Looking at the Pulitzers…with Pride
Ask Pulitzer Prize administrator Mike Pride what lessons to draw from the 2015 awards—his first since taking over for the now-retired Sig Gissler—and you can almost hear the echo of another small-town journalist from long-ago: Reports of the death of investigative projects are being greatly exaggerated.
That, of course, would be Hannibal, Missouri’s own Mark Twain.
“One fairly clear theme is that there is a lot of good investigative reporting going on,” according to Pride, who came to the Pulitzers’ top spot after a long term as editor of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor. In an email interview with Poynter, he notes: “It showed up with the two prizes in Investigative Reporting, but also in several other winners and finalists.” And some of those honored publications were found in relatively unusual quarters.
Sure, a reporter from the mighty New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal staff were awarded Pulitzers in that category: the Times’s Eric Lipton for his reports on influence peddling among state attorney generals, while the Journal staff exposed cost abuses to U.S. taxpayers in its series “Medicare Unmasked.” But, Pride quickly adds, “Smallish papers—the Post and Courier in Charleston [S.C.], the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif.—are still finding the gumption and the resources to undertake difficult, probing and important investigations.”
Pride notes that one Investigative Reporting juror told him he’d seen in the year’s entries "a moment of renaissance for American investigative journalism." And the administrator agreed that “the results reflected that.”
Pride, 67, is hardly a newcomer to the board, having joined it in 1999 and served as co-chair in 2008, before his term ended. Also that year he retired as Concord Monitor editor, although he returned in 2014, as his bio puts it, “to serve briefly as editor during a management transition.” He still writes columns, but retired from the paper for good last May.
Perhaps that transitional experience, along with his time watching news organizations shudder from his spot on the Pulitzer board, helps him see a need for the Pulitzers to move a bit from their old newspaper-centric ways. He talks now of online changes giving old newsrooms new hope of keeping up the drumbeat of enterprise reporting. “There are many digital investigative sites, but like them, many traditional newspapers are doing smart, sophisticated work,” he says. “They're using digital tools and data reporting to strengthen the foundations upon which they build their reporting.”
Other 2015 Pulitzer winners reflect transformed foundations: from the new-ownership Washington Post, home of National Reporting winner Carol D. Leonnig, for her coverage of Secret Service lapses, to Bloomberg News, home of Explanatory Reporting winner Zachary R. Mider, who wrote of the tax dodges employed in many corporate boardrooms.
Pride isn’t suggesting that the accomplishments of news organizations big and small “offer solutions to the economic problems troubling print publications,” he says. “But it's heartening to see that the investigative journalism renaissance, if there is one, includes old-fashioned, life-changing reporting aimed at exposing problems in states and communities,” as well as in the offices of the powerful.
One big change in the Pulitzers under his leadership has been the welcoming of magazine entries, which generally had been barred from competition since the Pulitzers’ 1917 beginnings. This year, the door was opened to magazines in the Investigative Reporting and Feature Writing categories. “We had good participation considering such a late announcement,” on Dec. 8, according to Pride. Indeed, the first magazine entries in those categories help total journalism submissions rise 5.2%, to 1,191 this year. “One even became a finalist, which is really difficult to do,” he says.
“I won't speculate about where the board might go from here, but it wouldn't surprise me to see an expansion to more categories next year.”
The new administrator feels especially encouraged about what small papers did this year. “As a former longtime editor of a paper even smaller than Charleston or Torrance,” he says, “I really hope the prizes given to these entries will inspire other small papers to flex their muscles. I also advise editors to read the Charleston and Torrance entries closely…. They are models about how to undertake and execute ambitious reporting projects.”
Looking ahead, he says, “preparing for what might go wrong is a big part of the job” as Pulitzer administrator. But on the other hand, “when the process works—when it produces a set of winners and finalists like this one—you’re both satisfied and relieved.”
Away from the Monitor day-to-day, he knows it’s harder to see journalism the way he once did, with shrinking newspaper staffs facing what pessimists see as the specter of an endgame. But, he adds, there's “another side to this gloom.” As the business struggles, “it's also finding new ways to sustain and act on its core values. And our democracy still depends on this.”
That’s a view Joseph Pulitzer infused into the Pulitzer Prizes in the opening years of the 20th century, when he used his will to call for their creation after his death. In 2016 the prizes reach their centennial, putting Pride at the helm during a time likely to see a transformation of the news business far beyond anything Pulitzer could have imagined.
Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in The Economist organization, has written about the Pulitzer Prizes for Poynter for 13 years. He is the author of Pulitzer’s Gold, to be published by Columbia University Press in a revised and updated edition in advance of the 2016 centennial of the Pulitzers.