Here’s what it’s like to win a Pulitzer
I spoke with four Pulitzer-Prize winners to find out how winning has changed their lives and affected their journalism. All three said the prize opens doors but it also adds pressure to live up to the high expectations of having "Pulitzer Prize Winner" on your resume.
Poynter.org spoke with:
Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair professor at the University of Missouri. She won a Pulitzer in 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. She was working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch. The stories were about the life and death of an AIDS victim in a rural farm community.
Diana Sugg, contract editor for special projects, The Baltimore Sun. Sugg was a medical reporter when she reported a series of stories about stillbirths. Her stories told how "thousands of babies, many full-term, are dying every year, and few researchers have ever investigated why." Her stories also included an examination of how some hospital emergency rooms are allowing families to be with loved ones in the last moments of life and yet another story examined why promising therapy for stroke was being held up in debates.
Bill Marimow, Editor The Philadelphia Inquirer. Marimow is a two-time Pulitzer winner and has been the editor or manager at the time that 20 others were won at the Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun. His 1978 Public Service Pulitzer with reporter John Neumann was for "a series of articles showing abuses of power by the police in its home city." In 1985 he won a rare second Pulitzer for the investigative reporting "For his revelation that city police dogs had attacked more than 350 people -- an expose that led to investigations of the K-9 unit and the removal of a dozen officers from it."
Sara Ganim, CNN Investigative corespondent. In 2012, she won the Pulitzer for Local Reporting while at the Patriot-News. Her reporting focused on what became the Penn State University sex abuse scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.
How did winning affect your life?
Banaszynski: Mostly what it does is open doors. It is like carrying around a press badge that gives you access. Even if people don’t know you personally, they attach a sense of legitimacy. It is like a key to a club, a club that says who are you and what you do.
With editors, there is no question in my case it got me conversations about jobs and helped me get jobs I would not have been considered for. Even while I am teaching when students reach out to other journalists, if they use my name the door opens, when people Google my name- they say, 'well this student studies under a Pulitzer Prize winner.'
But you do find yourself going 'was that a fluke , would I ever do anything to that level again?"
Sugg: I think it felt magical. It still is magical. I will savor it for my whole life. For me it was, reading what the judges wrote about how my stories haunted them, that for me was confirmation that the things that were haunting me also would haunt other people and my instincts were right about the stories. Winning did make me believe in myself more.
It also made me think about and cherish all of the editors I worked with all along.
It definitely opened doors for me. I got calls from several newspapers bigger than the Baltimore Sun. I didn’t go that route, but for a time, you are sprinkled with a little bit of fairy dust, everybody wants you to come speak. For journalists, it is like winning the gold medal in the Olympics, you have that stamp for the rest of your life.
Ganim: The expectations may have been in my head, but it felt like the expectation for every story has to be as good as that one. It is really hard to do anything so big again. I had to ask people to stop bringing this up when they introduced me.
Marimow: In 1978, I was overwhelmed with the response from friends, family and colleagues. I had to take off two days of work to write letters to everyone who reached out to me. I was a relatively inexperienced reporter at that point. I thought, 'I have to get back to work and prove myself.'
Marimow said one of his greatest honors after winning a Pulitzer was being asked to return to Haverford High School in his hometown of Haverford Township, Pennsylvania. His mother and father attended his speech at his old school. In his talk, Marimow said, he was able to thank all of his English teachers, by name.
How did winning affect your journalism?
Sugg: I know people who it caused problems with them, some people thought they could never write what their Pulitzer story was. I remember the first story after I won I did a feature on the White Coat ceremony with doctors, the editor thought it was great that it was not a big to-do thing.
Marimow: I think it gave me some more confidence in my ability that somebody else had ratified what I had done. The work on the prizewinning stories created a foundation for the future. One thing that happened (in the 1985 project) was Jonathan Neumann and I constantly asked 'what more can we do to show the readers that we have done everything possible to get to the truth?'
Marimow told Poynter that while he was reporting the stories about police dogs attacking people, they got the idea to polygraph any eyewitnesses they intended to quote but had little evidence to back up their accounts. They used the former head of the Philly homicide unit as their polygraph operator.
Banaszynski: There is certainly a level of pressure you put on yourself that says oh people are really watching and maybe everything I do has to be a level of quality that it was not before.
What does a Pulitzer do for a publication?
Marimow: I think the good will and the belief that this is a Pulitzer for the the whole company permeates not just the newsroom but the entire company. It affects advertising, circulation, everywhere. It enhances the teamwork and brings all sides closer together to try new things.
Banaszynski: I think winners tend to say 'We are doing good work and we need to keep doing good work.' It is similar to a sports teams that wins, once you win you want to win more.
Sugg: It is like a stamp of excellence on the newspaper. People hear about it on the radio on the TV news and think 'wow.' For all of the changes and forces buffeting journalism, this energizes you. Pulitzer is still the gold standard. It is still the fairy dust for who wins.
Why do Pulitzers matter?
Marimow: The symbolism is enormous. All journalists know what they are. But it also creates huge pride in the community. In our paper today we trumpet how many Pulitzers we have won.
Banaszynski: I used to think we made a big deal out of them because most of the world does not spend time telling journalists how cool they are. The real value is they teach us something. If you watch the Pulitzers over time, every year in each category, you learn something new. The most obvious recent example is Snowfall. It creates an awareness of the next level of storytelling. Even Pulitzers that have a big black mark on them, like Janet Cooke, (who was awarded the Pulitzer in 1981, which was recinded when it was discovered Cooke had fabricated the stories) teach us about integrity and how important it is. Seeing what is possible is essential.
Sugg: You can think think things are really doing downhill, then look at some of the other winners of these contests and holy cow people are still out there with their big hearts and open notebooks and working their tales off. It should be a heartening day for all newsrooms that journalists are still out there doing great work.
Any advice for the winners?
Ganim: My advice would be keep moving as fast as possible. It is easy to make your whole life about that award.
It is conflicting to win an award for a story about something as awful as sex abuse. You want to celebrate but you don’t want to celebrate. You can celebrate for knowing the world is better for knowing this. The reach and impact that this story has, changed lives, laws, culture how people talk to their kids changed how coaches talk to kids, the course of the victims lives, and you do have something to celebrate. One of the best things one of the victim’s mom said that night she called was you should be proud, we are proud of you, you are allowed to celebrate this.
Marimow: The most important thing is for one day, savor it! It does not, this kind of celebration can never be duplicated. The pride your friends, family, colleagues feel, it radiates from the recipient.
Banaszynski: Make sure the champagne is expensive and not cheap. Go find a story file the story, do another story. The work is the prize. The real prize is the story in front of you. Go do it.