April 13, 2012

With its once-plentiful Pulitzer Prize juror leaks now plugged, handicapping the year’s premier journalism awards is harder these days. To predict who and what will win Pulitzer stardom now involves scanning what most think of as lesser constellations: contests younger than the 96-year-old Pulitzers with winners already announced. Among those winners, one often finds work with that special glow that the Pulitzer board loves.

Secrecy pervades the Pulitzer organization, whose journalist-jurors met the last weekend in February at Columbia University, which administers the prizes. So there will have been relatively little buzz when Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler steps into the Graduate School of Journalism’s fabled World Room at 3 p.m. Monday to announce winners and finalists in the 14 journalism categories, along with seven for arts, letters and music.

Pre-Pulitzer stargazers, though, certainly must take note of the terrific investigative work of the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News, whose Sara Ganim broke the story of sexual-abuse allegations against Penn State football defensive coach Jerry Sandusky – winning a George Polk and a Scripps Howard award, along with honors from the American Society of News Editors and Society of Professional Journalists.

Few could count out these winners of the most lucrative competitions, either:

  • An Associated Press team that claimed the Goldsmith Prize (offered, with $25,000, by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center) for a probe of New York Police Department spying in the Muslim community;
  • A Los Angeles Times team that won the Worth Bingham Prize ($20,000, from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation) for “Billions to Spend,” a study of mismanagement among Los Angeles community colleges;
  • Seattle Times reporters Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong, winners of the Selden Ring Award (and $35,000, from USC-Annenberg) for the journalists’ study of fatal overdoses involving the painkiller methadone.

Pulitzers, by contrast, come with $10,000, except for Public Service, which earns a gold medal for the winning news organization.

Among other investigative projects honored in earlier award programs this year:

  • The Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune’s “Unfit for Duty,” in which reporters Matthew Doig and Anthony Cormier detailed the questionable backgrounds of hundreds of Florida police officers;
  • The Boston Globe’s examination of an astoundingly high acquittal rate in bench-trials of drunk driving defendants, which showed how judicial leniency was undercutting tough new laws.
  • Danny Hakim and Russell Buettner’s New York Times “Abused and Used” series, on the need for reform at New York state-run homes for the developmentally disabled;
  • Bloomberg’s “The Fed’s Trillion-Dollar Secret,” about bank bail-out loans, and its “Wired for Repression,” which looked at surveillance technology being sold by U.S. companies to repressive regimes around the world;
  • ProPublica projects that included “Dollars for Docs,” about secret drug-company payments to physicians; “Presidential Pardons,” in collaboration with the Washington Post; and Paul Kiel and Olga Pierce’s exposure of failures that contributed to the home-foreclosure crisis.
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s “Pipeline” stories, raising questions about Marcellus Shale-oil-drilling, which also won an Online News Association award.

All this work likely was represented among the entries reviewed by the 14 Pulitzer jury panels that quietly decided which 42 (three per category) to forward to board members for their final vote this week.

“As far as I can tell,” wrote the Pulitzers’ Gissler in an email, “jurors have impressively honored their pledge of confidentiality.” He said little else in answer to questions, except to note that entries have “been running about 1,100 a year in recent years” and that he would announce the 2012 number on Monday when Pulitzers are awarded for Public Service; Breaking News; Investigative, Explanatory, Local, National and International Reporting; Feature Writing; Commentary; Criticism; Editorial Writing; Cartooning; and News and Feature Photography.

To be a good Pulitzer prognosticator requires more than aggregation skills. Attention must be paid to special considerations facing the 18 voting Pulitzer board members: top editors and publishers from a range of news organizations, along with a handful of educators. Since 1917, after all, the board has been charged with picking the best of the best – what the Oscars (begun a dozen years after the Pulitzers) are to motion pictures.

One such 2012 consideration may relate to its controversial decision not to name a Breaking News winner last year. That suggests a mission to “restore” that important category. Work honored by other award programs includes the Arizona Republic’s coverage of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, and the Joplin Globe’s coverage of a devastating tornado in its southwestern corner of Missouri.

The pressure continues to mount, as well, for acknowledging more online journalism, especially among the growing number of entries published online only, or representing collaborations between Internet-based and print outlets. (Work done primarily for magazines or broadcast is barred from Pulitzer consideration.) Critics say the Pulitzers should do a better job of recognizing projects that reflect the type of online journalism that today’s readers increasingly view on computer or tablet screens, or tap from smartphones.

Last year, only one Pulitzer went for primarily-online work: to ProPublica reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein, for articles on Wall Street practices that contributed to the financial collapse.

Other online journalism honored so far this year includes two projects from investigative nonprofit California Watch: “On Shaky Ground,” which exposed serious flaws in seismic safety compliance and oversight at public schools, and “Decoding Prime,” illustrating cases of waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare reimbursements, and generally throughout the health-care system.

When it comes to citing the work of established giants of print, the Pulitzers can face controversy, too. In the four years since The Wall Street Journal was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the paper has won only one Pulitzer –  to editorial writer Joseph Rago last year. (It had 2011 finalists in Feature Writing, Explanatory, National and International.) In the nine years leading up to the acquisition of the paper, the Journal or its staffers won 15 Pulitzers, and were finalists eight more times.

Journal work honored with other awards so far this year has included the “Disabled System” series by Damian Paletta, about mismanagement of the Social Security Disability Insurance system; “Inside Track,” a series of articles examining new means of insider trading involving Washington officials and savvy investors; and “The End of Privacy,” about government and corporate tracking of individuals through their electronic devices.

In addition to the Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times comprise the “big four” of traditional Pulitzer powerhouses – all submitting a raft of entries each year, and often appearing somewhere among the final 14 winners and finalists. Their performance among other award programs so far this year has seemed relatively muted, although any number of their staffers still could find Pulitzer favor, of course.

One trait displayed by the Pulitzers over the years has been a penchant for Pulitzer surprises: acknowledging work, often by small news organizations, that may have been largely unheralded. Such picks are hard to predict, of course. But prior to awarding last year’s Public Service prize to the Los Angeles Times for the celebrated work of reporters Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb in exposing governmental abuses in the city of Bell, Calif., the 2010 and 2009 gold medals went to the smaller Bristol, Va., Herald-Courier, and the Las Vegas Sun, respectively, for investigations that were largely off the national radar.

Among the small publications whose work has been praised in other contests this year:

  • The Norfolk, Va., Virginian-Pilot’s Corinne Reilly was a Scripps Howard winner for “A Chance in Hell,” a series about a combat hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
  • Florida’s Palm Beach Post won an IRE award for a breaking news story that found details about a suspect in the killing of two children, and raised questions about failures in state and private agencies.
  • The tiny Advertiser Democrat, of Norway, Me., which explored shocking conditions in low-income housing after a rooming-house fire exposed blatant disregard for health and safety, was a choice for a Polk award.

Among other Pulitzer trends, in recent years the board has seemed to honor an unusual number of younger staffers – especially for their work on Public Service winners. One of the two reporters on the Los Angeles Times Bell stories, Ruben Vives, was 32. Daniel Gilbert of the Bristol Herald-Courier was 28, and Alexandra Berzon of the Las Vegas Sun was 29 at the time their papers won. Both Gilbert and Berzon now work for the Wall Street Journal.

If that interest in youth continues to hold sway with the Pulitzer board, it could augur well for Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, who is 24.

What do you think has been the best journalism overlooked by judges? Tweet your picks using the hashtag #bestoverlooked.

Correction: This article originally gave the Patriot-News an extra win. It did not receive an IRE award for its reporting on Sandusky. The original version of the article also misspelled Joseph Rago’s name.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010.) For the fifth straight year, he will conduct the Washington Post’s online chat on Tuesday at 11 a.m.

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism. Among his contributions to Poynter…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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