Handicapping the Pulitzers as prize season peaks with the top award

In the run-up to last year’s Pulitzer Prizes, the rumor mill furiously churned over the National Enquirer’s coverage exposing the marital infidelity of one-time Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards. First, reports circulated that it would be barred from the Pulitzer competition. (It wasn’t.) And later, the word was that it might actually win one. (It didn’t, and, in fact, wasn’t even a finalist.)

With Monday’s 3 p.m. announcement of the 94th edition of the Pulitzers fast approaching, most talk has reflected how little buzz the oldest and most revered of American awards now is garnering, and how that buzz might be increased.

Why has discussion nearly evaporated this year about who will win in the 14 Pulitzer journalism categories? (There are also seven prestigious Pulitzers for arts-and-letters and music, of course.) In addition to a shrinking supply side – with fewer journalists these days trying to pry the names of finalists from jurors who met at Columbia University March 7-9 — it could be argued that there’s a much weaker demand side, too.

In part, the decreased pre-Pulitzer interest stems from the explosion of other, earlier journalism-award announcements. These prizes put the 19 Pulitzer Prize board members in the position of annointing work that is at the very top of an existing pyramid of winners. Plus, interest in the Pulitzers may be tempered because of their relative narrowness. Nearly all the other awards honor top work across the platforms of newspaper, online, broadcast and magazine – and, increasingly, for collaboration among the media.

Despite some movement toward rewarding collaboration, though, the Pulitzers have expanded only slowly beyond newspapers — mainly into papers’ online efforts, and to independent investigative organizations like ProPublica.

Among last year’s Pulitzer Prizes, for example, only one for Investigative, and an Editorial Cartooning prize, specifically honored online work. (A reporter for online-based ProPublica, Sheri Fink, won for her investigation of life-or-death decisions made in a hospital battered by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — a collaboration with the New York Times Magazine, while cartoonist Mark Fiore won for his work on SFGate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle’s site.)

The Pulitzer Board has earned recognition itself in recent years for picking one or two winners — often among smaller papers — that were largely overlooked in other national competitions. Dark horses in Public Service the last two years were Virginia’s Bristol Herald Courier, for the work of Daniel Gilbert in exposing a mineral-rights scandal, and the Las Vegas Sun for Alexandra Berzon’s stories on construction-worker deaths.

We’ll soon know what 2011 surprises the Pulitzer Board dreamed up during its April 14-15 meetings at Columbia. But any last-minute handicapping effort — in the absence of the once-rampant, reporter-based rumor mill that involved interviews with jurors and Pulitzer Board members — must assume that most of this year’s Pulitzers again will be found among the following winners of other awards.

What’s already won

Some of those are big-money prizes: the $35,000 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, the $25,000 Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Prize, and the $20,000 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. The Pulitzers, despite their unrivaled cache, bring winners $10,000 in cash – and no money at all for the most prestigious of them: the Public Service Pulitzer, which is in the form of a gold medal. While the Ring, Goldsmith and Bingham all target investigative reporting, its winners frequently have also won in Pulitzer categories such as Public Service, Breaking News Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, Local Reporting, National Reporting and International Reporting. (Other journalism Pulitzers are for Feature Writing, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing, Editorial Cartooning, Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography.)

A team of Los Angeles Times reporters, led by Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, won this year’s Selden Ring Award in February for their celebrated series of articles “Breach of Faith,” exposing corruption in the city of Bell, Calif. The 22-year-old Ring is bestowed by the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. As finalists, it selected The Wall Street Journal for its “What They Know” series on Internet spying by businesses; Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times for “The Radiation Boom,” on medical uses of radiation; and three Bloomberg News reporters for “Education, Inc.,” exposing a financial-aid scandal among for-profit colleges.

For the Goldsmith Prize, Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy named the Las Vegas Sun and reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards for “Do No Harm: Hospital Care in Las Vegas.” The L.A. Times’s “Breach of Faith” was a finalist for the Goldsmith, an award now in its 19th year, with other finalists being National Public Radio, a ProPublica collaboration with NPR, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Washington Post.

First awarded in 1967 by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, the Worth Bingham Prize last month went to Michael J. Berens of the Seattle Times, for “Seniors for Sale: Exploiting the Aged and Frail in Washington’s Adult Family Homes.”

In February, the American Society of News Editors awards honored work in nine categories: with ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson winning its Batten Medal for uncovering police misconduct and vigilante justice after Hurricane Katrina. Other categories with winners likely to receive Pulitzer consideration were Deadline News Reporting, for which Connecticut’s Hartford Courant staff was honored for its coverage of a workplace shooting.

Also in February, Long Island University’s George Polk Awards honored the Associated Press for its coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin for National Reporting for their “Top Secret America” series; and Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News for columns on corruption in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

Polks also went to the New York Times’s Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti for Military Reporting, and the paper’s Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry for their Russia-based Foreign Reporting; the Newark, N.J., Star Ledger’s Amy Brittain and Mark Mueller for Metropolitan Reporting, covering steroid use by public employees; and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s John Diedrich and Ben Poston for Criminal Justice Reporting, for coverage of poor federal controls on revoking licenses for lawbreaking gun dealers. It also gave awards to the L.A. Times for the Bell series, and to Bloomberg’s reporters for “Education, Inc.” (Polk also honors magazine and broadcast reporters, who don’t qualify for Pulitzers.)

Last month, Scripps Howard Awards went to the Las Vegas Sun’s Allen and Richards for Investigative Reporting, and to an L.A. Times team for “Grading the Teachers,” a study of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its Business/Economics Reporting award went to Paige St. John of Florida’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune for reports on abuse and deception in the property insurance market.

Investigative Reporters and Editors named 20 award winners earlier this month, with a number of them likely to get Pulitzer recognition as well. The L.A. Times and its Bell reporters won a top IRE Medal, with a second Medal going to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and BBC International News Services, for their study of the global asbestos trade. Another story IRE honored was “The Hidden Life of Guns,” by four Washington Post reporters.

Seattle Times reporters Ken Armstrong and Jonathan Martin won an IRE award for “The Other Side of Mercy,” following last year’s Pulitzer-winner for Breaking News. (They investigated the criminal history of the man who killed  four police officers in a shootout.) IRE also gave prizes to three St. Petersburg Times reporters for “Under the Radar,” about a fake charity scheme; and to three New York Observer reporters for “Bloomberg’s Offshore Millions,” about the mayor’s tax shelters. Other IRE awards recognized work honored in other contests, including the Seattle Times’s stories by Michael Berens, and the Las Vegas Sun and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune projects.

With the Pulitzer Prize organization aiming recently to honor online journalism, one might expect some duplication with the Online News Association’s 11-year-old Online Journalism Awards. But the ONA doesn’t use the calendar-year approach of most other awards. Rather, it judges work published through June 30, and times its award announcements to its national conference in the fall.

Still, the ONA watches closely how much online journalism is recognized by the Pulitzers. “Putting aside the deep cachet and history that Pulitzers have in recognizing the best in journalism,” says Online Journalism Awards chair Anthony Moor in an email, “they’ve been really slow to embrace online news formats,” and have found it “difficult to catch up.” The ONA awards also recognize online work of TV stations and magazines, unlike the newspaper-centric Pulitzers.

Last year the ONA honored CNN with a Breaking News award for its coverage of the Haiti earthquake, and a team from Mother Jones magazine won a prize for its work covering the Gulf oil spill. “But of course,” says Moor, who also is a Yahoo lead local editor, “neither CNN nor Mother Jones are eligible for a Pulitzer.”

If there are front-runners for the 2011 Pulitzer mix, then, this last-minute review suggests they are:

  • The L.A. Times for its “Breach of Faith” Bell, California salary disclosures – rooting out wrongdoing with classic reporting techniques prized by the editors who dominate the Pulitzer Board (Selden Ring Award winner, IRE award winner, George Polk Award winner)
  • The Las Vegas Sun for “Do No Harm: Hospital Care in Las Vegas” (Goldsmith Prize winner, Scripps Howard award winner)
  • The Seattle Times for the “Seniors for Sale” (Worth Bingham Prize winner) or “The Other Side of Mercy” (IRE award winner)

Then, finally, don’t forget to factor in those Pulitzer Board surprises.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010), has written for Poynter about the Pulitzer Prizes since 2003. He is editorial director of corporate-finance online site CFOworld.com, and currently teaches a class in impact journalism at Boston’s Emerson College.

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