for the Fort Hood shootings) and from the Star-Ledger, the Newark-based paper that is always in the Pulitzer running.
washington post.com: 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists (AP, April 12)
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: My quick tally of winners and finalists shows that the Pulitzer really did get some signals about ProPublica, perhaps the finest of the collaborative nonprofits that is working with various publications to breathe life into investigative reporting.
Two Pulitzers were given for Investigative Reporting, one one was to Sheri Fink of ProPublica, for work she did with the New York Times Magazine. The topic was those hospital decisions we read so much about after Hurricane Katrina.
There's another sign in that Investigative prize that the Pulitzer board is very active there at the end. The Sheri Fink-ProPublica-Times story was entered in Feature Writing (where it was a finalist), but was moved by the board to Investigative.
Seattle, Wash.: Weingarten wins again! Fatal Distraction was an article that stuck with me, even after a year. It's amazing the same guy did Violin Pulitzer and Fatal Distraction Pulitzer. Gene, you rock!
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: It's a great thing for a city to have a feature writer that 'most everybody can love.
Dan Barry of the New York Times as a finalist -- that's terrific competition.
And say, there's ProPublica again, for the Sheri Fink articles that were published in the New York "Times Magazine.
Washington, D.C.: How much does one win when they win a Pulitzer?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: A "mere" $10,000 goes with each prize -- except Public Service, which comes with a gold medal only. Other journalism contests now come with much larger cash amounts, more than twice the Pulitzer money for USC's Selden Ring Award and Harvard's Goldsmith Prize. But to a reporter or an editor, there's still nothing that that "bargain-rate" Pulitzer.
Alexandria, Va.: So the National Enquirer didn't win. Comment?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Took a while to get that question. And I suspect the Pulitzer administrator, Sig Gissler, is being faced with a barrage in his Q-and-A session at Columbia University, where the prizes are announced.
My best guess, having read the Inquirer stories, and certainly appreciated how correct they were, is that it had to do with the sources. In my experience as a reporter, and in talking to Pulitzer winners going years back, there's a true revulsion at having to run a story for which your sources are unnamed. There are reasons to protect the sources, of course. But when compared with investigative journalism in which the reporters are able to source the stories well, "a person close to" John Edwards just doesn't stack up.
Others will give you other theories. But that's mine. If you're into it, read the Sheri Fink ProPublica work and the Philadelphia Daily News work by Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, which won the two Investigative prizes, and see how the sourcing compares to what the Enquirer used.
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Those of us who read the New York Times each day, along with our own paper -- mine is the Boston Globe -- may well remember Matt Richtel's work on cell-phone use while driving, and Michael Moss' reports on contaminated hamburger.
We haven't had a burger in our house since then, seriously. But cell phones? Well, maybe now and again. (It hasn't been made illegal in Massachusetts yet -- and neither has stupidity, I guess.)
Philadelphia, Pa.: How much does the topic play into a piece winning the prize or not? I liked Gene's story, but I wonder if it got a bump for being an important thought piece, and reporting piece, that no one else was doing. But if it had been just as well written and reported about something sort of run of the mill, it wouldn't have won. Seems that's the case for the Pro Publica piece as well -- really important issue. Is there some sort of rubric for how much the necessity of that singular piece plays a role in winning? Thanks.
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Great question. So much is subjective in the minds of the Pulitzer jurors, and the board members who act on their nominations. I so remember Weingarten's Joshua Bell story, clearly a lighter piece -- and a Pulitzer-winner, too.
But here, competing with Weingarten's car-death stories, were Feature Writing finalists involving the recession changing lives in America (Dan Barry, New York Times) and the Sheri Fink ProPublica coverage on hospital deaths in post-Katrina New Orleans. Hardly fluffy stuff.
I think the Pulitzer board ideally likes to have a mix of winners: powerful local stories, and broad national and international ones.
I can't wait to dig in on the Bristol, Va., Herald Courier, whose winning coverage in Public Service I don't (yet) know. Congratulations to Daniel Gilbert in digging out a scandal involving natural-gas royalties that seems to have brought about important state legal action.
Bethesda, Md.: Why the public service winner doesn't get a cash prize?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: The answer is wrapped in tradition. Joseph Pulitzer came up with the idea for the prizes -- both for arts and letters and for journalism -- in his later years, and left a bequest for the prizes in his will. Back then there were only three journalism prizes, with individuals eligible for the sole Reporting award, and another for Editorial Writing. Reporting came with $1,000, and Editorial Writing with $500. But for Public Service -- the prize that was earmarked for a newspaper, rather than individuals -- he figured that the gold medal token would be just right.
Originally, it was supposed to be "a gold medal costing $500." These days, that'd be more like a gold button. For many years now, the Pulitzer "gold" medal is gold-plated silver. And now IT is worth more than $2,000.
Chantilly, Va.: Is there any amount of lobbying on the part of news organizations to be chosen winner? Or is it just a matter of applying and then it's in the hands of the judges?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: While my book on the Public Service prize is mostly about the "stories behind the stories" of great journalism, I did spend some time researching how the secretive Pulitzer board has evolved over the years.
There were many tales form the '40s on of decisions that reflected a level of inside baseball -- with board members, for example, ruling out the possibility of one paper winning more than two prizes, even if it really earned more than two.
Today, anything close to lobbying is frowned upon -- and in fact there might be a backlash. The 19-member board is made up of a diverse collection of top editors, along with academics versed in journalism matters.
What I found was that the jurors and Pulitzer board members all want the very best work to be honored. They know the Pulitzer organization is being judged for its performance, just as each entry is judged.
Washington, D.C.: Are the Pulitzer judges anonymous?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: No, the jurors (for the first round of the competition) are listed on the Pulitzer.org site. I went back to them when I was researching the prizes for my book, and found that many were very talkative about the process. The Pulitzer board members, who make the final decisions, are also listed on the Pulitzer site.
Washington, D.C.: Nobody wanted to cover the Edwards story because it was so pathetically embarrassing to Washington. Here was a former United States senator engaging in horrendous types of morally vacant conduct with regard to being truthful to voters. The underlying scandal of infidelity and paternity was truly without equal in its amorality. It's one that held no winning angle even in Washington, as evidenced by the lack of partisan exploitation of it. When things got really bad, Edwards shifted to his "two Americas" theme that sought to position him as dangerous to the establishment, a fallback position if the scandal broke too widely. That's why only the Enquirer could print it. Others could have sourced it better, but no one but the Enquirer was willing to at first. Sad day for journalism, but what day isn't these days?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: I disagree on your why-Edwards-wasn't-covered theory. Gary Hart and Eliot Spitzer were huge stories. And while the journalists who covered them may have wanted to take an extra shower at night, the served exactly the watchdog process that readers -- and old Joseph Pulitzer -- wanted and needed them to serve.
Can't tell you how many reporters I know -- after 23 years of working for papers like the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- whose eyes would have lit up like a bonfire had they gotten "the tip" on Edwards. What a human drama, not just the politics, but the devastating picture of a family destroyed.
It was a huge story. And were you to ask any of the great reporters you respect, at the Post or elsewhere, what they'd have don if they'd gotten that tip, I suspect it would renew your faith in American journalism.
My faith is still strong, BTW. Visiting journalism schools, and talking to Pulitzer-winning reporters and editors, is the best cure for worrying that the profession is headed into the tank.
To your last observation, yes, lots of sad days for journalism. But with respect, today isn't one of them. Terrific work being acknowledged with the top prizes in the country. And these reporters, who dedicated themselves to a story at the expense of everything else -- if my research is any indication -- will have their lives changed forever by this honor.
Austin, Tex.: Hank Williams? Where did that come from?
He's great and all, but having the people at Columbia issue a proclamation saying so decades after his death seems a bit, well, random.
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Well, in recent years other citations have gone to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, and to Bob Dylan. And in 1998 a special citation went to George Gershwin, who by my lights should have won about a dozen during his lifetime.
Hank Williams? Seems like good balance, if you take the long view. Said the Pulitzer board, the citation "recognizes the lasting impact of Williams as a creative force that influenced a wide range of other musicians and performers." It also "highlights the Board's desire to broaden its Music Prize and recognize the full range of musical excellence that might not have been considered in the past."
washington post.com: Special Citation to Hank Williams
Knoxville, Tenn.: Not a question, just a congratulations to Kathleen Parker, one of my favorite columnists. I'm a liberal, and decry the shrieking and shouting that's going on from the nutwing fringes on both sides. I'm glad that a voice of reason has been recognized, even if it's one I often disagree with.
washington post.com: Kathleen Parker columns
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: The liberal-vs-conservative argument doesn't hold water in the Pulitzer Commentary prize. It's gone to sports writers, small-town editors and well-known columnists.
Being in Boston, I'm an irregular Washington Post reader, so I'm looking forward to digging in on her stuff, just as I've learned to love Weingarten.
Washington, D.C.: From whom does the committee receive input while making its decisions?
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: On the journalism side, at the initial judging level, the jurors, like members of a trial jury, are asked not to share their deliberations. Its all very hush-hush.
As far as the 19 Pulitzer board members go, I think they are confident enough to hash out winners and losers from among the nominees without going outside at all. In fact, board members I've interviewed say that the board convocation is a wonderful place to express oneself and explore new areas.
When it comes to editors listening to Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, or taking in "Next to Normal" on Broadway, or reading Rae Armantrout's poetry, though, I suspect those board members tend to trust the view of the jurors, who are specialists in those fields.
Roy J. Harris, Jr.: Thank you all very much for your questions and your patience. This is my third time hosting the Pulitzer discussion, but the first in which the discussion has taken place at the moment of the announcement.
I have a feeling that a few of you will join me in digging into these stories, which we'll be able to get through the Pulitzer.org site. The Bristol Herald Courier will get special attention from me -- as it advances the 94-year saga of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Can't wait.
Have a grand day, and keep on speaking up for excellence ini journalism. 'Til next year!
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