April 15, 2016

The problem with a Pulitzer preview like this one — aimed ahead of today’s 3 p.m. announcement of the 2016 prizes — is that people want a prediction. So here’s one for you:

“Hamilton” will win the Pulitzer for drama.

Seriously, my annual Poynter pre-prize forecast, as it’s done for a half-dozen years, will focus on the 14 journalism categories — not the seven that are arts-related. And once again we’ll avoid forecasting what the unpredictable Pulitzer Prize board might do.

(“Hamilton” may be a good bet, though. Were Lin-Manuel Miranda’s runaway Broadway rap hit to win in the drama category it would be the ninth musical to do so, and the first since 2010’s “Next to Normal.”)

Rather, my aim is to point out some likely print and online contenders this year. The favorites are based on what’s been honored by other press contests in the weeks leading up to Pulitzers — the most revered of U.S. awards and the oldest, celebrating their centennial this year. I’ll also focus on the reporting-based categories — for the most part setting aside photojournalism, commentary, criticism and editorial writing and cartooning. Earlier journalism contests actually offer little real help in Pulitzer prognostication.

That’s because most others produce numerous winners, compared to the relative handful of Pulitzers. Plus, one must account for various quirks within the top-secret operations of the Pulitzer board, whose 18 members began their three-day meeting Wednesday at the Journalism Building at New York’s Columbia University, which manages the prizes.

The board, for example, often seems to enjoy identifying at least one or two smaller news organizations that generally are off the radar screen of other competitions. Such was the case last year when a team from Southern California’s Daily Breeze won a local reporting Pulitzer for its study of school district corruption, and in 2013 when the small, online-only InsideClimate News was a national reporting winner for its probe of flawed oil pipeline regulations.

This year, Pulitzer administrator Mike Pride told Poynter in an email that journalism submissions had dipped to 1,112 from 1,191, with entries for the coveted public service Pulitzer gold medal falling to 49 from 66 — the lowest level in decades, and about one-third the number of public service entries in 1990. In today’s announcement of the board’s selections, to be live-streamed, one winner and two finalists likely will be named in each journalism category. Juries of reporters and editors met earlier in the first round of the two-step Pulitzer selection process, also steeped in secrecy.

The award-winning so far does little to create a consensus about what could win in public service. That’s unlike 2003, for example, when The Boston Globe received the year’s Pulitzer gold medal for its celebrated reporting on the Catholic Church cover-up of sexual abuse of young parishioners by priests.

To assemble the short list of Pulitzer possibilities for that category — and for investigative, explanatory, feature writing, and local, national and international reporting, as well — I started by examining the selections of three prestigious competitions that have a fair Pulitzer predictive record. Those are the Goldsmith Awards, Selden Ring Awards and Worth Bingham Prizes.

The standouts in those competitions this year were The Associated Press global project “Seafood from Slaves,” and the Tampa Bay Times “Failure Factories” series, which studied the devastating effects on education in Florida’s Pinellas County when, in effect, racial segregation was largely reinstituted. Because of the state reforms enacted after the stories ran, it also has a Pulitzer public service feel.

The Tampa Bay paper, owned by The Poynter Institute, won the $20,000 Bingham prize from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, and also was listed as a finalist in both the Ring and Goldsmith competitions. It also figured prominently in other contests — winning a George Polk Award for education reporting from Long Island University; an American Society of News Editors award for “local accountability reporting,” and one of the three medals handed out by the Investigative Reporters and Editors.

For the AP stories, a team of reporters detailed the shocking use of slave labor in Thai fishing operations that supply a large part of the U.S. seafood market, leading to prosecutions, reforms, and freedom for more than 2,000 people who had been enslaved.

The AP stories won the two richest journalism awards: the $35,000 Ring and $25,000 Goldsmith, offered by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, and the Harvard University Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, respectively. (Pulitzer-winners get $10,000, although the public service Pulitzer is in the form of a gold medal rather than cash).

IRE, which also selected the AP’s “Seafood from Slaves” for a medal, gave its third one for “Insult to Injury,” a collaboration of ProPublica and National Public Radio that studied how many states had dismantled workers compensation programs, leaving taxpayers with the bill.

For breaking news coverage, the Scripps Howard Foundation honored South Carolina’s Charleston Post and Courier (last year’s public service Pulitzer winner) for its intensive reporting on the massacre of black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Winning several other breaking news awards — including from IRE and ASNE — was the Baltimore Sun for how it covered, in print and in photographs, the case involving the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and ensuing riots.

Broad studies of the extent and nature of police shootings — nationally or on a state level — also drew the attention of award judges. The Polk Awards cited the Washington Post for best national reporting for its exhaustive compilation and review of 2015 shootings by officers, many of which had been unreported. The Guardian U.S. in its report headed “The Counted,” also attacked the police-shooting issue, and was named as a Goldsmith finalist.

IRE acknowledged a project by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, “Over the Line: Police Shootings in Georgia,” while the Post and Courier won a second Scripps Howard Award for its “Shots Fired” study of police shootings in its state.

Like the Pulitzer board, IRE also seeks out the best work of smaller publications, this year giving The Advocate an award for its prison-management study in a story headlined “The Louisiana State Penitentiary: Where Inmates Aren’t the Only Scoundrels.” Texas’s Austin American-Statesman also won an IRE award for “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences,” an examination of unreported deaths of children in the state Child Protective Services.

A Scripps Howard environmental reporting award went to that online 2013 Pulitzer-winner, InsideClimate News, for “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” examining how it undercut its own early research into the dangers of climate change. InsideClimate News also was named a Goldsmith finalist for that work, which got wide play elsewhere. And Scripps Howard also presented an investigative award to Buzzfeed News for “Fostering Profits,” about abuses at a for-profit foster care company.

Among other winning stories that garnered significant attention during the year, ASNE cited ProPublica and The Marshall Project for nondeadline writing by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, respectively for their project “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” digging into how lax police investigations into rape cases can be.

The Scripps Awards also named the USA TODAY Network its public service winner for “Biolabs in Your Backyard,” analyzing safety hazards related to dangerous storage of toxins.

It’s hard to predict how the Pulitzers will do this year with their expansion of eligibility to among magazines. In 2015, when it first let magazines enter in investigative reporting and feature writing, it named no magazine winners and only one finalist. This year the Pulitzers expanded the categories accepting magazine entries to international reporting, criticism and editorial cartooning.

Pulitzer administrator Pride told Poynter that magazine response in the three newly opened categories “was modest.” I didn’t survey the 2016 National Magazine Award winners for possible candidates. My review of other pre-Pulitzer press competitions, though, showed that few won awards.

New York magazine, however, did win a Polk for “Cosby: The Women, an Unwelcome Sisterhood,” by Noreen Malone and Jen Kirby, with photographer Amanda Demme.

The New York Times — normally a Pulitzer powerhouse, and the winner of three prizes last year — made a relatively modest showing in the early going this award season. It received a Polk for “Beware the Fine Print,” which dug deep into obtuse clauses in consumer and employee contracts. The story, by Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Michael Corkery and Robert Gebeloff, also was a finalist for the Goldsmith. And “Dying Alone,” N.R. Kleinfeld’s examination of the life and death of a man who perished in his New York apartment, was honored by Scripps for human-interest storytelling.

Likewise, the Los Angeles Times, which won two Pulitzers last year, caused barely a ripple in pre-Pulitzer honors I reviewed, although Carolyn Cole won the Scripps photojournalism award, and it was an ASNE finalist in breaking news for its coverage of the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

The Wall Street Journal, which won a 2015 investigative Pulitzer and was a finalist for public service, garnered a Polk for its investigation of research claims made by medical research firm Theranos Inc. Also, “Private Risk,” a project about questionable management practices among technology firms, received a Scripps award.

More Pulitzer surprises could come later in this centennial year, as board members at their November meeting review the possible further broadening of the award program’s entry rules. The rise of global reporting collaborations may require the largely-U.S.-based Pulitzers to find new ways to consider projects like the “Panama Papers,” led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which will be on the radar for the 2017 prizes.

And some have suggested that the long print-centric prizes must find more ways to reach beyond newspapers and magazines and into broadcast — a realm the Pulitzers have entered only in cases of narrow collaborations between print or online media and television reporters.

As the Pulitzer board has become more diverse, the pressure has increased to reflect the homogenization of news as consumers access it — on screens of all sizes, from watch-sized to wall-sized.

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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, published in an updated edition…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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