April 17, 2018

The 14 Pulitzer prizes for American journalism can be a form of tea leaves for the state of the industry. The winners and finalists offer a highly imperfect view of who's doing notable work. It is often said that you have to be both good and lucky to win one of the prizes. Here are a few observations:

The New York Times and Washington Post dominate

Together, they won five prizes, including one that the two papers shared. 

As widely predicted, the New York Times and The New Yorker shared the Public Service prize for reporting on Harvey Weinstein and Times' sequels on sexual harassment.  The pieces launched the #MeToo movement, a rare impact whose only obvious recent counterpart was the Boston Globe's reporting on pedophile priests which won for Public Service in 2003.

RELATED: Pulitzer Prize for Public Service honors excellence in sexual harassment reporting. Here are resources for other journalists covering this story.

The Times and Post shared the prize for national reporting for stories on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian connection to President Trump's associates.

On its own, the Post won for investigative reporting for its exposés on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.  The Times won in editorial cartooning for a graphic-novel-style treatment of the life of refugees.

In addition, the Times had six more entries among finalists and the Post two.

There was some diversity in the winning news organizations

The USA Today Network (Explanatory Reporting) was a notable first-time winner. And Reuters news service had a good showing, with a pair of prizes (Feature Photography and International Reporting). Magazines, which were gradually admitted into the contest beginning in 2014, won or shared prizes in three categories and digital-only sites — ProPublica and BuzzFeed were among the finalists.

Related training: 10 Keys to Improve Recruitment and Retention of a Diverse Staff

Gannett has a breakthrough year

As noted in a separate story, with individual wins for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Des Moines Register and a shared prize for the Arizona Republic and the USA Today Network, Gannett actually tied the New York Times with three awards.

No tiny little engines this year, but a few smallish papers

No tiny mom-and-pop news organizations or alt weeklies were among the winners. However, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (for its breaking news coverage of nearby fires) and the Charlottesville Daily Progress (for a breaking news photo of the clash with Nazi agitators) were small city papers that rose to the occasion when a major story broke.

Rules changes make a difference

The rules changed several years ago to permit entries from magazines and digital-only sites. This was a particularly strong year for magazines with The New Yorker's share of the Public Service prize and wins for two others — GQ for feature writing and New York Magazine for criticism. Among digital-only sites ProPublica had two finalists, BuzzFeed and the Center for Investigative Journalism, one each.

Gender balance improves

Women, who had an off year among individual winners in 2017, were heavily represented. By my quick look, Rachel Kaadzi Ghanseh, author of the GQ profile of Dylann Roof, was the only African-American winner in the journalism categories, though Kendrick Lamar was a headline-maker, winning the music award, and the prize for general non-fiction went to James Forman Jr..

Wire services show well

Reuters had both the international reporting prize and the winner in feature photography as well as placing a second finalist in photography. The Associated Press was a finalist in international reporting.

The Pulitzer Board moved at least one entry

One can assume that the Reuters photography entry that won the feature category was moved by the board to that category from the breaking news category. There is only one finalist listed in Breaking News photography in addition to the winner and three finalists are listed in Feature Photography.

Corporate journalism does well, too

In addition to Gannett, among chains, Advanced's Alabama Media Group, won the prize for commentary.  McClatchy had three finalists, Hearst two and Tronc two.

Who's not here

Non-winners (also without finalists) this year included the Wall Street Journal, whose Peggy Noonan won in 2017 for commentary, a frequent contender for editorials and business reporting investigations. The Journal broke the story of a payment to Stormy Daniels, but that was in January of this year and thus not eligible.

Some major regional papers that have been honored often in the last decade also missed this year — the (Poynter-owned) Tampa Bay Times, the Seattle Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee.

There were also no winners or finalists from the GateHouse and Digital First chains, large groups of papers with deeply reduced reporting staffs. Digital First's East Bay Times had won in 2017 for coverage of a fire in Oakland.

It's a team effort

Continuing a trend of recent years, the first six prizes announced were for staff work rather than to individual writers or photographers. 


More Pulitzer coverage:

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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