April 4, 2016

When newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer willed a fortune to Columbia University before his death in 1911, journalism was a vastly different profession than it is today.

Most associations like the American Society of Newspaper Editors and academic institutions that teach journalism — fixtures that professionalized the practice of newsgathering — were established later in the 20th century. Pulitzer’s prizes landed in a field largely devoid of professional recognition beyond the status accorded with a larger publication, a Sunday column or a higher salary. They were a signpost for an American enterprise growing out of adolescence.

A century later, that adolescent is now in the throes of a mid-life crisis. The prizes are celebrating their hundredth birthday this year as the digital revolution continues to yank the commercial rug out from under America’s newspapers. Tech companies like Facebook and Google now serve as the primary intermediaries between journalists and their audiences, wresting the power of publication and distribution away from news organizations.

Although legacy companies and investors are pouring capital into digital upstarts, that’s no guarantor of their ultimate success. Meanwhile, the disruption shows no sign of letting up. If anything, it’s only accelerating.

So, what’s to become of the Pulitzer Prizes? They loom large in the popular imagination as representing the best of an industry under extreme financial duress. As they did at their inception, the prizes have the capability to define the profession of journalism as it undergoes massive transformation. But to do so will require creative thinking from an institution that for most of its existence has remained rooted in its tree-and-ink heritage.

To be sure, the prizes have made an effort to become more ecumenical in the last two decades. In 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Pulitzer’s birth, the contest put forth revised guidelines that allowed newspapers to submit online presentations as supplements to the public service category.

Several digitally minded innovations followed: In 2009, the Pulitzers opened to online-only news organizations; 2011 saw the investigative nonprofit ProPublica win a Pulitzer, the first online-only organization to do so; beginning in 2014, the prizes began allowing submissions from online and print magazines in select categories. These are, as Pulitzer Prize administrator Mike Pride noted, a laudable effort to keep pace with the rapidly changing profession the prizes celebrate.

In that spirit, here are several other ideas the prizes could put into place to ensure they stay relevant for future generations of digital journalists.

  • Allow entries from broadcast outlets 

    The current guidelines require that Pulitzer winners be culled from the ranks of U.S. newspapers, news sites and magazines that publish on a weekly basis.

    But one of the biggest consequences of the current media age is that every news organization is beginning to resemble its competitors. There are now fewer pure newspapers or TV networks. They’ve been largely replaced by digital news organizations with varying degrees of specialization in various formats.

    It’s now possible to put every major U.S. news outlet on a spectrum: Some are more video-centric than others, some are more text-centric and some are more audio-centric. But as financial pressures mount and digital tools lower startup costs, they’re all dabbling in media that they used to ignore.

    Moreover, they all share a few key distribution channels: Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Pinterest, YouTube, Soundcloud and Mailchimp, to name a few. They all rely on the same gatekeepers for reaching a vast swath of their audiences. And their business models have become increasingly similar, too: They rely on banner ads, newsletter sponsorships, pre-roll video and Facebook Instant Articles inventory, among other revenue sources.

    In this landscape, the distinction between newspapers, news sites and broadcast outlets becomes less and less clear every year. The New York Times is establishing a podcasting team. NPR has a news blog. CNN has the best-read U.S. political coverage.

    It’s true that broadcast outlets have their own top prizes. Columbia University also awards the Alfred I. duPont awards, which recognize the best U.S. broadcast, documentary and digital journalism. The University of Georgia bequeaths the Peabody Awards, which also acknowledge exemplary work in radio and television.

    But there seems to be some desire from broadcast organizations to be considered for the Pulitzer. When the Center for Public Integrity won the prize in 2014 for its investigation into the coal industry, ABC News sent a letter to the investigative nonprofit asking to share in the glory for the collaborative report. And when I put out a call for modifications to the prizes, NPR investigative reporter Howard Berkes had this to say:

    And, besides — if the Pulitzers have already opened themselves to news sites and magazines, what’s the point of excluding broadcast outlets? As we proceed further into the digital age, it seems like an increasingly arbitrary distinction.

  • Go international

    In an era of increasingly globalized media, is it essential that the prizes confine themselves to American journalism?

    The internet has made national boundaries porous for both readers and reporters, enabling journalists with roots outside the United States to break big news within our borders, and vice-versa. In 2014, Guardian US shared the gold medal for public service — the most prestigious prize — with The Washington Post for bringing the Edward Snowden revelations to light. Reuters, the global news agency headquartered in London, won the 2014 award for international reporting.

    In addition, home-grown news organizations are building outposts beyond U.S. borders that are meant to be editorially self-contained. BuzzFeed, for example, has foreign language websites in Japan, France, Brazil, Germany and Mexico, to name a few. The Huffington Post has launched several foreign-language editions, and The New York Times earlier this year debuted a Spanish-language site based in Mexico City.

    As American news organizations reach for international readers on their native soil and in their own tongues, the definition of “United States newspaper or news site” is becoming increasingly blurry. The reverse is true of international news organizations published in foreign languages seeking to reach non-English speakers in the United States.

    The prizes could acknowledge this reality by opening the contest to news organizations the world over, no matter the language they publish in. A model for this practice might be the Nobel Prizes, which recognize the best contributions in each of its categories regardless of the entrant’s origin country.

  • Allow readers to judge

    One of the biggest shifts in media over the last decade is a laser-like focus on audience behavior and engagement. The rise of metrics, social media and feedback mechanisms like A/B testing have empowered news organizations to respond to readers and viewers like never before.

    Editors, news directors and executives all preach about the importance of reader engagement, with good reason: Transparency isn’t just ethical, it helps build trust and grow audiences — which is good for business.

    So why not demonstrate their commitment to the public by admitting readers, viewers and listeners into the most rarified of news fraternities, the board of the Pulitzer Prizes?

    This could be done a number of ways. The administrators of the Pulitzer Prize could give readers one “seat” on the board by crowdsourcing the vote for each category. As the board is made up of more than a dozen decision-makers, this change would allow the board to ensure quality control while giving the public a very, very limited voice in determining the most important pieces of journalism produced during the year.

    An alternative solution might be admitting the public to the Pulitzer jury in some way, perhaps allowing them to nominate one of the works for consideration by the full board. Or, administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes could publicly spell out how audience engagement metrics figure into the nomination and selection process.

    As a corollary to this process, I would suggest making the voting tally for each category public and perhaps allowing each juror to justify their votes with a brief explanation. In years where the board selects no winners, this could go a long way toward alleviating consternation from prize-watchers that hate to see good work go unrecognized.

    As this concept was first proposed to me by Teak Phillips, the editor of the St. Louis Review, I’ll give him the last word:

  • Put more digital bosses on the board

    If last year’s slate of winners are any indicator, the Pulitzer Prizes could go further to recognize the best emerging digital journalism. In 2015, 13 of the 14 journalism categories were won by traditional news organizations, a result that seems disproportionately skewed in favor of legacy stalwarts.

    It could be that the prizes just aren’t getting enough submissions from online-only news organizations. Or it could be that America’s largest newspapers, staffed by veterans with the financial resources to do ambitious work, are consistently producing more impressive journalism than their digital-only competitors. But it might also have to do with the composition of its decision-making body.

    Of the 18 Pulitzer Prize board members for the 2014-2015 year, nine hailed from newspapers or traditional wire services. Two — Robert Blau of Bloomberg News and Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica — came from digital organizations (although Bloomberg also produces TV). The rest came from academia and the arts. Mike Pride, the administrator of the prizes and a board member, is the former editor of the Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor. This year’s board features 10 members from legacy media and the same two representatives from digital news.

    These board members, of course, have limited authority: They can only decide between the three nominees presented to them by the juries for each individual category. But it is odd that the BuzzFeeds and Voxes of the world, which are responsible for a lot of innovation in American journalism, have such scant representation. If the prizes want to encourage digital outlets and magazines to participate, it might consider giving them a bigger seat at the prize-giving table.

  • Other ideas

    I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to see the prizes innovate. Over the weekend, several journalists proposed modifications to the prizes in response my Twitter callout, which could indicate the greater journalism community is eager to see the institution change in some way. Here are just a few:

Today’s fraught media landscape makes the legacy and preservation of these prizes more important than ever, despite grousing from critics. There are those who say journalism prizes are a self-congratulatory exercise that serve to inflate egos and spawn newsroom stars who write with visions of Lucite tchotchkes in their heads. They say it’s unbecoming of journalists to award one another prizes for the simple act of doing their jobs well.

To be sure, the professed modesty of our industry is often at odds with the pomp associated with prize giving. And I’m not naive enough to believe that editors and reporters don’t sometimes dream up ambitious projects with contest judges, not readers, foremost in their thoughts.

But I would ask those critics — some of whom have benefited by the awards they lampoon — to take a long, unsparing look at the state of our profession. Prizes like the Pulitzers give our colleagues succor in an industry beset by layoffs and daily pressure to abandon deep digging. They’re indispensable, which is why it’s crucial that they remain vital in the modern media age.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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