June 15, 2016

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize centennial is approaching its halfway point, with three of the Pulitzer organization’s four planned “marquee events” behind it. Designed to celebrate the prizes’ history, the events also are setting the stage for today’s new realities facing American journalism, and arts and letters.

The first of the four events — at The Poynter Institute in March — examined the Pulitzers in the context of social justice and equality. It was followed in Los Angeles by a May program focusing on “War, Migration and the Quest for Peace” and a June 2-3 program at Dallas’s George W. Bush Presidential Center titled “The People, the Presidency and the Press,” which was largely livestreamed. The final marquee session, “Power: Accountability and Abuse,” is Sept. 10-11 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This year’s prizes were announced in April. After Pulitzer entry rules were changed the last two years to allow certain magazines to enter five journalism categories, the first two magazine winners were named: both from the New Yorker, one in Criticism and one in Feature Writing. When the governing 18-member Pulitzer Board meets this fall, a further widening of submission criteria, among other possible changes in the awards, likely will be on the agenda.

Poynter asked Mike Pride, now in his third year as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, to answer questions about this year’s centennial and the future of the prizes in an email exchange.

Does the strong performance of magazines suggest that more Pulitzer areas will be opened to them this year? Is public service a possibility for allowing magazine entries?

Expansion is still an experiment. Two questions we are asking ourselves are: How well and how fairly can our juries judge the works of various media — newspapers, news sites, magazines — against one another? How well does journalism from various media fit our Plan of Award and categories? We are gathering and sifting through information right now and will then assess it and decide how to proceed.

The short answer is that further expansion is probable.

Breaking down the journalism submissions this year, what trends did you notice? The total of 1,191 entries was slightly off from the prior year, but well below the levels when the new century began. And in Public Service, submissions fell to 49 from 66, and half what they were in 2000. What, if anything, does the decline of submissions in certain areas — public service, for example, where entry levels were their lowest in years — say about the state of journalism?

Entry levels reflect the state of journalism. We live in challenging times. Staffs at many newspapers continue to shrink. Newspaper and digital-only websites are improving and innovating, but the economic model to sustain them is not yet apparent. While there are relatively new and capable investigative sites in the mix, the ability of many regional and even metro papers to do big projects has declined.

An interesting related trend, and a positive one, is the increase in partnerships. Competition has always been fierce in journalism, and that’s a good thing. But the economic times have pushed news organizations to look for ways to join forces and combine their varied strengths to do stories with more depth and dimension.

The wonderful thing from my vantage point is that truly worthy work shows up among our entries every year, and often from surprising places. In rewarding this work, the Pulitzer Prize Board reminds the public of what great journalism can do.

With the Pulitzers having broken new ground with magazine and online-only entries in recent years, what are the prospects for more types of non-newspaper journalism—such as text-based versions of television “news magazines” for example—to be opened to Pulitzer Prize competition? Do you see the 100th year of the Pulitzers to be a good time for dramatic change to be announced, perhaps after the fall meeting?

We are closely monitoring the web for developments in non-newspaper journalism. We are open to considering further expansion of entry rules. But our tendency is to think things through before making changes.

As for the centennial being a catalyst for dramatic change, the answer is no. We’re a relatively small operation, and as your early questions suggest, the centennial itself has been our major focus this year. Through the energy and enthusiasm of our many partners across the country, we expect the centennial to have generated more than 200 events by year’s end.

In general, how do you see the journalism Pulitzer Prizes remaining relevant as the media business changes?

We must continue to stay true to our values in judging the work while accommodating changes in the ways journalism is presented and published. One challenge is to be open to experimentation without prematurely embracing every new thing that comes along. The Pulitzer Prize Board’s chief goal going forward is to make sure the best journalism is eligible for, and entered in, the competition.

Looking at the current Board composition of newspaper, wire service, online and magazine representatives, along with academics and people associated with arts and letters, how do you see the current mix of members? Is there a desire to adjust that mix in any way?

The challenges here are diversity, in the many meanings of that word, and the right mix. It is always sad to see caring, seasoned members cycle off the board, but the combination of experience and new blood is tried and true. In selecting new members, the board tries to match the available talent to what the board is losing or missing in expertise and perspective.

With these special marquee events now three-quarters completed, what has the public been learning about the state of the Pulitzer journalism in the 100th year of the prizes?

Pulitzer’s partners in these events have done a great job celebrating the sweep of history represented by the prize-winning work of a century while also showing how the values behind that work remain essential today.

Fairness, accuracy, objective inquiry, bold comment, bravery in taking readers where they wouldn’t otherwise go — the list is long. Without journalism that embodies these values, any country would be more vulnerable to ignorance and demagoguery.

I hope people are also taking away a realization of how hard journalists must work to hold up a mirror to society, how much resourcefulness and how many resources it takes to get the story right. The end product — the iconic photograph, the vivid account — might look like it came easily, as that is a common characteristic of great work. But when you see and hear Pulitzer Prize winners discuss what went into the work, you realize what a deep and sturdy foundation lies beneath it.

Our [redesigned] website, Pulitzer.org, and an expanded social media presence have contributed to our centennial success. We are celebrating our winners by sharing their work and their backstories with the public. Often, we include previously unpublished jury reports from our files. Our calendar has helped our partners get the word out about their events. And we post video and other accounts of the events themselves. Our social media has stirred interest in all this while also giving the celebration a fun factor.

This year has reinforced our sense that the public has a deep and abiding interest in our winners and their work. That knowledge will guide our public face as we go forward.

How different do you think the journalism Pulitzer Prizes will look in 10 years? 25 years? 100 years? In what ways?

My crystal ball gets cloudy beyond a few years out. Going forward, the only thing certain is change. The Pulitzer Prize Board will remain active in trying to read the shifting journalism landscape and reshape the entry rules accordingly. It will also look at new categories and category definitions but be deliberate in such considerations.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Pride as the Pulitzer Board’s “chairman.” His title is “administrator.” We apologize for the error.

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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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