Winners to watch for when the Pulitzers are announced today

About a half-dozen journalism organizations have already weighed in on their versions of 2012’s best reporting, commentary and press photography. Today at 3 p.m. ET, it’s the Pulitzer Prize Board’s turn — for the 97th time — to announce the winners of American journalism’s oldest and highest honors.

The Pulitzer announcement follows the meeting of its 19-member Board, mostly representing news organizations but with a sprinkling of academics and writers, to make its final selection for each of the 14 Pulitzer journalism categories, along with seven for arts, letters and music.

The process started in February with a diverse pool of journalists who assembled at Columbia University’s Journalism Building to nominate three finalists per category. The choices were shrouded in secrecy — a silence finally mastered by Pulitzer administrators in 2009, after years in which members of the juror pool almost comically began leaking within hours of swearing not to disclose their selections.

With the wraps now on the finalists and winners, this year’s main security breach was a harmless unauthorized release of a partial juror list by Quartz.com. “No leaks that I know of” among nominated finalists, Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, told Poynter in an email.

It is Gissler who will make today’s announcement of winners and finalists in the historic World Room at Columbia, the school that has managed the Pulitzers since press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer set up the awards under terms of his will.

But again this year, the secrecy isn’t stopping us from previewing the prizes — drawing mainly on what seemed to thrill non-Pulitzer judges the most in select earlier competitions. (Caution: Don’t place any bets based on this preview; the Pulitzers are known for surprises.)

Contenders for this year’s Pulitzers

Here is some of the impressive work honored by others, especially for investigative prowess, which can translate into Pulitzer categories beyond Investigative Reporting, including Public Service; Local, National and International Reporting, and Explanatory and Breaking News Reporting. (The other Pulitzer journalism categories: Feature Writing, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing, Editorial Cartooning, Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography.)

We start with three big-money competitions — the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism — whose winners historically do well winning Pulitzer honors. (All come with checks larger than the $10,000 that accompanies all Pulitzers with the exception of the prize for Public Service, awarded to a news organization in the form of the Joseph Pulitzer Gold Medal.)

A Chicago Tribune team won this year’s $25,000 Goldsmith from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The Tribune’s series, “Playing with Fire,” did a powerful job of detailing how, and why, both the chemical and tobacco industries promoted toxic flame retardants that didn’t work as promised, while being extremely harmful to consumers. The series also won in the Public Service Reporting category of the Scripps Howard Foundation awards.

The Selden Ring Award from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School – and the Ring’s $35,000 — went to Alexandra Zayas of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times for her “In God’s Name” series, uncovering abuses at unlicensed religious children’s homes.

One of the two Ring finalists — New York Times reporter Sam Dolnick — also was recipient of the Worth Bingham Prize and its $20,000 from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, and the George Polk Award for National Reporting from Long Island University. Dolnick was cited for his series “Unlocked: Inside New Jersey’s Halfway Houses,” about a broken correctional system in the private institutions that tolerated gang activity, drugs, and sexual abuse.

A number of other New York Times entries look strong for Pulitzers, based on awards won so far. One of the most honored: “Wal-Mart Abroad,” by David Barstow and Mexico-based reporter Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab. Their work won the Polk Business Reporting Award for piecing together a hidden corporate drama of corruption and bribery that accompanied the retailing giant’s expansion in Mexico.

The series, which spurred Department of Justice investigations and a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission, also was a Goldsmith finalist and won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in the large-publication print/online category.

The award in Scripps Howard’s Digital Innovation category – an area that the Pulitzers have aimed to emphasize – went to The New York Times’ “Snow Fall” project, which tells the horrific story of 16 expert skiers trapped in an avalanche in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. John Branch, who wrote the story, also won the American Society of News Editor’s Punch Sulzberger Award for Online Storytelling.

A Polk award for Foreign Reporting also went to the Times’s David Barboza for his China coverage in “The Princelings,” which looked into the financial interests of government officials and their extended families. Bloomberg News was cited in that Polk category, too, for its study of hypocrisy within the Chinese ruling class. A second Bloomberg project, looking at abuses in higher education finance, won in the Polk National Reporting category.

The Scripps Howard Investigative Reporting Award went to Spencer S. Hsu of the Washington Post for his “Forensic Science” series, showing flawed data used by the Justice Department in criminal convictions. The series provoked responses from Congress, the courts and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Scripps Howard also awarded its Breaking News prize to the Denver Post for its coverage of the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting, in which 12 were killed and 58 injured. Bolstering the Post’s work on that story is the ASNE Deadline News Reporting Award.

Among other Scripps Howard winners were two from The Wall Street Journal: for “Watched,” an ongoing project that exposes how corporate and government data-trackers gain personal information on citizens, and to Michael M. Phillips, for Human Interest Storytelling in his series “War’s Wake,” which is about the latest American generation of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. (The Journal — a Pulitzer powerhouse before it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2007 — has won only one Pulitzer since then: an Editorial Writing prize in 2011. It’s been a finalist eight times since then, though, according to the Pulitzer online archives.)

Other Polk awards of note went to Gina Barton of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in Local Reporting; to Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post in Medical Reporting; to a team of McClatchy Newspapers correspondents for their “Inside Syria” War Reporting; to the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Colin Woodward for Education Reporting, and to Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch in the State Reporting field.

Gabrielson’sBroken Shieldseries, on the problems of the Office of Protective Services in curbing abuses, also won the multiplatform award in IRE’s medium-sized category, and a major investigative award from the Online News Association. The Pulitzers have found at least one winner in the digital arena in each of the past few years, suggesting that Gabrielson may get a close look. Online News Association awards cover a period ending in mid-June, and therefore its winners often are hard to fit into the calendar-year Pulitzer pattern.

Last week’s IRE awards announcement was much better for the purposes of pre-Pulitzer prognostication. Mark Horvit, IRE’s executive director, said via email that the organization had purposely timed the announcement to come ahead of the Pulitzers.

Other IRE winners were USA Today’s Brad Heath for “Locked Up” — an investigation about men imprisoned for gun possession despite a court’s conclusion that they had committed no federal crime. Hoy Chicago and CU-Citizen Access won in the Small Multiplatform category for “Crunch Time,” which examines racial inequality in law enforcement. The Chicago Tribune’s David Jackson, Gary Marx and Alex Richards won IRE’s Freedom of Information Award for detailing problems with school attendance statistics published by city officials. The Belleville (Ill.) News Democrat and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review also won IRE awards for print and online work.

ASNE’s choice for Local Accountability Reporting was a joint project of the Raleigh News and Observer’s Joseph Neff and David Raynor and the Charlotte Observer’s Ames Alexander and Karen Garloch, who together investigated the story behind high margins at the state’s nonprofit hospitals at the same time the hospitals fell short in serving the public.

Reaction, approach to the prizes

Once the Pulitzers are announced, the Pulitzer organization will once again be open for praise and for blame — the latter in the cases of work passed over in its 14 categories.

Some lamenting always crops up over how Pulitzer finalists — including strong contenders that won other major awards — end up looking like also-rans in the Pulitzer system. An oft-suggested alternative: an approach like the movie industry’s Oscars, where nominees get plenty of attention before the statuettes are handed out.

This is something that irks Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, who has spoken before about the wisdom of the Goldsmith Awards’ approach. He said via email that a “way to bolster high quality journalism would be to announce the finalists for the Pulitzers when they are chosen, so that for the weeks before the final decision is made, the finalists and their news organizations would get to tout their achievement.” (This is how Syracuse University’s Newhouse School handles its annual Mirror Awards for media reporting.)

If the Pulitzers operated the Goldsmith or Oscar way, Jones wrote, on Pulitzer Day “the finalists would still have had their moment and, as Rick said to Ilsa at the end of ‘Casablanca,’ ‘We’ll always have Paris.’”

Gissler said via email that the Pulitzer finalists are “kept confidential primarily to prevent lobbying and preserve the element of surprise.”

If the Pulitzer Board’s annual announcements are known for anything these days, it’s for mixing in a few shocks — often citing work overlooked by rival competitions — to go with some “consensus picks,” such as a few that may appear in this article.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.” Over the weekend, Parade Magazine featured Harris’ thoughts on four of the best stories from the Public Service Pulitzer files in the last 25 years.

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