In Down Year, Some Award Entries Up Thanks to Online Journalism

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Could this be the year online journalism really crashes the party at the Pulitzer Prizes? With entry deadlines having passed for the Pulitzers and many other contests, the prospect that Internet-based work might take home major awards is one of many questions on prize-watchers' minds. Initial indications are that both online-only and collaborative online-print projects will be stronger this year.

Another question: How will overall contest submission numbers fare compared to last year, as the financial damage among publications deepens, squeezing staff sizes, investigative-reporting resources and award-entry budgets? While most competitions are still preparing for the judging process, many are reporting that online and multimedia work seems to be boosting their total entry count.

Let's start with the Pulitzers: the oldest, most prestigious U.S. journalism awards, which are paired, of course, with honors for arts, letters and music.

There have been fewer journalism entries in recent years, with 1,028 coming in last year, Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler said in an telephone interview. He noted that the office was still dealing with the "traditional room full of boxes," and did not have a total count or a sense of the print-online breakdown.
 
The 93-year-old Pulitzers have been encouraging submissions by online-only operations by expanding the criteria (although the rules still bar Web sites affiliated with magazines and broadcast outlets). Last year there were no purely-online winners, and only one online finalist –- for a Politico political cartoon -- although the St. Petersburg Times's predominantly Internet-based PolitiFact project was the National Reporting winner, and also a finalist in the Public Service category. (Disclosure: Poynter owns the St. Petersburg Times).

The Pulitzers' two-tiered judging process in 14 journalism categories for print and online entries starts the first week of March. Jurors meet for three days, and forward their finalist nominees for decisions by the 19-member Pulitzer board that will be announced Monday, April 12.
 
Contest Entries Tally
Goldsmith: Down slightly
Pulitzer: No count yet
IRE: Up 15%
Scripps: Even
ASNE: Down slightly
Selden Ring: Down slightly
Bingham Prize: Up slightly
In an early contest sometimes considered a predictor of the Pulitzers, Harvard University's Shorenstein Center announced six finalists on Jan. 29 for its Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting -- including a project that involved the independent non-profit ProPublica, exposing white vigilante violence in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and raising questions about the New Orleans Police Department's use of force then.

The project was conducted with the Nation Institute, in collaboration with the Times-Picayune and National Public Radio's Frontline. Other Goldsmith finalists were reporters for Raleigh, N.C.'s News & Observer, and for The Boston Globe, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Washington Post, and Houston's KHOU-TV. The winner will be announced at a March 23 dinner.

Alex S. Jones, Shorenstein's director, commented via an e-mail that while total submissions decreased slightly, "the number of high quality, competitive entries has never been higher." He added, "The work we saw this year was ambitious, innovative, imaginative, and showed initiative that ranked with any year we have had the award."

Another early prize announcer was Investigative Reporters and Editors, with its Philip Meyer Award, for work that involves social-science research. Its top prize went to USA Today for its report on air pollution levels near American schools. The Seattle Times won second place, and the Chicago Tribune third, with the Arizona Republic winning an honorable mention.

The wider IRE Awards program received more than 450 entries, an increase of more than 15 percent from last year, with online entries in that contest, too, being higher this year, executive director Mark Horvit said in an e-mail. "We're still not where we were before all the cutbacks, but we're very pleased with the response and believe it is another indicator that newsrooms traditional and new are producing important journalism with impact." The awards of that IRE contest, judged separately from the Philip Meyer Award, will be announced in early April.
 
At the Scripps Howard National Journalism Awards, which had a Jan. 3 deadline, print entries may have been off slightly, but there, too, online entries made up the difference, according to Mike Philipps, president and chief executive of the Scripps Howard Foundation.

"It looks like we're going to be even with last year," with entries in the mid-600s, he said. "We're getting more calls from individuals, too. They used to have their work submitted by the newspaper, but often there's nobody at the paper doing that anymore."

Winners will be announced March 12 by the Scripps Howard Foundation, which offers awards in 15 professional areas, and which for the first time is letting online entries compete directly against print, rather than in their own category.
 
Representatives of Internet-only news sites seem to be gearing up for a good year in award-winning.
 
Asked about its Pulitzer submissions in particular, the editor of the online St. Louis Beacon, Margaret Wolf Freivogel, said it had two, aimed at three categories -- Public Service and Local Reporting for one race-related project, and Explanatory Reporting for its health-care coverage.

"Over the last year, online news organizations have not only grown in number but also have become more widely recognized as sources of reliable, insightful reporting," said Freivogel in an e-mail. "The stereotype of the online journalist as a blogger in pajamas is gone. The growth of serious journalism in the digital world is well under way," added Freivogel, who was a Pulitzer juror in the National Reporting category last year.
 
The online publication MinnPost submitted just one Pulitzer entry, down from several last year, according to chief executive and editor Joel Kramer, although he considered the Pulitzers "welcoming" of online work. Kramer explained in an e-mail that "we are limiting our contest entries because they take a lot of time (and sometimes money) and our resources are limited."
 
Voice of San Diego editor Andrew Donohue said in an e-mail that his online operation had turned in one Pulitzer package, as it did last year. "While we're tremendously proud of a wide selection of our work from the year, we are realistic and disciplined in our awards submissions. (With a small staff and a limited budget, you don't really have a choice.)" Added Donohue, "Awards like the Pulitzers and the Polk are really on the cutting edge in that they are allowing online to compete directly with print."
 
Long Island University's George Polk Awards drew 430 entries this year -- the first year it has kept an entry tally. Winners will be announced next Monday, Feb. 15. In an e-mail, LIU journalism department chair Ralph Engelman, faculty coordinator for the Polks, observed that the current crop reflect:

"fewer examples of investigative journalism from major mid-sized regional papers; a significant growth in the submission of entries in which news organizations have partnered with one another; a growing importance of special funding sources for investigative reporting ...; more online material, but generally not stand-alone, rather part of a multiplatform entry ... [and] an encouraging spike in good radio entries, primarily public radio stations doing local invesgitative work, perhaps a result of the vacuum caused by the crisis in print."

With less support nowadays for investigative journalism, "those who are still doing it are understandably and legitimately making more strenuous efforts to gain recognition," Engelman continued. "Perhaps major awards like the Polks assume greater importance in this environment."

The American Society of News Editors said total entries in its 31-year-old ASNE Awards -- offered in nine categories, including a first-year Online Storytelling division -- slipped a little to around 275. The judging is this week, with winners scheduled to be announced Feb. 21.
 
Two competitions offering exceptionally high prize money -- the $35,000 Selden Ring Award and the $20,000 Worth Bingham Prize -- also are watched closely for indications of who might win Pulitzers. (Pulitzers come with $10,000, except for the non-cash Public Service prize, which is accompanied by the Joseph Pulitzer gold medal.)
 
Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications' journalism school, which administers the Selden Ring, said in an e-mail that entry numbers may be down this year. But while it is "too early to know anything about the quality" of entries, "a quick glance surely looks reassuring to me." The entries will be judged next week, with winners announced shortly thereafter.
 
An initial review of entries for the Worth Bingham Prize from Harvard's Nieman Foundation showed 88 submissions, four more than in 2009, according to Nieman curator Bob Giles, who noted that the number includes online-only entries that were permitted for the first time this year.
 
As was the case for the Scripps competition, more Bingham entries came from individuals this year, rather than from their employers. "A number of checks to cover the entry fee were sent in by the reporters themselves," said Giles, "but they sometimes get reimbursed by their papers, so it's hard to know if that's a sign of the times."
 
Two papers with strong Pulitzer-winning traditions that have kept on processing submissions for that and other prizes are the Charlotte Observer and Seattle Times. Rick Thames, the Observer's editor and vice president for news, said in an e-mail: "We're actually slightly up from last year's Pulitzer entries," although in some other competitions the paper did not increase entries. "I'd say our commitment, in general, is the same as it was last year." The Seattle Times, too, submitted more Pulitzer entries, executive editor David Boardman said in an e-mail.
 
He added, "Certainly, the manner in which many contests have opened up to online entries encouraged us to showcase some of our best digital work, especially around breaking news."
 
That has paid off already in the Goldsmith investigative competition, in which the judges gave the Times a special citation for its breaking news coverage of the murder of four police officers.
 
Roy Harris is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism, now updated to include the 2008 and 2009 Pulitzer Prizes, and available in paperback.

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