This Year’s Pulitzer Game: ‘I’ve Got a Secret’

With nearly two weeks to go until the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes are announced, that “other” Pulitzer competition appears to be over already. That’s the one pitting proponents of juror secrecy against journalists driven to leak the finalists in advance. The clear winner this year: secrecy.

Since the 70-or-so Pulitzer jurors met for their nominating session at Columbia University early last month, Editor & Publisher has been mum about the names forwarded to the 19-member Pulitzer Prize Board for its final decision on the winners. Nominations from the jurors — who are sworn to keep their choices confidential — are a key step in the process that will lead to the April 20 revelation of Pulitzer-winners and finalists in the 14 journalism categories, along with the seven in arts and letters.
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The plugging of leaks means that Joe Strupp, the reporter who in nearly a decade at E&P has helped create a media version of March Madness, so far has written only his traditional “handicapping the Pulitzers” article to open the season for journalism’s premier awards. That Feb. 27 report aggregated work already honored in competitions for the George Polk Awards, the Shorenstein Center’s Goldsmith Prizes, the USC Annenberg School’s Selden Ring Award, the Nieman Foundation’s Worth Bingham Prize, and American Society of Newspaper Editors awards, among others.

As usual, after writing that story, Strupp then prepared for Pulitzer jurors to convene, sign confidentiality pledges, make their secret selections for finalists of the most coveted awards in journalism — and then engage in the extraordinary, anonymous leaking ritual that leads to E&P‘s annual scoops.

In past years, the end of the Pulitzer jury session has kicked off a flood of phone calls and emails, often involving a loose confederation of reporters and editors that called itself the Cabal. The game was for Cabal members to fill in their own “brackets” of Pulitzer finalists: three jury nominees in each of the 14 journalism categories, for a total of 42. Within hours those journalists, along with Pulitzer jurors courted by Strupp, who never identified his sources, provided enough information for E&P stories under headlines like “The Pulitzer Leaking Begins.” And within days, almost the entire list of jury nominees was available online.

This year, though, the enterprise most resembles the game “I’ve Got a Secret.” “They all shut their mouths,” said Strupp with a laugh about his attempts to draw out information from his usual jurors and other sources. “It’s the tightest it’s been for leaks in years.”

And that has journalists in both pro-secrecy and anti-secrecy camps scrambling to explain why the leaks have dried up.

Some jurors don’t want to talk at all, even about why their comrades are being tight-lipped for a change. Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman, one of several jurors contacted by e-mail for this article, discussed the secrecy issue last year. But this year he would only acknowledge that he didn’t know why the rumor mill has “closed down.” He added, however, “I’m certainly fine with that!”

Regulars among the ever-changing jury panels noted that Pulitzer Prize Administrator Sig Gissler’s increasingly fervid secrecy campaign simply might have achieved peak success this year.

“Sig has been saying that the spreading of rumors can create false hopes and can generate lobbying,” said Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, a juror in the public-service category in 2008 and this year in a category he wouldn’t disclose. Jurors took “a solemn oath,” he said, “which was signed en masse.” Strupp didn’t call him this year, perhaps because last year Marimow told him, “I made a promise. I’m keeping the promise. Wouldn’t you keep that promise, Joe?”

The Inquirer editor, who also is on Poynter’s National Advisory Board, noted that jurors convening at Columbia were so busy this year that there was little time to socialize, which reduced the temptation to discuss the deliberations of their individual panels.

For Gissler’s part, he said in an e-mail that in the last few years “I have just told jurors that, at a time when journalists are defending the confidentially of sources, it is important that ‘an editor’s word should be an editor’s bond.’” A juror luncheon, which may have provided a forum for trading information, was canceled a few years ago to allow more time for judging of online entries. (For the first time this year, work published online only can be submitted in any of the 14 journalism categories, which is the biggest change in years for the 92-year-old system of journalism prizes.)

Behind Gissler’s explanation, however, one could sense sweet satisfaction for a Pulitzer organization that for years has chafed at the integrity lapse represented by the leakage that began as soon as the freshly-sworn jurors left Columbia.

These factors, of course, represent the “supply side” of the leak issue. As big a factor behind this year’s level of secrecy may be the virtual disappearance of the Cabal, which until recently was headed by veteran Washington editor Deborah Howell. “Members of the Cabal are all retired or not in newspapering any more,” she said in an e-mail. “Haven’t heard a thing about finalists this year.”

Howell, who recently stepped down as Washington Post ombudsman, claimed last year to have learned the jury selections early for half of the 14 journalism categories — three more than E&P cracked. (As it turned out, the Post or its staffers ended up winning Pulitzers in six categories that year.) But in recent years her group had become a shadow of the former Cabal. Shortly after she founded the group in the mid-1990s with Anthony Marro, the now-retired Newsday editor, the group could assemble the entire list of finalists “in a couple of days, because we had somebody in about every paper.”  

The Cabal started, Howell explained several years ago, in part because of feelings of unfairness about how The New York Times “always seemed to know who the finalists were, and no one else did.” That, she believed, reflected the close relationship that paper has had with the Pulitzer organization since the prizes first were awarded in 1917. In addition, Howell said, there was a feeling that Pulitzer finalists “ought to get their time in the sunlight” — the way Academy Award nominees are acknowledged before the Oscar voting — rather than being pegged as also-rans when they are announced with the winners.

That may be a negative for the current system, Pulitzer Administrator Gissler has noted in the past. But he said it is outweighed by the way secrecy “minimizes confusion and undue anguish and heartache” among those who are not awarded a prize by the Pulitzer board.

Elsewhere on the demand side, E&P‘s Strupp himself has conceded that with pressing issues of newspaper survival requiring more of his time, he’s been less than rabid this year about digging for names of Pulitzer finalists.

There’s still one last chance for leaks, of course — after the Pulitzer board makes its decisions and word gets out prematurely to editors waiting to prepare celebrations. History is replete with examples of champagne appearing early in newsrooms, with staffers expressing anything but surprise upon getting the official 3 p.m. word from Columbia.

Given this year’s Pulitzer surprise, though, betting on leaks at the board level doesn’t seem like a particularly award-winning idea.

UPDATE: About two hours after this story was published, I received an e-mail from a reporter who said he has heard the three finalists in two categories — including his own work. The rumor mill still produces some grains.

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