May 15, 2020

For the sixth consecutive year, we have chosen to issue what may be journalism’s least prestigious award: a prize for the Best Pulitzer Lead. Or, if you insist, Best Pulitzer Lede.

No money or trophy goes with this recognition. In fact, we’ve stipulated in the past that should winners find themselves in St. Petersburg, Florida, they are required to buy me a latte at my favorite coffee shop, the Banyan. That requirement will be waived for the foreseeable future.

The winners, as always, showcase some of the best reporting in America. Cheers to all of them. But as I have said in years past, a prize-winning story does not always have a great lead. Good is often good enough.

The criteria for selection have been consistent over the years, with a tweak here and there.

I will, in most cases, only consider the lead of the first story in any entry, unless one jumps up and pokes me in the eye.

  • Categories compete against each other. Leads are leads.
  • Long leads are not punished, but shorter ones get extra points. (Great short leads are hard to come by.)
  • If I don’t get the point of the story in three paragraphs, you are, as we say in Pulitzer judging, “thrown under the table.”
  • Unusual elements get extra points, as long as they don’t distract from the focus of the story.
  • In the case of a tie, the prize goes to the single writer over a team.

What makes a good lead? I like John McPhee’s metaphor that a lead is a flashlight that you shine into the well of the story. You don’t have to see all the way to the bottom, just far enough to know what you are getting into.

For inspiration, I reread this gem every year as an old-school example of what a good lead can be. It was written in 1968 by the late Mark Hawthorne, for The New York Times:

“A 17-year-old boy chased his pet squirrel up a tree in Washington Square Park yesterday afternoon, touching off a series of incidents in which 22 persons were arrested and eight persons, including five policemen, were injured.”

You can judge whether you like any of these winners better. There will be one winner, three finalists, two special citations and a final surprise. May we have a drumroll, please.

Best Pulitzer Lead

Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times for International Reporting. For coverage of political corruption, espionage and murder in Putin’s Russia.

RIVNE, Ukraine — The target lived on the sixth floor of a cheerless, salmon-colored building on Vidinska Street, across from a thicket of weeping willows. Oleg Smorodinov found him there, rented a small apartment on the ground floor, and waited.

My take: In two short sentences the author gives us a launch moment that has the feel of an international spy thriller. We get two characters — a target and named assassin — in a setting that is almost cinematic. With murder just ahead, he loads the description with a building that is cheerless and where the trees happen to be weeping. The word “target” lights the fuse and the final word “waited” has that “turn-the-page” effect.

RELATED: Here are the winners of the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes

Finalist

Kyle Hopkins, the Anchorage Daily News. For Public Service. The absence of law enforcement in the state of Alaska proves shocking.

STEBBINS — When Nimeron Mike applied to be a city police officer here last New Year’s Eve, he didn’t really expect to get the job.

Mike was a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in Alaska jails and prisons. He’d been convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault. Among other crimes.

“My record, I thought I had no chance of being a cop,” Mike, 43, said on a recent weekday evening, standing at his doorway in this Bering Strait village of 646 people.

He was wrong.

My take: I like the easy pace of this lead, concluding with a three-word sentence that hits the reader with the force of punctuation. “Nimeron Mike” is a great name with an Alaska feel to it. The second paragraph uses an underappreciated writing tool, the inventory that piles up indisputable evidence. Old wisdom says, “Get a good quote high in the story.” Mission accomplished.

RELATED: ‘Lawless,’ an expose of villages without police protection, wins Anchorage Daily News its third Public Service Pulitzer

Finalist

Team from the Washington Post: Steven Mufson, Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin and John Muyskens. For Explanatory Journalism on the local and global effects of climate change. (If the actual scribe would like to raise a hand, we’ll give you your props.)

LAKE HOPATCONG, N.J. — Before climate change thawed the winters of New Jersey, this lake hosted boisterous wintertime carnivals. As many as 15,000 skaters took part, and automobile owners would drive onto the thick ice. Thousands watched as local hockey clubs battled one another and the Skate Sailing Association of America held competitions, including one in 1926 that featured 21 iceboats on blades that sailed over a three-mile course.

In those days before widespread refrigeration, workers flocked here to harvest ice. They would carve blocks as much as two feet thick, float them to giant ice houses, sprinkle them with sawdust and load them onto rail cars bound for ice boxes in New York City and beyond.

“These winters do not exist anymore,” says Marty Kane, a lawyer and head of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation.

My Take: It’s wonderful to have a series that stands out for its data visualization be characterized by good writing. That is the marriage of disciplines that journalism needs more of. It is not easy to make history work for you as a writer, but it feels effective here, a time tunnel to the past. That first paragraph may be a little chunky, but it works as a view of the lake from the sky. In the second paragraph, the camera moves closer to the action. As a New York kid who used to call the fridge an “icebox,” it gives me pleasure to see that name again. Once again, I am looking for a human voice by the third paragraph, and I get it.

RELATED: The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for a novel climate change story

Finalist

Jeffery Gerritt, the Palestine (Texas) Herald-Press for editorial writing on the mistreatment of prisoners.

Before dying of a methamphetamine overdose early on Aug. 1, 2017, La Salle County, Texas,  prisoner James Dean Davis, aka “Country,” moaned and yelled for most of the night. Sweat dripped off him in a chilly holding cell, as vomit ran red, like Kool-Aid, on the floor.

“He kept saying he needed help and didn’t want to die,” Davis’ cellmate later told a Texas Rangers investigator.

My Take: This lead proves that writers of editorials can make their case — not just through argument or highly rhetorical language — but by storytelling. It is not always easy to read a passage with these gruesome elements, but the writer is fulfilling his mission by telling us: “Hey, look at this. Pay attention. It matters.” Use of the nickname “Country” a good touch before the tough stuff.

RELATED: This year’s Pulitzers are a reminder why local news matters all the time, not just in a crisis

Special Recognition

Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times for Commentary.

Commentary is usually delivered in short blasts — the op-ed column or editorial. It’s unusual to have the commentary extend to a long magazine article. Because of that format and length, it’s not easy to judge the effectiveness of the lead. By one measurement it is the shortest lead imaginable for a major American magazine essay, a single date, four letters: 1619. In the magazine that date runs big — almost five inches high. But it has a period after it, turning it into a sentence. Here’s the date and what follows.

1619.

It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619? Though the exact date has been lost to history (it has come to be observed on Aug. 20), that was when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.

My take: This may be the lead to the most important journalism essay written in the 21st Century. Time will tell if that judgment holds true, as the main thrust of the 1619 Project continues to be debated among historians, journalists, educators and other public figures. That rich and crucial debate, at a time of political polarization, is the product of a bold move by a bold author, Nikole Hannah-Jones. It is not a news scoop, but what might be called a “conceptual scoop,” an invitation to see the world or history in a new way.

RELATED: Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay from ‘The 1619 Project’ wins commentary Pulitzer

More Special Recognition

To Ida B. Wells, one of the most compelling figures in American history, who wrote and fought against slavery, lynching, the brutality of the South, the oppression of women’s rights, and much more.

My take: While I cannot testify as to where the following sayings came from in her work — her speeches, letters, or writings — they have the feel of great beginnings. Their brevity gives me courage to try to deliver more meaning with fewer words.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no education to compare with the press.”

“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

“A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.”

“Virtue knows no color line.”

RELATED: Pulitzers honor Ida B. Wells, an early pioneer of investigative journalism and civil rights icon

Special Surprise Honor

Colson Whitehead in the category of Fiction for “The Nickel Boys”

Even in death the boys were trouble.

For the first time I have reached across categories from journalism to fiction to find a great first sentence. Those seven words ignite the action of a great novel that has a journalism feel to it. That should not surprise us, as Whitehead acknowledges the influence of reporters who exposed the evils of a vicious reform school for boys in north Florida. Those works of journalism include coverage by the Tampa Bay Times and reporter Ben Montgomery.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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