April 11, 2010

Pulitzer Prizes often recognize the greatness of newspapers under pressure. New Orleans’s Times-Picayune and Mississippi’s Sun Herald overcame nearly impossible odds to inspire readers during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The Pulitzer was theirs. The Grand Forks Herald offered lifelines through the 1997 flooding of North Dakota’s Red River. And The New York Times created the treasured “Portraits of Grief” to help citizens cope with the aftershocks of 9/11. Their reward, too, was a prize.

This year, though, the pressure is on the Pulitzer itself: the 94-year-old granddaddy of American award competitions.

While the Pulitzer organization has pounded the drum for online-only entries, and talked of honoring the new breed of collaborative journalism projects between traditional media and independent investigative nonprofits, none has yet emerged with a prize. We’ll see at 3 p.m. today if this has weighed on the 2010 edition of the Pulitzers compiled by the 19-member board of editors and academics that met last week at Columbia University.

There are a mere 14 journalism prizes — only eight in what are generally hard-news writing categories, with the rest for commentary, criticism, editorial writing and cartooning, and photography. And the Pulitzer board, through a two-stage process, aims to produce the best possible mix of prize-winners. In the first week of March, Pulitzer jurors convened to turn a huge crop of entries — more than 1,000 last year — into three finalist candidates per category.

In turning those 42 nominated finalists into what is typically a grouping of 14 winners and 28 finalists, the board often sends signals beyond the work it honors.

In 2008, for example, it gave no prize in Editorial Writing, and in 2004 left Feature Writing unawarded, suggesting to some journalists that the board was seeking to improve the quality in those genres.

And last year, the board made a special point of noting the online importance of two winners that were connected with established newspapers: the PoltiFact fact-checking feature of Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times (winner in National Reporting and finalist in Public Service), and the online stories in The New York Times that revealed the sex scandal involving then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and won the Pulitzer for Breaking News.

Enquirer editor on New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning Spitzer story: “With no disrespect to The New York Times, the mountain that we had to climb at the National Enquirer to break the John Edwards story was much more difficult.”Yet by not picking a winner among online-only entries, or from the growing number of collaborative investigative projects, it seemed to be saying that that type of journalism had a way to go before reaching a Pulitzer-quality level.

Until recently, questions about most Pulitzer winners would have been answered by now, if unofficially and occasionally faultily. For a number of years, nearly the whole list of finalists was distributed in the journalism community in a rumor mill fueled by reporters who jokingly called themselves “the cabal.”

They prided themselves on prying finalist names from jurors even though they had been sworn to secrecy. This year, however, there was little grist for the mill, for a number of reasons. On the “supply side,” the Pulitzer organization held jurors to their written secrecy pledges for a second straight year.

Meanwhile, former cabal members have retired or died, including onetime self-professed cabal leader Deborah Howell, the former Washington Post ombudsman who was killed in a traffic accident in New Zealand earlier this year. (She once claimed she could nail all 42 journalism finalists in a matter of days, just by “horse-trading” information on one jury’s finalists for the finalists of another jury.) Also, there’s been a dwindling interest in such game-playing among journalists, whose other concerns these days include the survival, or at least the well-being, of their publications.

Without such leaks, some journalists turned to other prestigious award competitions for hints about likely Pulitzer winners. And there, the success of the ProPublica investigative operation has been terrific.

ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller won the University of Southern California’s Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for work planned and edited with the Los Angeles Times that exposed how private insurance coverage for contractors in war zones had benefited those companies, but harmed those who depended on the coverage for benefits.

A second ProPublica collaboration with the L.A. Times — “When Caregivers Harm,” about flaws in oversight of disciplinary issues involving nurses — was a finalist in the Ring competition. (Other finalists included work by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and by the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

The winner of the Goldsmith Prize and Worth Bingham Prize, offered by Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center and its Nieman Foundation, respectively, was Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for “Cashing in on Kids,” a series revealing lax oversight of a Wisconsin child-care program.

But ProPublica also was a finalist in the Goldsmith competition, for a collaboration titled “Law and Disorder” with The Nation Institute, the Times-Picayune, and Public Broadcasting’s “Frontline” program. That series studied improper New Orleans police activity after Katrina. (Other Goldsmith finalists: work by The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, by The Boston Globe, and by The Washington Post.)

Several of the growing number of online-only publications, including Voice of San Diego, St. Louis Beacon and MinnPost, have also entered work for Pulitzer consideration, as well as for other awards. But their projects have not received as much recognition in earlier competitions as the ProPublica efforts.

If there was little talk about those candidates for Pulitzers, that was hardly the case with the National Enquirer’s sole entry. When John Edwards admitted to his extramarital affair, and to fathering a child with Rielle Hunter, after repeated vehement denials, the National Enquirer’s two-year-plus campaign to expose his deceit emerged as a major journalistic triumph.

Its Pulitzer entry got exceptional attention after the awards organization first said the Enquirer mightn’t be eligible — because it called itself a magazine, and not a newspaper — and then conceded and allowed its entry after all. That ignited a debate among journalists and Pulitzer-followers. Some believed it would hurt the Pulitzers to honor a newspaper that sometimes practices checkbook journalism. Others argued that a great story was a great story no matter where it appeared.

In a telephone interview on Sunday, Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine said he had not heard anything from the Pulitzers — either from jurors in the Investigative and National Reporting categories he entered, or from the Pulitzer board — since Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler declared that the Enquirer’s entry would be considered.

It seems likely that the silence is a bad sign for the Enquirer, because jurors probably would have sought clarification from the paper about certain aspects of the Edwards story had they thought the entry finalist material.

But Levine remains optimistic that the silence could be broken with an announcement of the Enquirer’s first Pulitzer today. “I hope the judges would put any biases that they have about the National Enquirer, or checkbook journalism, or that we’re a supermarket tabloid aside and concentrate on the facts of the story,” he said. While sources were paid for some information early in the Edwards investigation, he maintained that none of the information in the 2009 stories the paper entered resulted from payments to sources.

He conceded that “the heart and soul of the story — the actual disclosures — came from unnamed sources.” But he argued that “to get the articles in the paper we had to publish it that way,” since sources feared losing their jobs and other negative impacts on their lives. And he noted that other Pulitzer-winning stories — most notably the Watergate disclosures that won for The Washington Post in 1973 — had similarly used unnamed sources. Like the Watergate disclosures, the Edwards disclosures often were not followed by other news outlets in the early stages, he noted.

His main comparison, though, was to the 2009 New York Times Pulitzer-winner disclosing the investigation of Eliot Spitzer for sexual offenses. “You cannot help compare the two stories. There’s no question, with no disrespect to The New York Times, the mountain that we had to climb at the National Enquirer to break the John Edwards story was much more difficult.”

Times’ resources gave them better access, and “there wasn’t a cover-up, and there weren’t other individuals coming forward and saying [the story] was wrong. We faced an uphill battle from day one, with incredible resistance and denials.”

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Levine said he didn’t regret attacking rival newspapers for belittling the Enquirer or not following up on its Edwards stories. (At one point he said that “the members of the mainstream media would rather see the earth explode first than to reward us with a Pulitzer Prize.”) But he expressed great satisfaction that his paper had broken a story that his staff, and many others, felt was worthy of Pulitzer consideration.

“To receive a Pulitzer would be the greatest accomplishment of all of our careers at the National Enquirer,” Levine said. He added, “I’m giving them [the board] the benefit of the doubt, that they’ll look at these articles fairly. At the end of the day, if they say there are other stories more worthy, that’s going to be their call, and we’ll respect it.”

At 3 p.m. we’ll know the winners — and the losers. Sig Gissler will issue his explanations at a press conference. And juror names in each category will be revealed in the Pulitzer Prize packet. Then, perhaps, as the winners celebrate with champagne and the losers console themselves with stronger stuff, those who crave the inside scoop on what’s behind the Pulitzer Prizes will start filling their own thirst.

So watch what happens with the Enquirer. But remember more broadly that the Pulitzers — with the greatest visibility of any of journalism’s competitions — may rise or fall on its ability to identify great reporting from the online-only and collaborative-investigation worlds. Only then will it send the profession the message that, despite all the many financial and technological challenges, it is headed in the right direction journalistically.

Roy Harris is the author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,”now updated to include the 2008 and 2009 Pulitzer Prizes, and available in paperback. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in The Economist Group organization.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had some inaccurate information about Deborah Howell’s death.

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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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