When Cynthia Tucker was named a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary, she felt the recognition was an honor despite losing to Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald, whose columns on affirmative action and gay marriage “spoke with both passion and compassion, to ordinary people on often divisive issues.”
“I was a big fan of his,” Tucker said. “In fact, I later told him when I saw him somewhere, ‘If I had to lose to anybody, I’m glad it was you.’”
But it wasn’t him in 2006.
Tucker was named a finalist again, only that time she lost to Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times, a finalist in previous years, whose work brought more attention to President George W. Bush’s “acquiescing,” accepting without protest, of the Darfur (western Sudan) genocide.
“The second time, I was much more disappointed,” Tucker said.
In 2007, she was afraid to get her hopes up again. Julia Wallace, then-editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where Tucker was an editorial page editor, walked into Tucker’s office on a late Friday afternoon. She asked Tucker to accompany her up the street to visit an art exhibit in a downtown hotel, which sounded suspicious.
When they arrived at the hotel, Wallace suggested that the two stop and get a drink. “It got a little weird,” Tucker added.
Wallace proposed that the two get champagne. Then, Tucker finally broke the awkwardness and asked what was going on.
“‘You’ve won the Pulitzer Prize,’” Tucker recalled hearing. “I was, you know, all the things you might expect: stunned, elated, flabbergasted, amazed. Because what it means is that journalists, top-notch journalists, have considered your work the best commentary they have seen that year. And that’s pretty cool.”
The world’s best book club
Each industry has its way of celebrating practitioners and the remarkable work they dare to produce throughout any given year. For Tucker and the rest of the journalism world, it’s the Pulitzer Prizes administered by Columbia University in New York City. The best work challenges the status quo and alters systemic policies and procedures for the better.
Starting every December and ending in January, print, radio and digital news organizations across the country submit work from that year’s news cycle ($75 for each submission) in various forms of journalistic writing, photos or audio. There are also Pulitzer Prizes for books, drama and music.
With thousands of submissions, contest judges are appointed — determined by the administrator of the prizes, who creates a roster of suggestions for professionals with expertise in various categories and passes it to the Pulitzer board for input — who then serve on separate juries for different categories. Contest judges usually serve for two years at a time.
The juries are tasked with sorting through all of the submissions and narrowing them down to three. (Three unranked finalists and three alternates.)
“What you’re trying to do is quickly find something in that category that is really good, and then when you find one journalist whose submission is really good, you can judge the others that you’re reading by that,” said Tucker, who also served as a judge for multiple years.
“You’re reading as fast as you can, but you want to be fair,” she said. “What I know from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the bigger papers, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, they’re always going to get a fair read. So I was trying to pay attention to small newspapers.”
The juries for each category are placed in a conference room with large tables and submissions stacked on top of them. From that point forward, judges grab material from the pile and begin reading over a three-day period.
Debates over what three pieces of material move forward are heated, but respectful, Tucker said. “People are not angry at each other. But, if a jury member has a particular journalist that he’s really excited about, or she’s really excited about, they can passionately argue for that journalist.”
Throughout any part of the Pulitzer Prize process, if anyone reviewing material is involved with an organization or an immediate family member the group is examining, they must recuse themselves.
Once the three are selected, the work of selecting a winner falls into the hands of the Pulitzer Prize’s 18 board members, made up of editors and industry leaders, who meet twice a year.
To add board members, a nominating committee makes recommendations for industry leaders and practitioners with experience and expertise in the field. The board then votes on those recommendations. Board members can serve on the board for up to nine years.
After the first meeting, board members leave with weeks of reading material passed on by the jury. Once the second meeting concludes, they have decided on the award winners.
“Those couple days were two of my favorite days all year, because you’re in the room with some other people who have also done the prodigious reading to be prepared for the discussions, and who bring great insights and background and judgment to what you’ve read,” said Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Poynter-owned Times Publishing Company, who served on the Pulitzer Board for nine years.
The chair of the board starts the meeting addressing any administrative matters. They then open the floor to whoever wants to begin making a summation of the category at hand and a case for a particular finalist.
“Someone would go first and then others would join in,” Tash said. “After a while, if people felt there were no other important points to make, the chair would call for a motion on behalf of one of the finalists. And someone would make that motion and it would be seconded and there’d be a vote — and the vote is a show of hands around the room. And a finalist must win the majority of the vote.”
Tash would take into account the degree of difficulty on any particular work. One element of that degree of difficulty is the resources available to the news organization that achieved the work, considering smaller news organizations may not have the same resources as organizations like The New York Times or The Washington Post.
“As long as that judgment in no way damages the integrity of the prize … that this was indeed, the best work,” he said.
No winner is named for a particular category if a finalist doesn’t receive a majority vote. (Out of the 18 board members, at least 10 must agree.)
On the last day, there is a final vote to affirm all of the awards across the different categories. There is typically one winner and two finalists. The board has been criticized in the past for perceived conflicts of interest, though an administrator has labeled that claim “utter nonsense.”
Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times when it won four of its 12 Pulitzer Prizes, said if there was any conflict of interest, “we would have won a lot more.”
“Every year, I would leave Columbia University and walk back out to Broadway to catch a cab or a subway. I would always have two thoughts: The first thought was, boy, it is really, really hard to win a Pulitzer Prize,” Tash said. “The second thing I would say is … thank God for journalists. Because there’s an awful lot about the world that we wouldn’t know.”
The honor of a lifetime
Since 2015, the awards have been announced via a live video stream available to the public. Winners and finalists forever have their work displayed on the Pulitzer website.
In 2018, Lisa Krantz, a photojournalist at the San Antonio Express-News, heard that she might be a finalist in Feature Photography. But there was no guarantee until the awards were publicly announced.
If there was any chance that Krantz was a finalist, she wanted to enjoy it with Carrie Windham, the mother of Rowan Windham, a young boy whose “physical, spiritual and emotional journey” living with a rare disorder she covered — the story nominated for a Pulitzer.
“I was like, ‘If nothing happens, we’ll just go get lunch. We’ll celebrate Rowan’s life no matter what.’ And so that’s what we did,” Krantz said.
She ended up missing the announcement.
“I think I walked away from the computer in the newsroom, talking with my boss and Carrie, Rowan’s mom, and then I started getting texts congratulating me for being a finalist,” Krantz said.
Carrie Windham also spoke to the newsroom to express how much the story meant to her. The most rewarding part wasn’t the finalist recognition itself. It was broadcasting Rowan’s story to a wider audience.
“When I met him, I thought, ‘I want people to hear his voice … I want people to see this kid.’ And so when you think about the Pulitzer, it reaches very far, it goes beyond journalism,” Krantz said. “It gives stories that much more life to be able to be seen and be able to have impact.”
Winning the award comes with a $15,000 prize (a gold medal for the Public Service category), an award ceremony and a lifetime of recognition.
Andrew Sean Greer was in Italy working at a writer’s residency when he found out he won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Literary Fiction. At the time, he was trying to take care of a dog on the premises that kept wandering into the house and pooping.
“I was trying to get diapers on the dog, and that’s exactly what I was doing … I was putting diapers on a pug,” Greer said.
Someone texted Greer’s boyfriend congratulating him on winning the award. He thought it was “fake news” until he checked his own phone and saw “a million text messages” commending him. It was nighttime in Italy, and he’d missed the announcement by hours.
“I called my mother, and she had already had half a bottle of champagne. I was way behind everyone else. It was the last thing I was expecting, to be honest,” he said.
It meant a lot to Greer that a jury and board full of people from across the personality spectrum awarded “Less,” “a generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.”
After winning, “every living Pulitzer Prize winner in literature” wrote to him to congratulate him.
He still remembers the award ceremony, a day when everyone was full of joy.
Kendrick Lamar was there. There were teams that had uncovered wrongdoing in the White House. There was a small town writer that had called into question the Veterans Affairs Department.
“They had all been very brave people who had done great work, and we were all there together, almost like children, after having been so serious for so many years,” Greer said.
“It was a day where we all felt truly recognized, something like a commencement ceremony … It was a real mark of something. And I’ll never, never forget it.”
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