On Monday at 3 p.m., the Pulitzers reveal what reporting, commentary and photography is the best of the best. For journalists involved with award-worthy work last year, the Pulitzer Prizes may feel like the end of a high-profile gantlet. A half-dozen lesser contests—all younger than the Pulitzers, which celebrate their centennial in 2016—have announced their winners.
In reality, though, the path to the Pulitzers isn’t a gantlet at all.
The two-step Pulitzer selection process this year began with jurors meeting in mid-February to select the three top entries for each of the 14 categories in this granddaddy of contests. Submissions come from the nation’s newspapers and online news sites—with the door open a crack for magazines in 2015. When the 18-member Pulitzer board meets this week at Columbia University, it will arrange that slate, typically into 14 winners and 28 finalists to be revealed by new Pulitzer administrator Mike Pride in the Graduate School of Journalism’s historic World Room. Pulitzers, of course, also honor arts, letters and music, in seven categories.
Can you predict the Pulitzers?
Any Pulitzer prognostication, including this preview, must take the decidedly imperfect approach of studying what earlier competitions have singled out, and then adjusting for certain quirks in the Pulitzer process. The board seems to love the occasional “Pulitzer surprise,” for example—some work generally overlooked elsewhere. It also pays special attention to outfits that overcome major reporting obstacles, external or internal. And it likes to demonstrate the seriousness of its efforts to broaden what historically has been a newspaper-centric contest — after inviting online entries, for example, the board has named at least one web-based winner or finalist in recent years, including a 2014 Public Service and Investigative Reporting winner. Thus it is reasonable to expect some reflection of this year’s overture to magazines, eligible in Investigative and Feature Writing only.
Guessing who will win this year’s Public Service gold medal—representing the prestigious prize that a news organization wins, usually for impactful investigative work—is more active this year than last, when much of the pre-Pulitzer buzz focused on the eventual winners: the Guardian-US website and Washington Post, each cited for coverage based on Edward Snowden’s leaks about domestic National Security Administration spying.
Three major competitions often cited as Pulitzer predictors this year honored the Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” project, focusing on the deaths of 477 youngsters in the care of Florida’s Department of Children and Families (Poynter wrote about how the Herald told this story). But the Herald was left off the winner lists of Long Island University’s George Polk Awards, and contests held by the Scripps Howard Foundation, American Society of News Editors, and Investigative Reporters and Editors.
Still, the Herald must be considered a strong Pulitzer candidate. The $35,000 Selden Ring Award from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, cited Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch. The $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, additionally named Mary Ellen Klas, Emily Michot, Kara Dapena and Lazaro Gamio. Michot was photographer and videographer for the project, while Dapena was page designer. And the $20,000 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, also noted artist/page designer Ana Lense Larrauri.
Further, the Online News Association, which honored work done through mid-2014, gave the Herald its public service award back in September. The Society of Professional Journalists announces its awards later this month.
Goldsmith and Selden Ring finalists also tend to do well at Pulitzer time. Each of the two this year identified Wall Street Journal projects as runners-up: the Goldsmiths citing “Medicare Unmasked,” about abuses that are costly to U.S. taxpayers, and Ring judges singling out “Deadly Medicine,” by Jennifer Levitz and Jon Kamp, detailing how certain medical devices continued to be used in hysterectomies even after they were suspected of spreading cancer. The Journal, once a perennial Pulitzer-winner, hasn’t won a news-related Pulitzer since 2007, the year Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp acquired the Journal.
Another Ring finalist was Carol D. Leonnig’s Washington Post coverage of Secret Service lapses, which the Polk’s honored, too. Other Goldsmith finalists were Charleston, S.C.’s Post and Courier, for a project on domestic violence that also won a Polk and an ASNE award; the Boston Globe, covering abuses by landlords of college-student apartments; Reuters, for detailing corporate influence over Supreme Court scheduling, and a ProPublica and National Public Radio report on misleading public relations claims by the Red Cross. Note: The Pulitzers generally don’t consider broadcast projects to be eligible.
Both the Pulitzer Breaking News Reporting and Breaking News Photography categories get special attention as prize Monday approaches, because extraordinary local efforts often are singled out when the breaking news gets wide national attention. The Boston Globe’s 2013 Marathon bombing coverage won last year, while two Globe photographers were Pulitzer finalists.
This year, coverage of events surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and of a horrific mudslide Snohomish County, Wash., were cited in earlier competitions. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch—a once prolific Pulitzer-winner that hasn’t won a news-based prize since 1952—won this year’s breaking news award from Scripps, which also made the Post-Dispatch a photojournalism finalist. For its reporting on the Snohomish mudslide, the Seattle Times won the ONA’s breaking news award among large organizations, and the Polk for environmental reporting, while IRE cited the Times’ “A Deadly Slope” as its top “investigation triggered by breaking news.”
The ASNE award for the writing of a breaking story went to the Los Angeles Times, for coverage of a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, Calif.
Other photographers winning prizes this year have included Lisa Krantz of the San Antonio Express-News, who took ASNE’s community service award for a feature on obesity. And the New York Times’ Daniel Berehulak won the Scripps award for photographic coverage of Ebola from West Africa.
In addition to the Pulitzers’ two photography prizes—Breaking News and Feature—and their prizes for Public Service, Feature Writing, and Investigative and Breaking News Reporting; other Pulitzer awards are for Local, National and International Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing and Cartooning.
Among other work cited in earlier award programs, and likely in competition for the Pulitzers:
- Los Angeles Times’ Joe Mozingo and Katie Falkenberg for online storytelling, about illegal sales of Native American artifacts.
- Associated Press’s Krista Larson for nondeadline writing, covering crises in West Africa.
- Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz in “writing on diversity,” for “Justice in Indian Country,” examining crimes committed against Native Americans.
- Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg for commentary, about a black man wrongly convicted of killing a police officer.
- Boston Globe’s Kathleen Kingsbury for Editorial Leadership for various editorials, which also received a Scripps award.
- New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi for international reporting on the ransom European nations were paying for hostages held by the Islamic State.
- New York Times for coverage of West Africa’s Ebola scourge.
- Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown and New York Times’ Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip, for their work uncovering brutal treatment at a Florida correctional facility and New York City’s Rikers Island.
- Chicago Sun-Times’ Tim Novak, Chris Fusco and Carol Marin for investigation of a homicide case involving former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew.
- International Consortium of Journalists, working as part of the Center for Public Integrity, for reporting on tax-avoidance by companies.
- Politico Magazine’s Rania Abouzeid for recounting online the rise of the Islamic State in “The Jihad Next Door.”
- New York Times for its reporting in “Fatal Flaws,” exploring safety defects among carmakers and suppliers.
- The Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze’s Rob Kuznia, Rebecca Kimitch and Frank Suraci for coverage of malfeasance in the local Centinela school district.
- San Jose Mercury News’ Paul Rogers and Lisa M. Krieger for reporting in “California’s Historic Drought.”
- Boston Globe’s David Abel for feature writing in “The Richard Family,” about a family’s coping with losing a child in the Marathon bombings.
- Columbus Dispatch’s Rita Price and Ben Sutherly for their study of Ohio’s “Home-Care Crisis.”
- The Wall Street Journal for its digital feature, “Kowloon Walled City,” an examination of a high-density Hong Kong enclave demolished 20 years earlier.
- Detroit Free Press’s Stephen Henderson for his columns on crumbling schools and chronic crime.
- Willamette (Oregon) Week’s Nigel Jaquiss for “First Lady Inc.,” disclosing secret deals made by the Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancé.
- USA Today’s Brad Heath for “Fugitives Next Door,” detailing how thousands of criminals escape the justice system because authorities don’t pursue them.
- New York Times’s Eric Lipton for “Courting Favor,” on how state attorneys general around the U.S. are targeted with corporate plaintiffs’ lobbying and campaign cash.
- San Jose Mercury-News’s Karen de Sa and Dai Sugano for “Drugging Our Kids,” about how pharmaceuticals are widely used to control behavior in foster children.
- inewsource.org for “An Impossible Choice,” documenting how “vent farms” are used to keep people live by the thousands on tubes and machines.
And the magazines?
Predicting Pulitzer candidates from the magazine ranks is uncharted territory. But among the most heralded reporting and feature writing from the medium, including winners of the American Society of Magazine Editors’ “Ellie” awards, include:
Magazines stories that may be in the Pulitzer running include these winners from the Ellies or Polks:
- James Verini for National Geographic’s “Should the United Nations Wage War to Keep Peace?” a study of UN peace interventions that won both a Polk and an Ellie.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic’s “The Case for Reparations,” detailing how the opportunity and wealth gap developed between white and black Americans, which also was an Ellie finalist.
- Amanda Hess for Pacific Standard, with “Women Aren’t Welcome Here,” about abuse on the Internet.
- Jeff Sharlet for GQ, with “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.”
In February, Pulitzer administrator Pride told Poynter.org that total entries this year had grown to 1,191. Some of the 5.2% year-to-year increase reflected a sharp rise in Feature Writing and Investigative, the two categories allowing magazines to enter for the first time. The peak number of entries—1,770—was in 1990.
Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in The Economist organization, is the author of Pulitzer’s Gold, which will be issued in a revised and updated edition in advance of the 2016 centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes.