April 21, 2009

Despite recognizing a terrific collection of local, national and international coverage, this year’s blend of Pulitzer Prizes in journalism says a lot about the current struggles of the newspaper business.

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Winners included reporters and editors from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times who hammered away at major issues, scribes in midsized cities who spotted deception and helped solve serious local problems, and a small-town editorialist at The Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y, who pointed out the danger of secrecy in local government.

But in some ways the story of the 2009 Pulitzers is as much about what didn’t win: work that might have unmasked what was behind the collapse of the financial system, for example, or exposed in mid-scam a new generation of billion-dollar Ponzi schemers — the way the Boston Post unmasked financial charlatan Charles Ponzi himself to win one of the early Pulitzer Prizes way back in 1921.

The New York Times this year was cited as a finalist for “comprehensive coverage of the economic meltdown of 2008, setting a standard for depth and sophistication” and helping an “often bewildered public” understand finance and banking. But that, of course, meant that the Pulitzer board of 19 editors and other experts considered it a bit short of a public-service winner. (What did win for public service instead was the Las Vegas Sun‘s reporting on the causes of a high death rate among construction workers on the Strip.)

The Pulitzer Prize organization, by inviting entries in all categories from online-only publications, also had sought to show the impact of the growing force of electronic journalism. That recognition will have to wait, as no online-only news organizations emerged victorious.

There were clear signals, however, that newspapers are using their online arms more effectively. One such effort — the St. Petersburg Times‘ PolitiFact Web site — was honored with the national reporting Pulitzer. Maybe next year we’ll see the first online-only winner from ProPublica, MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon, VoiceofSanDiego.org or another of the new breed of reporting organizations.

But in case after case these days, readers are being left to imagine what reporters and editors might do with a big story if they received more resources to pursue it. Or, perhaps, what stories are going unpursued altogether. Could the Spotlight Team of the hobbled Boston Globe, for example, match its work exposing sexual abuse by Catholic priests and its cover-up by the Church, which led to the 2003 public-service Pulitzer? Would it even undertake such a project these days, against such long odds?

Indeed, the “however graph” may be the real lead to this year’s Pulitzer Prize story.

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, published in an updated edition…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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