Why it matters who won the first 'online' Pulitzer

When The Huffington Post's David Wood won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on wounded veterans, Michael Calderone called it a "milestone in the influential Pulitzer committee's recognition of online-only news organizations."

But when you look at the recent history of Pulitzers for online journalism, it looks more like a stepping-stone.

Is Huffington's Pulitzer more notable than Politico's, perhaps because Politico also publishes a newspaper? What about ProPublica, which in 2011 became the first online-only news organization to win a Pulitzer for stories that didn't appear in print?

Perhaps you consider HuffPost more of a "daily" publication than ProPublica, which also publishes daily. Maybe you don't think the 2009 Pulitzer for PolitiFact counts because those journalists actually work for the Tampa Bay Times, primarily a newspaper organization.

Despite those previous awards, some journalists seem to be awaiting something big, something dramatic that would signal the arrival — perhaps the conquest — of online journalism. Something pure: Digitally native journalism, published by an online-only publication.

If that's what we're looking for, the waiting will continue past this year's Pulitzers. Politico and The Huffington Post are undeniably Web-native, but the journalism recognized this week has more in common with traditional journalism than digital. Wood wrote a 10-part series; Wuerker penned editorial cartoons.

If I were keeping score in the contest for the first "real" online Pulitzer, I would consider two factors:

  • The type of organization. Does the organization that published this work have its roots in newspapers or on the Web?
  • The type of journalism. Are the entries comprised of traditional, narrative storytelling, or are they creatures of the Web? Stories are stories, regardless of where they are published. But blog posts, interactive presentations, news applications and social media -- those can't live offline.

Both elements are important. Digital tools enable us to do things we couldn't do in print. And it's significant that an online-only news outlet could devote the resources, and have the expertise, to do award-winning work. Together, they would represent a clean break from the old ways of doing journalism and the old ways of supporting it.

The reason for the hair-splitting is that none of the winners so far have been purely digital in both categories, storytelling and news outlet. Online-only news outlets have won for traditional journalism. Newspapers have won for work that appeared only online.

I started thinking about this when I read an unnamed source's contention on JimRomenesko.com that The Huffington Post is not the first "blog" to win a Pulitzer. (My first question: Who calls HuffPost  a blog?) This person said The Times-Picayune won for using its "news blog" to cover Hurricane Katrina, which is partly true: The blog was part of the winning entry, but the package was mostly print.

If that's the threshold, we're well beyond the point at which we mark the first this or that. This thing we're awaiting -- it's already here.

And with that, I present:

A semi-definitive history of 'online' Pulitzers

2006, The Times-Picayune
Print-native news outlet, mostly print-native work.

2006, The Sun Herald
Print-native news outlet, combination of print and digitally native work.

  • The Sun Herald's entry for its Katrina coverage also was heavy on stories, but it included an extensive description of its online work: a news blog, frequent home page updates, photo galleries of damage (by its own photographers and from readers), forums that people used to get in touch with one another, and an interactive map of damaged areas.

2008, The Washington Post

Print-native news outlet, combination of print and digitally native work.

  • News stories comprised the bulk of the Post's entry for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, but the Post also included a description of how it had developed its online coverage throughout the day. It started with an initial, one-line report of a gunman on campus and later included stories with fatality counts, an audio report, live Internet radio, cell phone videos and user submissions.

2009, The New York Times
Print-native news outlet, mix of print and digitally native work.

2009, St. Petersburg Times
Print-native news outlet, digitally native work.

2010, ProPublica
Digitally-native news outlet, print-native journalism.

2010, The Seattle Times
Print-native news outlet, mix of print and digitally native work.

  • The Times' entry detailed how it used digital tools to report on the shooting deaths of four officers and the ensuing manhunt. It posted an AP bulletin on its website, sent out email alerts, tweeted updates with the #washooting hashtag, created time lines and experimented with Google Wave. "Throughout the day, more than three dozen stories were posted or updated online. Seattletimes.com was the first to identify the suspect and detail his criminal history."

2010, SFGate.com
Print-native news outlet, digitally native work.

  • The board noted the hybrid nature of Mark Fiore's animated editorial cartoons, which appeared only online: "His biting wit, extensive research and ability to distill complex issues set a high standard for an emerging form of commentary."

2010, The New York Times
Print-native news outlet, mix of print and digitally native work.

2011, ProPublica
Digitally-native news outlet, print-native work.

  • Unlike its first Pulitzer, ProPublica's investigation into the economic meltdown didn't appear in print. Although the board cited its use of "digital tools to help explain the complex subject to lay readers," they're not particularly digital: a comic explaining CDOs and a couple of infographics.

2011, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Print-native news outlet, mix of print and digitally native work.

  • The board cited the Sentinel's use of "words, graphics, videos and other images" to describe how doctors used genetic technology to treat a 4-year-old boy with a strange illness. Not only do videos accompany each of the stories, but in two of the three, they're integrated into the narrative. One of the works submitted to the Pulitzer board was the landing page for the project, which collected all the elements used to tell the story. (I added this winner after the newspaper brought it to my attention.)

2011, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Print-native news outlet, mostly print-native work.

2012, Politico

Digitally-native news outlet, print-native work.

2012, The Denver Post
Print-native news outlet, print-native work.

  • Craig Walker's photo essay detailing a veteran's struggles with PTSD could have appeared in print, but it was published online. (Hat tip to Nieman Lab for pointing this out.)

2012, The Huffington Post
Digitally-native news outlet, print-native work.

  • David Wood's 10-part series about the struggles of wounded veterans is the sort of in-depth journalism newspapers have done for years, except that it wasn't printed in a newspaper.

Wood hit on this point in an interview with my colleague Mallary Tenore. Quoting Arianna Huffington, he said, "You can do great journalism on any platform." Sometimes that journalism is print-native, whether or not it appears in print. Sometimes it's digitally native, whether or not it's done by a newspaper.

So what's left? Digitally-native journalism published by an online-only news outlet. The thing is, I don't even know what that would look like. Just a news app? Twitter only? No stories? Even Pulitzer winners that maximized their use of the Web include traditional narrative stories.

If that's what we're awaiting, we still have something to anticipate for next year's Pulitzers, and probably many years after.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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