In the last decade, seven of the 10 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service included either a series published in December or a critical wrap-up article for a longer-term project.
That yardstick is Investigative Reporters and Editors’ “Extra! Extra!,” which features noteworthy investigative work nominated by members and the producers of the projects themselves. Twenty-five links to December stories appear on the site, actually fewer than appeared for October, November or the previous December. (Of course, simply being on the IRE site doesn’t mean these projects are prize contenders.)
One reason could be that more journalism projects are running throughout the year. “Increasingly these days, projects are being released at regular intervals during the year,” IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit told me in a telephone interview.
Another possible explanation, though, is inescapable after all the layoffs and cutbacks at newspapers: that fewer expensive, long-term projects were produced overall.
Among the stories noted on “Extra! Extra!” in December:
- A Dec. 28 Des Moines Register report by Clark Kauffman detailing the shockingly low wages being paid by for-profit companies to mentally retarded wards of the state, under a federal law that appears to make such payments perfectly legal
- A two-part weekend Fresno Bee series reporting on conflicts of interest in a state early-childhood education agency
- A Los Angeles Times report (with reporting by the Times and ProPublica) targeting inept nurses who cross jurisdictional boundaries to keep working, despite their poor records
- An installment in a Washington Post series on safety lapses in the area’s transit system
- A six-part series by The Press of Atlantic City, N.J., showing that federal and state regulations are strangling the fishing industry
- A Huffington Post examination of fraudulent subprime mortgage lending in California
The Charlotte Observer’s investigation of regulatory loopholes that allow nonprofits to pay their executives enormous salaries
A five-part Kansas City Star series on human trafficking in America
A five-part Chicago Tribune series on the legacy of Agent Orange
Some of these are continuing projects that just happen to have December installments. Journalists familiar with the Washington Post and ProPublica/Los Angeles Times work told me, for example, that far from wrapping up in 2009, the transit-safety series and the nursing articles are continuing efforts that will be expanded this year.
And, of course, connecting the timing of year-end reporting projects with the beginning of the “award season” — no matter how coincidental the timing may be — is like waving a red flag in front of press critics. For their part, while journalists aren’t likely to concede that a prize deadline dictates when their stories will run, many will allow that it is at least a consideration.
After working on the earlier stories, he said, “I began thinking, ‘Aren’t there federal rules and regulators to put the brakes on compensation like this?’ ” The new series showed how loopholes keep the rules ineffective.
“Contest considerations weren’t really a part of the timing decision for the series,” he said. “Our main desire to run it then was that the reporting was done.”
In fact, he said, there’s even a strong award-related argument to be made for preparing a project earlier in the year: so powerful follow-up stories can improve the work’s competitive chances. Still, while prize-submission decisions haven’t been made at the paper yet, he expects his editors to include the December stories.
The Des Moines Register’s Kauffman said contest entry wasn’t a “clear-cut” factor in the timing of his last story about sub-minimum wages paid at state institutions, which was a part of a wider investigation. “I knew since February that I needed to write about this issue, but I didn’t have a strong peg until two weeks ago when we obtained documents” illustrating it, he told me in an e-mail.
“Contests, thank God, are never a factor in deciding what stories we’ll do or how we’ll report them,” Kauffman said. “But it’s fair to say that contest eligibility is one factor — the least of many — in deciding when stories are published.
“Holiday staffing shortages, impending first-quarter furloughs and the need for copy during the slowest news week of the year are the bigger considerations.”
The paper had wanted to begin the series in late 1987 — which would have qualified it for 1988 Pulitzer consideration — but “we thought it needed more time,” he recalled by e-mail. “The story had taken hold of us by then and we just didn’t feel good about doing anything less than the very best we could.”
The paper’s “Spotlight Team” seemed well on the way to publishing its first stories in the last months of 2001. But those reporters were reassigned to terrorism coverage after 9/11. Jumping back into the church stories late in the year, the Spotlight Team finally readied the first story of the eventual priest series to run on Jan. 6, 2002. The Globe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.
Horvit sees the attraction of awards like the Pulitzers — or IRE’s own contest, which has a Jan. 15 deadline this year — as a distinct positive for journalism.
“You can joke about people doing work just to win prizes,” he said. “But the lure of prizes is one more motivation for people to do great things. You want newspapers, broadcast outlets and Web sites to do work with great impact; there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Roy Harris is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,” which has been updated with the 2008 and 2009 Pulitzers and is now available in paperback.