New Pulitzer Prize chief intends to honor old values while navigating industry changes

When Dana Canedy was named administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, she inherited a questionnaire that goes to potential jurors and asks for the name of their news organization and their newspaper's circulation.

Ah, yes, that was a bit dated in what now seems a mortician-like request for deathly metrics of old, as opposed to the digital reach of today. But that has been tweaked by her, as have a few other vestiges of an institution that could use a touchup or two, if not any gut renovation.

If you stop and think of it, even in the age of Trump media bashing and self-inflicted media miscues communicated planet-wide by social media, the words "Pulitzer Prize" still carry a cachet that even many once long-revered institutions do not. Most people may not know quite exactly what they recognize but probably have an instantly positive association of the name and quality achievement. That's no small feat amid imploding business models bedeviling the institution's standard bearers of old.

What else resonates in such generally praiseworthy fashion? Government? Church? Public education? Cable news? Not quite. 

It remains a forum where great fact-based, objective journalism is celebrated. And it's avoided crossfire in an era when both the president gratuitously attacks the press and a growing number of citizens (mostly conservatives) doubt the media's watchdog role in a democracy. For sure, there's a temptation for some inside the institution to consider being more in the forefront of public discussion, but such engagement could be tricky.

A former senior editor at The New York Times and former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter, Canedy took over in the summer. Her duties include preparing for next year's competition and overseeing ongoing discussions about changes to exiting prize categories and perhaps alteration of others. One recasting involves the definition of breaking news, to not necessarily insist it be of distinctly local origin to the event itself. For example, the New York Times could win the category for its coverage of the Las Vegas shooting.

There have been other changes in a rather brief tenure so far. She's overseen a needed refresh, as they say, of the website and dispatched a survey to every juror and every contest entrant of the past five years "to see what's working, or not, about our processes and systems, to help inform the decisions of our board going forward." Throw in, too, a total office renovation, meaning she's labored on policy and paint.

It seemed apt to give her a holler on Manhattan's Upper West Side at Columbia University. Here's a slightly edited version of our phone chat.

When you analyzed the institution, either during the interview process for the job, or after you took it, what were your biggest takeaways as far as any need for re-invention, if not any obvious change?

I would say my biggest observation was that Pulitzer remains as relevant now as 100 years ago. In this era of so much distrust of the news industry, and assaults on the industry, an organization like this, which celebrates and uplifts the best in American journalism, is really more vital now than ever before. I was mindful of stepping into an institution that was storied and needed uplifting and protecting, but there was a need for making sure it stayed relevant for generations to come.

Even before my arrival, the board was thinking about this. We have a lot to be proud of and to also work on.

Work on?

One of main things is over the course of the next year, the board will be taking a hard look at eligibility rules, prize categories and the like, not necessarily to make dramatic changes but to question whether changes need to be made. In some cases, yes, in some cases, no.

Be more specific as far as changes.

I think, for example, we have to ... take a look at all the new platforms in use for telling stories and the new reporting tools and keep pace with the industry. There are lots of things that have emerged. VR, the use of iPhones to do on-the-scene reporting (though that's not really new). There are new ways to get information to the public and we have to be about the business of making sure we keep pace.

For example, a questionnaire goes to potential jurors, and part of what it asks for is your expertise for judging. It asks things like the name of a news organization and newspaper circulation, but didn't ask about any digital measures of ... a news organization. 

It's also about a mindset, too. We need to think of a digital first news industry, how a news organization sees itself. The Times stopped referring to itself as a newspaper but instead as a digital first news organization that happens to produce a newspaper. If industry leaders express themselves that way, we have to consider changes and keep pace with that.

But whether talking of The Times or Pulitzers, you can go too far. While organizations have to be about change, they have to be visionary, not reactionary. I think the best news organizations have to both be a gatekeeper for the old values, which shouldn't change, while innovating and being edgy.

What are the most important alterations so far in the process?

The expansion of the breaking news category, which we announced last week. We will have a broader range of applications to look at. It will make for more competition and a more dynamic mix of stories under consideration and enhance that prize category.

Do you foresee a day when there are essentially no limits to entry, beyond something not obviously being journalism? And given how so much video is now being done by print folks, what's the ultimate distinction with television? 

That's a huge debate. Don't know whether that will happen or not. It's something, if we were to go down that road, we would have to do carefully. Do I see a time where basically almost anything goes, nothing is restricted? I don't think in those terms. We have to look at what's happening in the industry, at new and emerging platforms, and decide how that fits into the scope of continuing to celebrate the best journalism in the country. Then ask bolder questions like where does broadcast fit in this? And to make change deliberately.

It shouldn't be easy to make these decisions. I think this industry is more entrepreneurial than it has ever been. But everybody has to be mindful of keeping up with the standards, while still trying to be innovative. I read the (Joseph Pulitzer) will and rules of the prize. You'd be amazed at the degree to which the board and I consider Pulitzer's original mandate. He foresaw, in the creation of the Pulitzers and the guidance he left behind, a need for change.

Does the rise of fact-checking play into a new era at all? I recall a few times as a judge wanting to independently verify stuff in entries but not being allowed to. I might have wanted to know if a claimed exclusive was really what an entry later claimed.

I'm not sure it's the role of the jury to second-guess work that is being submitted. Now it might be like a parent who over-praises their child. But that's only a matter of enthusiasm, not dishonesty. I don't think there's much of a record at all of Pulitzers suffering from choosing work that hasn't lived up to what it's awarded. 

Qualitatively, there's a growing gulf on the traditional newspaper side, between the haves — such as the Times and The Washington Post — and the have-nots, namely the increasing number of under-resourced local and regional papers whose ambitions are tempered for financial reasons. Does that matter to you it all?

I think the board is mindful of it. Frankly, it's a problem for the industry, driven by so many news organizations in a battle for their survival as traditional ad dollars decline and digital revenue doesn't keep pace with the decline of print ad dollars. We still award prizes to smaller news organizations that do stellar work. It's one of the best services we can provide; to continue to award prizes to stories produced by those organizations.

Does it matter that the inclusion of great magazines — such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among many others — ultimately tilts the scales, as least compared to your average paper, certainly when it comes to longer-form work? Or does that not really matter too much, either, since the goal is acknowledgment of excellence, regardless of the origin?

One of things this board is really good at is not only considering work where it is clear that the depth and reach and time that went into it produces stellar work, but when a scrappy regional or local publication does work whose excellence is commensurate with the resources applied.

We are really proud of that, whether talking about a newspaper or small magazine, we can award a prize to a local paper or regional magazine that does outstanding work. That will continue. This board doesn't have a desire to only award prizes to the largest news organizations with the biggest budgets.

A final question, you've co-edited a book of photos. It's called "Unseen" (co-edited by Darcy Eveleigh, a former Times photo editor; Damien Cave, an editor-reporter now based in Australia; and Rachel L. Swarns, a former Times reporter). What's that about?

Some colleagues from the business side at The Times wanted to measure what would it look like if The Times had products for certain audiences, be it women, people of color, LGBT community, and wanted data to look at. I said Black History Month was coming up, what about doing something around that? 

I knew of a brilliant photo editor and asked her if she would pull photos as an experiment in the paper. It went viral and grew and grew and grew. Out of that came the idea for the book. These photos have never been seen before. They were on the cutting room floor, and the stories were often as interesting as the photos themselves.

There's an iconic picture of Martin Luther King Jr. that you've seen a million times, in a suit and portrait setting. You find out it was cropped very close and he was actually on a television set with about four or five others for a broadcast he was about to do. So it's absolutely fascinating.

There's Lena Horne in her home, in her living room. You find out she was having a hard time finding anybody to sell her an apartment at height of her career and was finally at home in the living room of her penthouse. And a lot of people just remember the photograph.

The series ran for the month of Black History Month in the paper and was called "Unpublished." Now it's a book.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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