March 14, 2017

With four weeks to go until Pulitzer Prize administrator Mike Pride reveals 2017’s winners, Columbia University said Monday that this year’s prize announcements will be his last. The veteran of three years as administrator, who previously served a full nine-year term on the Pulitzer Board, will be retiring in July.

The years since 2014 have been eventful for the nation’s biggest awards in journalism and the arts, with expansion of Pulitzer-eligible news organizations to include magazines as well as additional online operations. Last year also was the centennial of the prizes, for which Pride — who is 70 and now serves as editor emeritus of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor — supervised expansive coast-to-coast programming, and a redesigned Pulitzer website.

His final year of Pulitzer awards, announced April 10, could be particularly intriguing across their 14 journalism categories. (There are seven other categories for American arts and letters.) After Donald Trump’s November presidential election victory over Hillary Clinton caught nearly all major news organizations by surprise, the press has found itself severely criticized by the new administration over how it has been covered.

Mike Pride (Submitted)

Mike Pride (Submitted)

In the first stage of this year’s two-tiered, secretive Pulitzer selection process, jurors met in late February at Columbia, which administers the prizes. They considered 1,187 journalism nominations in all, Pride said, up from 1,112 from the prior year. This year’s total included 146 nominations from magazines, which after years of being shut out for Pulitzer consideration last year were allowed to compete in all journalism categories. Meeting April 6 and 7, the 19 Pulitzer board members will choose winners from the finalists forwarded to them by the jurors.

Pride agreed to answer some emailed questions from Poynter — this time about his retirement as Pulitzer administrator, changes in the Pulitzers during his three-year term, and the future of the awards and the American press in general.

Was the idea of serving just three years as administrator something you’d planned on from the beginning, or did something else come into play in your decision to step down this year?

When I became administrator, I had been retired for six years writing books and traveling. The Pulitzer job was one of the few that would have turned my head from that happy life. As a former board member and four-time journalism juror, I had the right background for it, especially with the centennial on the horizon. It seemed like a great adventure — and it was. During 2016, it was also like having two jobs. Now that we’re through that and some other things are on track, I’m ready to return to the old life. The Pulitzer staff is small but capable and strong. The board will have no trouble finding a capable administrator.

Beyond the centennial year celebration, what would you say have been the most important changes in the Pulitzer Prizes and in the organization over the last three years, from the standpoint of the media, and of the American public?

The Pulitzer Prize board clearly wanted to continue adapting the prizes to changes in the journalism world. The trend has long been toward publications of all kinds using digital tools, advanced reporting and presentation techniques and the speed of the internet to cover and comment on the news. The Pulitzer mantra has become “we should reward the best journalism from any source.” We couldn’t change everything overnight, but we have continued to open up the contest.

One of my worries is that too few readers are connecting with the excellent investigative and revelatory journalism regularly available on the web. By its nature the net encourages quick hits and like views, not deeper reading. A vital goal of the Pulitzer Prizes is to reward the excellent and important journalism that happens in this space.

Do you see the Pulitzer Prize process as having any special meaning in a year when news organizations have been so strongly criticized by the White House?

All I can say on that question is that great journalism aimed at comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is alive and well in the United States. Anyone seeking confirmation of this need only read the Pulitzer finalists when they are made public in April.

What are your personal views about charges from the administration that some Pulitzer-winning news organizations, which they specifically named, have purposely published “fake news,” and have made up sources cited in their articles?

If news organizations needed further incentive to practice the highest principles of journalism, such charges certainly provide it. There are no infallible news organizations, but the best of them don’t purposely publish falsehoods. In a perfect world, journalists would always name their sources. Because the world isn’t perfect, sometimes the only way to get important facts to the public is through unnamed sources.

America has a long tradition of politicians, some at the highest levels, who bash the media. Don’t like the message? Kill the messenger.

Will you be involved at all in the search for a new administrator — a search being chaired by the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who will oversee a number of other Pulitzer board members? And with the Pulitzers recognizing work in both journalism and the arts, should journalism or the arts get first consideration in selecting your replacement.

I made suggestions to the board chairs about the job description. Otherwise I do not expect to be involved unless the board has specific questions. I only know how I approached the job, combining close attention to the prize cycle while also trying to respond to and guide the board in moving toward the future.

Rapid change in the journalism world probably makes that the more critical part of the job. That said, a vast segment of the public knows the Pulitzer Prizes best because of the arts and letters winners. I loved administering these prizes, choosing the juries after broad consultation and working with them to make the difficult choices they face each year.

Your question reminds me of the heart of Joseph Pulitzer’s legacy. It was he who wanted a prize program that rewarded both journalism and literature.

Are there any other farewell comments you want to pass along to journalists who look to the Pulitzer Prizes to help recognize and establish standards of excellence?

In my journalism career I moved from a regional newspaper to a small-city paper to an even smaller-city paper, so I have a soft spot in my heart for small news organizations. One great thing about the Pulitzers is that such organizations still compete — and sometimes even win.

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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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