The deciders: The 17 people on the Pulitzer Prize board

At 3 p.m. Monday, champagne corks will be popping in a select group of American newsrooms. There and elsewhere, all eyes will be on this year's crop of Pulitzer Prize winners.

But before the fun begins, a question: Who are the judges of this most prestigious of journalism contests and how do they decide? 

Yesterday and today the Pulitzer Board has been sequestered in a conference room at Columbia University, hashing out the merits of entries in 14 journalism and seven arts categories.

The membership of the board is a matter of record. Many decades have passed since a bunch of old white guys constituted the group. The board now represents many types of diversity but may be looking for more as new appointments are made.

Consider, for instance, the first name alphabetically on the list, Elizabeth Alexander. Not a household name, but you may remember her as the woman who read an original poem at President Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Alexander is also president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — thus checking two boxes for a board that needs arts practitioners as well as journalists.

By my count, seven of the board members are editors, one with an asterisk. Nancy Barnes and Mindy Marqués Gonzalez are top editors respectively of the Houston Chronicle and the Miami Herald. Stephen Engelberg and Emily Ramshaw are the top editors of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, two leading digital-only nonprofit sites, a sector that has been gaining representation among the judges and winners over the last decade.

Big news services contribute Robert Blau, executive editor of Bloomberg News, and John Daniszewski, a longtime foreign correspondent and international editor, now standards editor for the Associated Press.

The asterisk goes to my boss, Poynter president Neil Brown, who was editor of the Tampa Bay Times when he joined the board in 2015 before moving down the street to Poynter last fall.

Rounding out the board are:

  • Three writers and columnists: Katherine Boo of the New Yorker, Gail Collins of The New York Times and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.
  • Novelist Junot Díaz (a winner in fiction several years back) and Alexander, the poet.
  • Two academics: Steven Hahn, a professor of history at New York University, and Tommie Shelby, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Harvard.
  • And three administrators from host Columbia University: President Lee C. Bollinger, Steve Coll, dean of the graduate school of journalism and Dana Canedy, newly appointed administrator for the prizes.

Alexander, Robinson, Canedy and Steele are African-American. Marquez Gonzalez and Diaz are Hispanic. (It may be a quibble to note that Hispanics now constitute a larger minority among the U.S. population — 17.8 percent — than African-Americans — 13.3 percent.)

The board doesn't do as well in gender balance. Only six of the 17 are women.

And in an oddity last year, of the 14 winners in the journalism categories, five were staff entries, eight of the individual winners were men and only one (Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal) was a woman. The lists in 2015 and 2016 were much more balanced, as this year's will almost certainly be.

I didn't try to calculate a median age but fair to say there are more board members older than 60 than there are younger than 40.

The way the board does business is not shrouded in secrecy with one exception: Individual members will never discuss how an entry prevailed during the two days of deliberations or say if they thought a pick was the wrong one.

That practice serves two functions: Discussions can be collegial, though sometimes argued pointedly, without a rehash after the fact. And lobbying before the prize meeting is minimized if never completely eliminated.

By the time the board convenes, juries will have met to review entries in each category and sent three recommendations (NOT ranked in order). Poynter colleagues Kelly McBride and Roy Peter Clark, both former jurors, filled me in on that process.

Except in the book categories, which are judged remotely, the jurors (five for simpler categories and seven for ones with longer entries) convene in late February or early March, the depth of gray and slushy New York City winter. They have two days — three if they need extra time — to sort through entries that can number in the hundreds.

In a series of majority votes, eliminated entries go under the table, literally (or at least it was before the Pulitzers went digital). When a dozen or so are left, the advocacy and arguing begin. Jury chairs have some leeway organizing the work, deciding for instance whether to adopt a scoring rubric. Ultimately three finalists and three alternates are sent on to the board.

McBride says the final part of the process involves jurors writing a synopsis of the entry and a short observation about what makes it a great piece of journalism. She explained:   

"These two paragraphs have been known to make a big difference because they can become the frame through which the judges see the entry. And it’s the most random part of the process. By that point, the jury members are exhausted, their brains are fried, and most of them have to make their way through New York drama to catch a plane."

So the board then picks one of the three? It's not quite that simple. Nearly every year an entry or two is moved from one category to another — for instance taking a runner-up for public service and awarding it a prize for investigative reporting.

It sometimes happens that the board chooses not to award a prize in a given category. That can occasion a lot of ill feeling from the entrants and publishers who were snubbed and some grousing from jurors who devoted days to reading and ranking entries. 

Here the confidentiality of the board deliberations comes into play. The explanation is simply that no entry got the required majority vote of the board — leaving open whether members didn't think any finalist was good enough — or was deadlocked on which was most deserving.

I asked Paul Tash, CEO of the Tampa Bay Times and a recent Pulitzer board member, about two other situations.  On rare occasions the board dips into the three alternatives if the finalists seem lacking. And almost never (but the board does have the power) it could pick a piece of work the jury had discarded early.

The judging typically begins with the literary group. Board members are asked to leave the room if their organization is one of the finalists or they otherwise identify a conflict on interest.

It was his experience, Tash said, often "you can see the discussion moving minds — someone voting a different choice than the one they came in with."

Board members can serve nine-year terms. The chair, Robinson this year, is always in the ninth year and leaves the board after winners are named. Resignations and the term limits do not always sync with new appointments so at a given time the board can be down two or three potential members.

Tash also told me that like most boards, the Pulitzers have a nominating committee whose recommendations are then voted on by the full group. The Columbia brass has no more say than anyone else.

Unusually, too, Tash said, the new members are screened and then selected without their knowledge. As with the MacArthur Foundation's famous "genius" grants, the first you know about being considered is when you are picked. 

I am certain hardly anyone declines; it's quite the honor. But there is a downside — you need to do a ton of reading — 42 journalism entries, some of them doorstop-sized, along with novels and other categories of books.

In years past, I have observed Tash toting thick binders of entries to a professional conferences. So the lucky 17, unless they need no sleep at all, almost certainly have not had time this winter and spring to track a favorite sports franchise game-by-game or binge-watch "The Crown."

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