Death of the Feature
When I first heard that the Pulitzer Board had not awarded a prize in feature writing this year, I assumed the worst. I figured that scandal fatigue had filled board members with paranoia, that members were arguing about the lack of transparency in stories -- to use the word of the day -- about sourcing and attribution.
My fears, I am happy to report, were unfounded.
With a group of Poynter colleagues, I've now read and discussed the three finalists in features. I went into the reading wanting to love one of them, hoping to write a piece critical of the Pulitzer's Board's refusal to grant a prize. I now believe that the Board was right: none of the three finalists was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.
In general I found the pieces way too long and difficult to read, devoid of memorable characters, and surprisingly weak in the use of language, indecisive about narrative structure.
That judgment, I know, will sound harsh. And it is. So let me add quickly that these three series of stories -- I emphasize the word 'series' -- share important virtues and values. They reveal serious topics (the war wounded, a mother struggling to keep her children, the Shuttle disaster); they are weighty in both tone and evidence; they are the product of the significant expenditure of journalistic resources; and they take up a lot of space in the paper, commanding readers' time and attention.
These qualities, no doubt, earned the respect of the Pulitzer jury that sent them on to the Board. But they were not enough, in my opinion, to warrant a prize. In fact, I can make a case that these three series are not "feature" stories at all, at least in the traditional sense.
Disclosure #1: I have served as a Pulitzer juror on two occasions, once for commentary and once for feature writing. During my features service, our jury sent up three finalists to the Board, none of which was selected as winner. Instead, the Board moved the eventual winner, Ron Suskind of The Wall Street Journal, from another category -– as is its prerogative.
The Pulitzer jury system is a form of triage. The better stories remain "on top of the table." The weaker ones go underneath. As many as 300 entries (each with multiple stories) get winnowed down to, say, 100, to 40, to 10, to five, to the final three. There's no time to read all the stories, but there is time to taste them. Once excellent work surfaces, lesser work begins to fall more quickly by the wayside.
When the Pulitzer Board decided not to give a prize for features, some of us at Poynter developed a mischievous idea. Why not constitute ourselves as a "rump" Pulitzer Board, read the three finalists, and award our own "prize"?
A dozen of us –- a great cross-section of the Institute –- from clerks and interns to faculty and top executives –- gathered for lunch. Evelyn Hsu led our discussion and took our pulse through a straw poll.
- There was little support for Patricia Wen's piece "Barbara's Story: A mother, her sons, and a choice," from The Boston Globe. Our group respected the reporting effort, but did not think the writing rose to the heights of the category's historic winners. Among other points made was that the pieces could have benefited from a stronger narrative voice or other scenic elements a reader would expect given the dramatic topic.
- There was a bit more enthusiasm for Anne Hull and Tamara Jones's Washington Post piece "The War After the War: Soldiers Battle Shifts from Desert Sands to Hospital Linoleum." The group appreciated the attention to soldiers struggling to heal from the physical and emotional wounds of battle. The series started off well, but after a while, the characters and circumstances seemed to blend one with another. With so much hardship, nothing stood out as powerfully revealing. Disclosure #2: Anne Hull is a Trustee of the Poynter Institute and an honored colleague, and many of us had a rooting interest in her success, but not for this story.
- The group voted to give the prize to Robert Lee Hotz's series, "Butterfly on a Bullet," which appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It reported on how "In an inquest fraught with questions of guilt and shame, scientists unravel the mystery of a shuttle's demise." The people who voted for this series appreciated the way the science was explained, entered fully into the narrative arc of a mystery story, and enjoyed an occasional metaphoric flourish.
- Three of us voted to give no prize.
As I was the ringleader among the nay-saying no-voters, I'll offer these justifications:
- The impact of these pieces came from the seriousness of topics, their weight, and length. In all three cases, serious cuts would have helped readers distinguish what really mattered in these stories from what was of marginal interest. I love long, long stories ("Blackhawk Down") that justify their length with each word and draw you away from the concerns of real time into the delights of story time. None of these pulled that off.
- These three series can barely be called "features" by any definition of the newspaper feature story I understand. I'm reaching the point where I might favor a change of rules in this category so that series could not be entered as Features. I can imagine voting for "Decoding Columbia" in the category of explanatory journalism, for example. But to allow it to elbow its way through the features category is allow an elephant to race against gazelles in a broom closet.
- While quality of writing is not crucial in the Pulitzer competition -- as opposed to the ASNE Distinguished Writing Awards or the Ernie Pyle Award -- surely we'd expect a Pulitzer winner in the features category to stand out for the quality of the prose. In my opinion -– I'm sounding more like Simon Cowell than Paula Abdul -- the writing in the Globe story was dense and heavy; the two writers of the Post series could not agree on a voice or on which details were most important; and the author of the L.A. Times series wrote as if he'd never heard of the paragraph, so strung out and telegraphic were many of his sentences.
Where does all this leave us?
All the writers can be proud that their work commanded such attention and controversy. They are all Pulitzer finalists, a distinctive honor in itself. Robert Lee Hotz, we hope, will take some consolation (though no consolation prize) from the fact that at Poynter his work was a strong winner.
The Pulitzer Board can take some solace from the fact that our "rump board" came to understand and appreciate the nature of its dilemma. Andy Barnes, chairman of both the Poynter Board and the Pulitzer Board, heard from us a strong consensus that something must be done to redeem the traditional newspaper feature. Even those of us who love good series (I think there should be a separate category for series, and a longer timetable for reading and judging them) don't want them to crowd out the great newspaper feature.