11.5 Fix the Pulitzers

The people who run the Pulitzer Prizes, undoubtedly America’s premier journalism awards, took useful steps into the modern age in 2008 and 2009, mainly by welcoming online-only entries. They opened the awards to people like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, among many others who’d been excluded in the past due to an anachronistic system that had admitted only print entries. We should celebrate that progress.

But the new rules didn’t begin to address the more fundamental issues about how journalism is changing—and they raised the question of whether journalism prizes should exist in the first place.

Let’s answer the second question first. In general, journalism prizes should not exist. No other profession (or craft) gives itself as many awards as journalism. Anyone with a byline or identifiable broadcasting face or voice almost can’t help winning something just by staying around long enough. Worse, many of the awards are sponsored by the people journalists cover, and some of those come with cash awards, raising all kinds of issues about integrity.

When I’m the czar of all journalism, I’ll do away with almost every journalism prize. Since neither will happen, I suggest that we make the very top awards more meaningful for the digital era. Here’s some of what I said to the Pulitzer Prize Board when it asked me to answer some questions and offer my own suggestions about how the prizes should recognize changes in technology and journalistic practices:

Q: In creating the Prizes, Joseph Pulitzer wanted to “elevate” the profession of journalism. In his era, better journalism meant better newspapers. How could we further his goal today, given the makeup of news media and their challenges?

A: Become the top prizes for journalism of any kind. Do away entirely with the distinction between newspapers and other media. There’s no real alternative.

Q: Should the nature of the “newspaper” be redefined as multimedia journalism grows and practices change? If so, how? For example, should we include entirely online newspapers? And what should we do with things like videography and its impact on visual journalism?

A: You can’t define your way out of this dilemma, except in one sense. You can define what you mean by “great journalism,” and what you mean by “elevating the craft.” Beyond that, everything should be fair game.

Q: Should we re-examine and possibly revise the Prizes’ journalism categories? If so, how? For example, should we have a separate category for large multimedia packages? Should we reconsider the idea of circulation size as a basis for category definition—at least in some cases?

A: I’d revise the categories in some fairly dramatic ways, but I would not make separate categories for media formats, for the reasons I mentioned above.

I would, however, add several areas where the Pulitzers could elevate journalism in a big way. Here are just three:

1. The digital space has many characteristics, but one is that the journalism we create doesn’t disappear into birdcages or pay-per-view databases. Stories and projects can accrete influence, and be timely long beyond the traditional periods. This is especially important when we recognize that the manufacturing process of journalism—create something and send it out, period—becomes obsolete in due course. Some ideas that take this into account:

a. We’d all benefit from a prize celebrating relentless journalism over time that led to long-term solutions of big problems; this would require a rule change to look back more than 12 months.

b. Along those lines, why not recognize reporting that was ahead of its time? Whenever a major national or international crisis becomes obvious, such as the current credit and housing meltdowns, we can always look back and find examples of prescient journalism that was essentially ignored at the time. If you made that single addition to the prizes, you’d be making a huge advance.

c. And what about journalism that has evolved? I’m working on a book that will live and evolve mostly online, and I guarantee it’ll be vastly better in five years than it will be the day it’s officially published for the first time. I can show you things that have been updated over time, and which now are as good as journalism can be, even though they were, early on, shadows of what they’ve become.

2. I’d also find ways to recognize more of the finest work by small entities that do brilliant coverage of small communities of geography or interest. Beat reporting doesn’t fully cover what I’m talking about here, but it’s the closest you have now. (I’m not talking about separate prizes for big and little organizations, however.)

3. I’d create a prize for innovation in journalism, recognizing an advance by someone who used the collision of media and technology to create something new and valuable to the craft.

Put all of this out for public comment, by the way. You’ll be amazed at the great ideas others will have.

Q: Should we re-evaluate the kind of journalism we honor and the entries we encourage? For example, do we sometimes foster journalism projects and packages that lack relevance to everyday lives?

A: Of course you do, but that’s the nature of giving prizes. I don’t have a great antidote for the bigness impulse. I would try to tweak the rules and judging to favor things that genuinely lead to a better world. I don’t have any obvious ways to achieve this, of course….

Q: Should the Board itself be changed? Should we alter the mix of journalists and academics? Should we expand the Board’s total size? (The Board now has 17 voting members, 4 of whom can be non-journalists. The dean of the journalism school and the Pulitzer administrator are non-voting members of the Board.)

A: Yes, change the board, in significant ways if you adopt any of the ideas I’ve suggested. (It seems large enough now.) The current board members are superb representatives of the 20th-century manufactured-newspaper model of journalism, and people of that stature and accomplishment should remain part of the mix. But I’d include some very different kinds of folks, who may have a wider vision of the craft.

2 thoughts on “11.5 Fix the Pulitzers”

  1. Dan,

    I’m on the awards committee of a professional (beat-oriented) journalism organization. Last year, we eliminated prize categories based on medium. No more best story in a newspaper, best in broadcasting, best online, etc.

    Earlier this week, we clicked on this page and discussed your ideas on prize reform. Some questions:
    1. Our group still has separate prizes for “large market” and “small market” journalism organizations, which we attempt to define by audience size in different mediums, saying that if you’re news organization is “large market” by any of our definitions then you have to submit your work in the “large market” category. I notice that you mention you don’t recommend having separate categories for large and small organizations. Why not? For example, is it fair to judge a small news outlet in Bell, California in the same category as the LA Times, which I’m told at one time had 26 people on the story of corruption in Bell (for which the Times won a Pulitzer)?
    2. Do you know of any prize-awarding journalism organizations that have adopted many of the recommendations you outline here? If so, how’s it going?
    3. What’s so bad about a prize for beat reporting? Our beat is topical, not based on geography.
    4. Would you be willing to participate in a conference call with our awards committee some time in the future?
    FYI, some members already had spoken upon our organization’s listserv in favor of a prize that recognizes stories that were ahead of the curve, the kinds of stories that serve warning and some time later are proved right. The hard part is deciding which of our existing awards to eliminate to make room for this new award. We don’t have any additional funding for awards.
    Thanks for the good discussion.

    1. Answers:

      1. Big and small are arbitrary dividing lines. To be “fair” you need a number of categories, and need to be granular to a fault. Yes, this defaults to the big players. But I don’t like journalism awards in any case.

      2. Nope…

      3. My point was that there are lots of ways to follow a topic, including aggregation/curation and material contributed by the community. This could play more to the strength of a smaller, more focused operation.

      4. Sure.

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