Changes ahead for Pulitzers? Stay tuned, says new administrator

The Pulitzer Prize Board’s July selection of Dana Canedy as its administrator marks, in some ways, a dramatic change for the 101-year-old organization dedicated to honoring the best of American journalism and arts and letters.

Unlike Mike Pride, whose retirement created the opening, she has no prior connection with the Pulitzers — except as a lead reporter and editor for a New York Times team that won a 2001 prize for national reporting. Pride, who had been editor of the Concord (NH) Monitor, served nine years as a Pulitzer Board member before becoming administrator.

Canedy spent more than two decades at the Times after reporting for papers in Cleveland and Palm Beach, Fla., moving from Times business reporter, bureau chief, and senior editor, into administrative positions. There she oversaw talent acquisition and management training, among other areas, and most recently served as special adviser to the Times’ CEO and its executive editor.

Canedy now becomes the first woman and the first person of color to serve as Pulitzer administrator. And at 52, she's also the youngest. 

Margaret Sullivan, former New York Times public editor and now Washington Post media writer, describes Canedy in an email to Poynter as “warm, forthright, savvy and a woman of integrity,” who “seems like a very good fit for the role.” Adds Sullivan, who was a 2011-12 Pulitzer Board member: “She championed diversity at the Times and did so without making anyone feel left out.”

The Indianapolis-born Canedy, a University of Kentucky graduate who lives in New York with her son Jordan, also is author of "A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor." That memoir grew from the journal her partner, 1st Sgt. Charles Monroe King, had begun for their unborn child before he was killed in Iraq in 2006. She also was a founding board member of the not-for-profit Digital Diversity Network, a trade association dedicated to more diverse ownership of digital media.

Canedy, in this Q&A conducted via email, said she believed her selection reflected the board’s judgment that she knows “how to simultaneously protect and invigorate a brand like this” because of her work at the Times. “Especially at a time when the news media is under extraordinary assault,” according to Canedy, one way to invigorate the Pulitzers could be to “leverage our powerful platform to further support freedom of the press.”

As you’ve studied the issues facing the journalism Pulitzer Prizes in their 101st year of existence, what do you see as the most important challenges facing them?

I think the Pulitzer Prizes are as vital today as they were when Joseph Pulitzer created them more than a century ago to celebrate the best work in American journalism and in arts and letters. The challenges for the Pulitzers today are no different from the challenges all news organizations are confronting — how best to continue to uplift an industry that is in the midst of an unyielding existential crisis of sorts. And we are no different than news organizations in seeking the best ways for the prizes to evolve as the industry innovates to create exciting new ways to report and disseminate information. And yet I am keenly aware that the fundamental mission of the Pulitzer Prizes has not and must not change.

Sig Gissler administered the Pulitzers for 12 years. Successor Mike Pride served a nine-year board term before taking over for Gissler in 2014. Without having any Pulitzer board experience yourself, how did you prepare for your new position of administrator?

First of all, I have so much admiration for Sig and Mike and the tremendous work they did as the gatekeepers of the Pulitzer Prizes for so many years. Sig also had no prior Pulitzer board experience when he stepped into this role, and he of course became legendary in the industry for his leadership and vision during his tenure as administrator. Pulitzer administrators are a small fraternity, or dare I say sorority now, and Sig, Mike and I had lunch together about a month ago to celebrate Mike’s retirement. They could not have been more welcoming and gracious about me carrying on this critical work. I am also a huge fan of [former New York Times foreign correspondent and managing editor] Seymour Topping, the dean of the Pulitzers before them, and am really looking forward to getting to know him. What amazing acts to follow!

As for me, I have decades of experience as a journalist and was a lead reporter and editor on a team that won a Pulitzer, so I come to this position with a great deal of appreciation for the prizes and the significance of the awards. Also, having been a journalist for The New York Times for more than two decades and part of its senior newsroom leadership, I have extensive experience being a gatekeeper for a storied franchise. I know how to simultaneously protect and invigorate a brand like this, which is why I was chosen to do just that for the Pulitzers.

I also believe that the fact that I bring a fresh perspective to the prizes is an asset. A recurring question I have been asking since I began in July is “Why do we do this that way?” Sometimes the answer convinces me that we should keep doing whatever it is exactly the way we always have, but quite often I come away thinking that there are new or different ways we should be doing something. I came into this role with a short-term and long-term strategic plan and have some very concrete ideas about changes I want to make. Some involve recommending continued updates to prize eligibility rules and making important changes to some categories. In fact, the board is already far along on this path; I just want to push us farther down it.

I will be presenting many of my ideas at our next board meeting, Nov. 17, and I want the board and our chairman to have time to consider them before I share them publicly. So I hope you will indulge me and stay tuned for more specifics.

You’ve said you were told that your selection as Pulitzer administrator had nothing to do with gender or race, but that you were expected to “push the board to think in new ways as the industry evolves.” What are some new ways you see the journalism Pulitzer Prizes changing in the next few years?

While I am on the board, my primary role is to support the overall board on both a macro and a micro level. For example, my main day job is to make sure the judging, announcing and awarding of the prizes is executed flawlessly. Beyond that, however, I see my role as advising the board on ways to innovate and modernize the prizes to keep pace with the evolution of the journalism industry and the ever-changing world of arts and letters.

Separately, as it relates to being the first woman and the first person of color to oversee the Pulitzer Prizes, I am incredibly proud of that distinction. It is not the reason I was selected, but the historic nature of my appointment is not lost on me and is something I embrace. There has been tremendous enthusiasm both inside the industry and out about my appointment. I am grateful for that, but I have always said that I take my work very seriously but not myself. In fact, my mother asked me recently how it felt to be famous and I said, “Mom, if you have to tell people you’re famous, you’re not famous.”

Some of the biggest national news stories of the past few years have involved issues of race, inequality, and immigration. Do you think the Pulitzer Prizes have adequately acknowledged great journalism in those areas? And do you see part of your role as being to help move the Pulitzers more deeply into those coverage areas?

So the biggest national news stories emerge naturally as our society faces economic changes, cultural shifts, social movements, the impact of globalization and, unfortunately, tragedies. The role of the Pulitzer Prizes is to celebrate the best of the work that bears witness to those trends as they occur. That said, we are eager to consider an ever-broadening range of award-worthy work, whether it be a piece of journalism that explains, say, the resurgence of white supremacy groups or the consequences of DACA policy reform. One way we can appropriately influence what rises to the top for prize consideration is by making sure we have real and consistent diversity on our board and in our jury pools. I select the jurors and in doing so will always be mindful of jury diversification. That means diversity certainly in terms of race, gender and ethnicity but also in terms of political and social ideology, geographic location and cultural and class variation. I also think we need to do more outreach to encourage more types of news organizations to apply for award consideration. That is something we will be doing in a much more strategic way in the months and years ahead.

President Trump says that many news organizations invent sources, and focus on political attacks rather than on covering events fairly. The claim has helped shift public perceptions about some media outlets, including a few with long Pulitzer-winning traditions. What implications do you think such a shift in perceptions has on the Pulitzer Prizes, and how should the Pulitzer board address that?

I think the rhetoric about “fake news” quite frankly is becoming redundant and is wearing thin. But, to the extent that it does continue to influence perceptions about the news media, the rhetoric actually reinforces the power and relevance of our prizes. The way for us to combat negative perceptions of the media is to continue to celebrate impressive journalism. We must be undeterred in our mission, must keep running in our own lane and must let the work – and the prizes – speak for themselves.

The journalism Pulitzers have moved in recent years to accept some online-only entries and entries from magazines (though not television news.) But it’s been more than 30 years since the Pulitzers increased the basic number of journalism prizes to 14 by adding explanatory reporting and feature writing. Do you think more categories should be considered, and if so what might they be?

Yes, I think the categories should and will continue to evolve. That might mean adding, expanding or combining some categories. We should be thinking about the evolution of our categories every year, and making changes accordingly to keep pace with the new tools, formats and platforms available for great reporting and story telling. The board already knows this and is thinking a lot about it. I think you will potentially see some changes in both the short term and long term. We will stay focused on this while also making sure whatever changes we make are in keeping with the spirit of the original mandate that Joseph Pulitzer envisioned when he created the awards.

What would you say to those who worry that your deep New York Times connections, as a former journalist, and most recently as adviser to the Times Co. CEO, could get in the way of the Pulitzers’ efforts to broaden their reach to important new forms of media?

I would say, first of all, that anyone who might think that — and I actually can’t imagine that anyone would — certainly wouldn’t know me very well. Also, keep in mind that The Times is actually one of the leading innovators of new forms of media. Think [the 2012 multimedia project] “Snowfall,” or the Times' virtual reality work, or its expansion of video and use of podcasts. It is also worth noting that I cut my teeth at strong regional newspapers (the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the Palm Beach Post in South Florida) and I’m an author. So, I have experience beyond The Times that informs my thinking about quality reporting and story telling. And I would say that I am a visionary and an innovator at my core who enjoys thinking up new ways to keep what we do in this great and important profession moving forward. I have a very open mind about broadening our reach and our appeal. I’m accustomed to thinking that way.

You’ve talked about Pulitzers as a brand that can support journalism. What efforts beyond the bestowing of awards for journalism and the arts could the Pulitzer Prizes be pursuing, and how might the organization do that?

Especially at a time when the news media is under extraordinary assault, I believe we should and will do more to defend press freedom. I would refer you to some of our recent efforts in that regard, including an interview our board chair, Eugene Robinson, did with BBC Newsnight that was a forceful defense of the importance of a thriving independent press. I urged him to do it and we posted it on our website. You will see us doing more to appropriately leverage our powerful platform to further support freedom of the press. It is an important goal of mine, so I will be paying a lot of attention to this. American journalism is a fundamentally vital part of our democracy, and defending and celebrating quality journalism has always been the central mission of the Pulitzers. There are ways to do more, but it has always been a core value that still defines everything we do.

  • Roy J. Harris Jr.

    Roy Harris is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor who has also edited and written for online news sites and magazines.

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