The Eye of the Pulitzer Storm

April 5, 2005
Category: Archive

The World Room of Columbia University’s Journalism building is the perfect venue for the annual announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes—a ritual ranking somewhere between traditional and archaic, yet still with enough clout to make grown men and women scream or weep with joy in newsrooms across America. An ordinary-looking meeting room dominated by a very unordinary 90-square-foot blue stained glass window, depicting Lady Liberty raising her lamp between two halves of a globe, the space is steeped in history.

Formerly the 93-year-old building’s “ramshackle lounge,” by one account, the World Room emerged from a 1954 restoration that introduced the magnificent window—the brainchild of the very first reporting winner in 1917, Herbert Bayard Swope, of Joseph Pulitzer’s old New York World. For 51 years now, the World Room has housed Pulitzer jury sessions and deliberations by the Pulitzer Prize Board (which now “recommends” the winners to Columbia) as well as these Pulitzer announcements. 

While the overall process of disseminating information on the year’s prizes is much higher-tech these days, Monday it still seemed like the 1950s in the World Room.

“Let’s pass out the press kits and sprinkle fairy dust on people and change their lives forever,” said Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler in welcoming the 40-person press corps. Then, he declared a 20-minute break for phoned-in reports.

Dashing from the room to a phone she’d checked out in advance was one of three Associated Press staffers on the scene, Elizabeth LeSure, assuring herself of the scoop. With AP-like lightning analysis, she dictated the winners in time-honored form: the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal as the only double winners and, yes, the AP’s own breaking-news photography from Iraq right behind. Then, the obligatory offbeat twist: 42-year-old former oil-trader Nigel Jaquiss snagging the coveted investigative prize for an alternative Portland, Oregon-area paper, Willamette Week.

From the back of the room, the Newark Star-Ledger‘s Russell Ben-Ali delivered first-hand word to his newsroom via cell phone: his paper had won for breaking news reporting. He also confirmed the reports, leaked earlier, that it was a finalist in feature writing and international reporting, while dictating the other winners.

But any exclusivity was brief indeed. Within minutes the Pulitzer Web site punched in the 2005 listings, providing far more information than LeSure and Ben-Ali held in their hands, and embedding links to the winning entries.

Gissler and some non-deadline reporters used the break to discuss the year’s prizes over coffee and cookies in the back of the room. Then, in a homespun, almost painfully low-key way, the former Milwaukee Journal editor moved back in front of the stained glass to devote himself to eradicating all risk that his comments might upstage the brilliant, often life-changing work being recognized with Pulitzer Prizes.

At that, he most certainly succeeded. In the session’s final 20 minutes, Gissler mixed Pulitzer trivia in with some historic trends in this year’s winning coverage, and sidestepped one major question.

He started by tallying the entries, including 1,326 newspaper submissions, down slightly from 1,423 the prior year. He pointed out that the general non-fiction winner, Washington Post associate editor Steve Coll, was one of only four Pulitzer winners in the 89 years of the awards to be honored both for a book and in journalism (explanatory journalism, with The Washington Post in 1990). He noted that the dual prizes being awarded in international reporting—Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times and Dele Olojede of Newsday—marked only the sixth time since 1951 that two or more entries were honored in that category.

The investigative winner’s paper is pronounced Wil-LAM-ette, he noted, and not like Chicago’s North Shore suburb. And that led him to observe that his all-time favorite winning-newspaper name popped up in 1965, when a reporter won for spot reporting in Columbia Falls, Montana’s Hungry Horse News. (“With a name like that it ought to be a winner,” he said.)

Gissler said there were fewer Iraq-related entries this year—though the AP’s photography winner was one—and suggested that this might be because of constraints imposed on reporters who are covering events there. Then he moved on. 

When reporters had a chance to ask questions, they turned immediately to his remarks about constraints in Iraq, and how they might have played a role in keeping entries down from that part of the world. But Gissler didn’t bite, stressing instead that the difficulty of covering a story often is a factor in the jury’s and the board’s consideration of an entry.

In other words, Gissler made it clear that for the big Pulitzer Prize news, reporters should immediately look outside the room with the glorious stained-glass window, and go to the winners—which, one suspects, is just the way the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes wants it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Willamette as the town in Oregon where the Pulitzer-winning paper is based. It also called the Pulitzer Prize Board a Board of Advisors.

Roy Harris, senior editor of The Economist Group’s Boston-based CFO Magazine and a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, is writing a book on the public-service Pulitzer Prizes.