From celebrated national publications to a rural Texas newspaper, the Pulitzers are great because anyone can win

A Poynter Report special report: The Pulitzer Prize edition

May 5, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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Welcome to a special edition of the Poynter Report as I give you my two cents and random thoughts on Monday’s 2020 Pulitzer Prizes. Please note that some of the stories linked below are behind paywalls.

Anyone can win

One thing that makes the Pulitzer Prizes so great is that anyone in journalism who is eligible can win — from a celebrated national publication to a five-person newspaper in rural Texas. It’s about the reporting. It’s about the writing. It’s about the work.

Yes, we often see the same publications showing up as finalists and winners, specifically The New York Times and The Washington Post. But that’s because their work and their journalists are exemplary and deserving.

But this year also proves that if the work is good enough and important enough and impactful enough, the Pulitzer Prize Board will recognize it, no matter how big the news outlet is.

There were plenty of examples of local newspapers being recognized. The Baltimore Sun, the (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal and The Seattle Times were all winners Monday. Finalists included the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Kansas City Star and several freelancers.

But two winners really stuck out.

First, in the big category of “public service,” both The New York Times and The Washington Post were finalists, but the Pulitzer went to the Anchorage Daily News with contributions from ProPublica. This important work revealed that a third of Alaska’s villages had no police. In some places, the criminals ran towns that had some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the U.S.

Kyle Hopkins, the project’s lead reporter and the Daily News’ special projects editor, told my Poynter colleague Rick Edmonds that he had been thinking of this project for a decade.

“I was in one of the villages that no longer even had a police officer and was shown a filthy, ramshackle jail. I thought if people could see this they would just be horrified,” Hopkins said. “That stayed with me.”

Then there’s the Pulitzer that went to Jeffery Gerritt of the Palestine Herald-Press in Texas for editorial writing. I must confess that I had never even heard of the Palestine Herald-Press. Their website lists only five journalists in the newsroom, with Gerritt being the editor. Again, that shows that it isn’t about size or circulation, but impact.

The Pulitzer Board recognized Gerritt for “editorials that exposed how pre-trial inmates died horrific deaths in a small Texas county jail — reflecting a rising trend across the state — and courageously took on the local sheriff and judicial establishment, which tried to cover up these needless tragedies.”

Going into danger

Last year, Dallas Morning News photographer Tom Fox was getting ready to photograph a routine court case. Suddenly, he was standing only feet away from an active shooter. He did what came naturally: his job. He started taking photos. Fortunately, no one was injured.

While that is an extreme case of a day at work unexpectedly gone bad, photographers often are in the middle of danger. Just look at this year’s Pulitzer finalists in breaking news photography.

Fox was a finalist for his quick thinking and brave work while being only feet from someone who easily could have killed him. Also recognized as finalists were Dieu-Nalio Chery and Rebecca Blackwell of the Associated Press for their harrowing images conveying the horrors of lynching, murder and other abuses in Haiti.

The breaking news photography Pulitzer ultimately went to the staff of Reuters for “wide-ranging and illuminating photographs of Hong Kong as citizens protested infringement of their civil liberties and defended the region’s autonomy by the Chinese government.” Again, the images show just how dangerous this work can be.

And, in feature photography, the Associated Press’s Channi Anand, Mukhtar Khan and Dar Yasin won for “striking images of life in the contested territory of Kashmir as India revoked its independence, executed through a communications blackout.”

In a statement, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said, “This honor continues AP’s great tradition of award-winning photography. Thanks to the team inside Kashmir, the world was able to witness a dramatic escalation of the long struggle over the region’s independence. Their work was important and superb.”

By the way, the AP has now won 54 Pulitzer Prizes, including 32 for photography.

Trump not trumpeted

While it sometimes might feel like the media world revolves around Donald Trump, it stands out how few of the Pulitzer finalists had anything to do with the president. In fact, he really only appeared in one category: editorial cartooning. The New Yorker’s Barry Blitt won for editorial cartoons that were mostly about Trump.

Most other big categories — breaking news, investigative, explanatory, local reporting, international reporting, feature writing, commentary, editorial writing and, take note, national reporting — didn’t even have a finalist that had anything to do with Trump or the White House. The winner of the first-ever audio reporting Pulitzer was about immigration, so it involved Trump, but indirectly. But that’s it.

Compare that to 2019, when President Trump was the main subject in Pulitzer Prize-winning work in explanatory reporting, national reporting, editorial writing and editorial cartooning.

Like father, like daughter

Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, left, with her father Dan Jenkins in 2009. Dan Jenkins, a renowned sportswriter, died in March 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins was a well-deserved finalist for commentary. The daughter of legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins, Sally Jenkins is, for my money, the best sports columnist in the business. She is strong in her opinions, but isn’t over-the-top. She doesn’t fake anger, yet doesn’t back down. She rarely, if ever, swings and misses, and she’s at her best when she stands at the crossroads of sports and society, as she did in this Pulitzer entry about the U.S. women’s soccer team. Here is her other nominated work.

A finalist again

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez arrives at the premiere of “The Soloist” in Los Angeles in 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was a finalist in the commentary category for the third time in the past four years and for the fourth time overall. He has never won a Pulitzer, but that should not take away from the fact that he is one of the best columnists in the country. No reporter I know has become a bigger advocate for the plight of the homeless than Lopez. He might be best known for his book, “The Soloist,” about Nathaniel Ayers, a cello prodigy who developed schizophrenia and later became homeless. The book was turned into a movie starring Jamie Foxx as Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez. Lopez’s nominated work again this year was about the homeless.

What about these stories?

The word “snub” feels like too strong a word to use when talking about the journalism that didn’t win a Pulitzer or wasn’t named as a finalist. To not earn a Pulitzer nod is hardly an insult. The bar for a Pulitzer Prize is so incredibly high and there is so much good work that there simply isn’t room for every worthy piece to be recognized. Failing to make it as a finalist only suggests that the board simply thought there were more worthy pieces.

Still, there might have been some raised eyebrows over a few stories that didn’t make it as finalists.

The New York Times Magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones won a commentary Pulitzer for her essay on “The 1619 Project,” but the whole “1619” package didn’t qualify as a finalist. The project was a stunning piece of work that you would guess was entered in the “public service” category.

While I’m talking about The New York Times, it might have been surprising to some to see the hugely popular “The Daily” podcast not win the inaugural Pulitzer for “audio reporting.” I’m not sure “The Daily’s” format — which is essentially interviews with New York Times reporters about previously published material — lends itself to winning a Pulitzer, although “The Daily” has produced various episodes that could have qualified. In the end, it was hard to argue with the three finalists for the audio Pulitzer, but “The Daily’s,” well, daily consistency still makes it one of the important media entities around.

The Washington Post’s “The Afghanistan Papers” — investigative reporter Craig Whitlock’s modern-day Pentagon Papers, about the government’s secret history of the war in Afghanistan — also would not have been a surprising win.

Fiction based on real journalism

Novelist Colson Whitehead speaks to fans in 2017. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

The Pulitzer for fiction went to “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead. The Pulitzer Board described it as a “spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.”

The story is a fictionalized version of a true story about the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school based in Florida that operated for 111 years and gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes and murder of students by staff. The Tampa Bay Times’ Ben Montgomery, with help from Waveney Ann Moore and photographer Edmund Fountain, published the shocking true story in 2009. That story was a Pulitzer finalist in 2010.

This, by the way, is the second fiction Pulitzer for Whitehead, who also won in 2017 for “The Underground Railroad.” He is just the fourth author to win a fiction Pulitzer for a second time, following Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike.

Random thoughts

  • The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project” was not without controversy, but the essay from Nikole Hannah-Jones was richly deserved and one of the more important commentaries in recent memory. Here’s my story about Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer-winning commentary. The controversy continued even after Hannah-Jones was awarded a Pulitzer on Monday when Sen.Ted Cruz criticized the project as “not journalism” and “propaganda.”
  • Old show. New award. “This American Life” has been on the air for 25 years, so it seems fitting that an iconic show like that would win the first-ever “audio reporting” Pulitzer. Here’s my take on that well-earned prize.
  • Usually we see big celebrations, complete with champagne and hugs,  in newsrooms that win Pulitzer Prizes. Not this year, not with social distancing keeping everyone at home. So celebrations were a bit different, as Poynter’s Daniel Funke writes.
  • The Baltimore Sun’s dogged work about a shady publishing scheme involving Mayor Catherine Pugh not only won a Pulitzer for local reporting, but also had major ramifications. It led to her resignation and she was later convicted of fraud. Baltimore Sun Media editor-in-chief and publisher Trif Alatzas told the Sun, “It was just an all-out effort — really, really great work by everybody, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
  • We’re all overwhelmed these days by coverage of the coronavirus, but the one other big story that remains critical going forward is climate coverage. It was good to see the Pulitzer Board recognize the importance of the work being done all across the country, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare noted.
  • I don’t know that anyone knows their beat as well as The Seattle Times’ Dominic Gates knows his beat: aerospace. He led the team that won one of the two Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting this year with coverage that exposed design flaws in Boeing’s 737 Max.
  • All the finalists in the feature writing category are well done and you should read them, but the winning feature is especially poignant: Ben Taub of The New Yorker for his story on a Guantanamo Bay guard’s unusual friendship with a captive who was tortured. Powerful stuff.
  • One of my favorite categories, year in and year out, is criticism. The reason it’s one of my favorites is because it is difficult to find really smart and nuanced criticism. When you see it, you immediately know it’s special. While she wasn’t awarded with the prize, I especially enjoyed finalist Soraya Nadia McDonald’s theater and film essays for The Undefeated.

One final Pulitzer thought

I’ll remember this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for the dogged work done at the local level that made a huge impact on the everyday lives of everyday Americans. It’s further proof that journalism goes far beyond what’s happening inside the beltway in Washington, D.C., and why journalism matters.

Other media news

There were a few interesting media tidbits from Monday …

A big change at NBC News

Andy Lack will leave his role as NBC News chairman at the end of the month. The not-so-surprising announcement ends a tumultuous era at NBC News, punctuated by controversy involving the Matt Lauer sexual harassment scandal and, somewhat related, the network’s coverage of the Harvey Weinstein case.

Cesar Conde, chairman of Telemundo, will take over for Lack in a newly-created position called chairman of NBC Universal News Group. Conde will oversee NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. He will also be above NBC News president Noah Oppenheim and MSNBC president Phil Griffin.

Lack, 72, joined CBS in 1976 and worked as a producer at “60 Minutes.” He went to NBC in 1993 and is credited with helping to turn around such programs as “NBC Nightly News” and the “Today” show. He also is credited for MSNBC’s rise in the news world. Lack left NBC in 2001 to work at Sony and then Bloomberg, but returned to the network in 2015.

Big numbers

Fox News’ virtual town hall with President Trump on Sunday evening attracted 3.819 million viewers — more than both CNN and MSNBC’s combined viewership in that time slot (7 to 9 p.m. Eastern). As far as the town hall itself, CNN’s Chris Cillizza has Trump’s “45 most shocking lines.”

Hot type

Don Shula. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, file)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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We originally said work about President Trump didn’t appear in most Pulitzer categories, including public service. But The New York Times’ public service finalist about a political war on science features significant reporting about the president. It has been corrected.