Pulitzer Preview: Snowden factor, and more on prize prospects for Monday

The Pulitzer Prize announcements shook with real-world drama last year, interrupted by reports of bombs exploding at the Boston Marathon finish line.

This coming Monday, though, expect another kind of drama: over whether blockbuster coverage of the shocking level of National Security Agency surveillance of Americans – coverage based on whistleblower Edward Snowden’s stolen top-secret documents – will win a Pulitzer for the U.S. website of the British-based Guardian, and perhaps The Washington Post as well.

Glenn Greenwald’s, Ewen MacAskill’s and Laura Poitras’ Guardian coverage, “The NSA Files,” has taken top honors from Scripps Howard, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Online News Association and the Polk Awards, with the Polks adding Barton Gellman’s Post reporting of NSA data mining to its citation.

When the ONA announced its winners last October, it honored The Guardian with its Gannett Foundation Award for Watchdog Journalism. But the real buzz about The Guardian’s and Post’s chances for a Pulitzer – perhaps in the Public Service category – escalated after the February announcement from Long Island University, which administers the Polks. That led to a series of online stories and discussions, including a Politico article and, later, a discussion on The Huffington Post about the coverage’s Pulitzer prospects.

All this has provoked comparisons to the Pentagon Papers coverage that roiled the Pulitzer organization 42 years ago. After much debate, the 1972 Public Service Prize was awarded to The New York Times, and now is among the most celebrated in Pulitzer history, recognizing a masterpiece of analytic journalism. That makes it a tough act to follow. Still, judges for the Selden Ring Award, in declaring the Washington Post’s NSA reporting its runner-up, said: “The coverage was courageous, enterprising, and notable for its lucid explanation of complex technical matters and how they bear on the privacy and security of Americans.”

Whether or not the Pulitzer Board votes a prize for coverage of the Snowden documents, though, their decision is likely to be among the biggest stories coming out of Monday’s announcements.

Meanwhile, lots of other reporting, commentary and photography is being considered for recognition among the 14 Pulitzer journalism categories: investigative projects from Sacramento to Milwaukee to Miami, and incisive breaking-news coverage from Boston to Phoenix. As always, remarkable work at The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times Pulitzer powerhouses is getting a look. And then there’s the seven-year-old question of whether The Wall Street Journal will win in a news-related category for the first time in the seven years Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has owned the paper. (It has been a finalist in news categories eight times.)

So let’s get started.

Once again, Pulitzer jurors meeting Feb. 20-22 kept mum, although Politico did say it had “confirmed” that the Pulitzer Board would be considering both a Guardian and a Post entry related to the Snowden documents. That would mean jurors listed them as nominated finalists, the first step in the two-stage Pulitzer process. The 19-member board is winding up deliberations today, typically picking a  winner and two finalists in each of the 14 categories. (The board also makes selections in 21 Pulitzer arts and letters categories.)

Since leaks from Pulitzer jurors have dried up in recent years, this annual preview has turned to earlier journalism competitions for clues about who might be in the running for 2014 Pulitzers. It’s an imperfect approach, at best – especially given the board’s penchant for Pulitzer surprises.

Here’s some of the work standing out from other competitions:

• Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staffers Ellen Gabler, Mark Johnson and John Fauber, who won the $35,000 Selden Ring Award for their “Deadly Delays” investigative series, raising questions about blood-screening programs designed to find and treat ailments in newborns. In addition to the Selden Ring, presented by the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, they also won Scripps Howard and IRE awards, and one of two ASNE Deborah Howell Awards for Nondeadline Writing. The other ASNE winner was The Washington Post’s s Eli Saslow, for a variety of narrative articles. Saslow also received a Polk for National Reporting for his work covering the federal food stamp program.

• Andrea Elliott of The New York Times, whose ”Invisible Child” chronicle, introducing readers to one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless, won for her the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Human Interest Storytelling award, and a Polk.

• The Sacramento Bee, which claimed the Worth Bingham Prize, and its $20,000, from Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation. The Bee’s “Nevada Patient Busing” investigation found that a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas had transported more than 1,500 mentally ill patients to other states by bus, a third of them to California.  The Bee also won a Polk for that work.

• The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a branch of the Center for Public Integrity, won both Scripps Howard and IRE awards for a report titled “Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze.”

• A team of journalists from the Center for Public Integrity, along with a team from ABC News, won the Goldsmith Prize, and $25,000, from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It reported on the continuing plague of black lung disease.

Wall Street Journal projects won no major contests in the year. Some Pulitzer-watchers, though, noted that its long-running “Waste Lands” series, primarily by John Emshwiller, could be a Pulitzer prize-winner or finalist, perhaps in National Reporting. Along with stories detailing post-Cold-War environmental dangers remaining after decades of nuclear-site buildups, the series has a strong interactive component that lets readers in every state examine their vulnerability.

Michael M. Phillips’ “The Lobotomy Files,” detailing how the U.S. operated on mental patients after World War II, was a Goldsmith finalist. So there’s still a chance the Journal can break its string of winless years in news categories – going back to its Public Service Pulitzer for exposing corporate stock-options abuses. (Journal columnist Bret Stephens won for Commentary last year, with the paper’s Joseph Rago winning for Editorial Writing in 2011.)

Other work named as Goldsmith finalists: Scot Paltrow and Kelly Carr’s “Unaccountable” series for Reuters, exposing widespread accounting malpractice in the Defense Department, and Tim Elfrink’s “Biogenesis: Steroids, Baseball and an Industry Gone Wrong” series in Miami New Times, about the anti-aging clinic and its links to some of baseball’s biggest stars.

Pulitzer candidates may be found among these other honorees, as well.

POLK

• State Reporting, Shawn Boburg of Northern New Jersey’s Record, for his coverage of the infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures and the traffic jam they caused last September.

• Political Reporting, The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig, for covering Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s ties to a wealthy entrepreneur.

• Medical Reporting, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Meg Kissinger, for her definitive study of Milwaukee County’s mental health system.

• Justice Reporting, The New York Times reporters Frances Robles, Sharon Otterman, Michael Powell and N.R. Kleinfield, for digging up the story of a man unjustly jailed in a rabbi’s killing.

SCRIPPS HOWARD

• Breaking News, The Arizona Republic, for coverage of the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 firefighters and destroyed 127 homes.

• Community Journalism, The Portland (Maine) Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, for a series examining problems meeting the needs of the state’s aging population.

• Environmental Reporting, The Seattle Times reporters Craig Welch and Steve Ringman, for a five-part series on ocean acidification.

ASNE

• Punch Sulzberger Award for Online Storytelling, The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commerical Appeal’s Marc Perrusquia and Jeff McAdory, for an archival search that illumined, years later, the day of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

• Local Accountability Reporting, The Washington Post’s Debbie Cenziper, Michael Sallah and Steven Rich, for exploring the process of tax lien auctions in the District of Columbia.

IRE

• Freedom of Information Award, ProPublica’s Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein, Jennifer LaFleur, Jeff Larson and Lena Groeger, for “The Prescribers,” on money wasted in the health care system.

• Print/Online, Large, Reuters staffers for “The Child Exchange.”

• Print/Online, Medium, John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for “Backfire.”

• Print/Online, Small, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “Breaking the Banks.”

• Multiplatform, Small, the website inewsource, “Money, Power and Transit.”

The Pulitzer Prizes are the oldest and most revered American journalism prizes, dating to 1917. They draw more than 1,000 entries each year, although the total has fallen by roughly a third since the mid-1990s. Pulitzers are given primarily for newspaper work – with magazine and broadcast journalism generally excluded from consideration. In 2009, the Pulitzers allowed entries to be submitted by U.S. online operations unconnected to newspapers.

As always, previews like this must note the Pulitzer Board’s seeming fondness for picking work largely off the radar screens of other competitions. Last year’s dark-horse National Reporting winners were staffers from the fledgling InsideClimate News site, for their reports on flawed oil-pipeline regulations. The Public Service winner, Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel, was an ASNE, IRE and Scripps runner-up. But its inventive, meticulously reported series, documenting the frequency of deadly speeding by off-duty south Florida police won over both the jury and the board, bringing the paper its first-ever Pulitzer.

Finally, the Boston Globe’s work during and after that harrowing April day last year may well put it among 2014’s Pulitzer winners or finalists – bringing the Pulitzer-Marathon connection full-circle. The Online News Association named Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com winners in Breaking News for large publications, while ASNE gave Globe columnist Kevin Cullen its Mike Royko Award for his marathon-related and other columns. And among the Globe feature articles that stood out was Eric Moskowitz’s tale of a carjacking victim of bombers on the lam.

For the record, the marathon – 200 miles up the coast from Columbia University, where retiring Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler will make his final Prize announcements on Monday – this year is being held a week later.

Roy Harris, in his 12th year writing about the Pulitzer Prizes for Poynter, is author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.” He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in The Economist organization. A new edition of “Pulitzer’s Gold” is being prepared for Columbia University Press, and is due out in advance of the 2016 centennial of the Pulitzers.

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