April 3, 2020

As journalists look forward to the Pulitzer Prize announcements — still set for April 20, at least for now — will even the most dramatic winners feel a bit stale?

To qualify for a 2020 Pulitzer, after all, stories must have appeared during the prior calendar year. And this year, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to overshadow so many memories of 2019.

The Washington Post’s December Afghanistan Papers report? The New York Times Magazine’s celebrated 1619 Project? Scoops like the Houston Chronicle’s discovery of renewed Trump administration child separations at the Mexican border? The Seattle Times’ deep dive into possible causes of two Boeing 737 Max crashes? These days, there’s a risk it all may seem like old news.

But other competitions leading up to the Pulitzers, as they do each year, have already honored some of America’s best reporting. And much of it may be contending, as well, in the granddaddy of U.S. contests — which for 104 years has honored not only journalism, but arts and letters.

Once again, our Poynter preview draws on these earlier contests to help identify journalism Pulitzer candidates, primarily from the print and online worlds. And like the Pulitzers themselves, we leave pandemic coverage for consideration next year.

Identifying Pulitzer contenders on the basis of other competitions has its flaws, of course. The Pulitzers have their own peculiar mix of categories, and a secretive two-tier system for picking finalists and winners.

From the Pulitzer offices at New York’s Columbia University, administrator Dana Canedy said in an email to Poynter that “there really were no complications” in the early stages of the prize process. In February, juries of journalists and academics “met at Columbia, before most of the country was ordered to socially isolate,” she said.

“As of now we are planning to have a virtual meeting” of the 18-member Pulitzer Prize Board. “So far we have not changed our dates for either the meeting or Pulitzer announcement day,” she added, “but we are still weeks away, so that might change.” (Poynter president Neil Brown, a Pulitzer Board member, was not consulted for this article.)

This preview focuses on the Pulitzers’ news-based categories: Public Service, Investigative, Breaking News, Local, National, International and Explanatory Reporting, and Audio Reporting, a new category this year. Opinion-based areas — Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing and Cartooning — are not considered; nor are Feature Writing, Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography.

Looking to Polk and Scripps

Among major journalism competitions already announcing their winners are Long Island University’s George Polk Awards and the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Scripps Howard Awards.

Both the Polk and Scripps awards honored The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers work — Scripps as its Investigative Reporting winner, with the Polks naming Post reporter Craig Whitlock in its Military Reporting category, “for forcing the release of interviews from a five-year, $11 million federal ‘Lessons Learned’ project.” (The Post story has been compared to the Pentagon Papers reporting that won The New York Times the Public Service Pulitzer in 1972.)

Similarly, Polk and Scripps both cited The Seattle Times’ coverage of Boeing for Business Reporting, with Scripps giving its award to the paper. The Polks named reporters Dominic Gates, Mike Baker, Steve Miletich and Lewis Kamb — noting their revelations of “cooperative arrangements between Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration that led to approval of design changes in 737 Max jets blamed for two crashes, killing 346.”

Polk Award winners

Among other Polk winners, Lomi Kriel of the Houston Chronicle was named for National Reporting, for “revealing previously unreported aspects” of child-separation policies along the southern border. And four Polk honors went to the New York Times, including a special award for the 1619 Project, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which “examined efforts of black Americans to advance the nation’s expressed ideals of democracy, liberty and equality in the face of centuries of oppression and exclusion.”

In Foreign Reporting, New York Times reporter Azam Ahmed earned a Polk award for coverage of gang violence in Latin America. For Local Reporting, the Polks cited stories by Brian M. Rosenthal about a taxi medallion scandal. And an International Reporting award went to the paper’s visual investigations team. (In one case cited, its videos offered visual proof that Russian pilots had bombed four Syrian hospitals and other sites.)

The Polks also cited:

For Political Reporting, the Polks honored reporters at both Kansas’ Wichita Eagle and at the Baltimore Sun for “deep dives into public records,” revealing misconduct that led to the ouster of mayors in both cities.

Scripps Howard Award winners

Scripps gave its Breaking News award to The Washington Post for its coverage of shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — August attacks less than 24 hours apart that killed a total of 29 people. Including its honor for the “Afghanistan Papers,” it was one of three awards the Post won from Scripps; the third went to Eli Saslow in Human Interest Storytelling, for his series “The State of Health Care in Rural America.”

Another Scripps award went to Portland’s Oregonian in Environmental Reporting, for “Polluted by Money,” detailing campaign finance connections between politicians and corporations. And a Scripps pick for Radio-Podcast, Rhode Island Public Radio’s “A 911 Emergency,” about a flawed emergency-call system in the state, could be considered for the new Pulitzer Audio category.

An award announced just this week was Syracuse University’s Robin Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, which went to a team of Boston Globe journalists for their series “Back to the Battleground.” The stories analyzed political shifts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—key states whose electoral votes went to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The Globe, according to the award, “documented how life for people in those states changed or didn’t change during Trump’s presidency.”

Cues from other awards

Other contests whose honorees also may be competing for Pulitzers include the University of Southern California’s Selden Ring Awards and the Goldsmith Awards of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The top Selden Ring prize brought $50,000 to Wendi C. Thomas for work with a three-year-old Memphis-based digital news organization, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Her winning project was produced in conjunction with ProPublica. Called “Profiting from the Poor,” it told of abusive debt collection practices at the largest health care system in Memphis.

In the Goldsmith contest, the $25,000 winner was a collaboration of The Arizona Republic, USA Today and the not-for-profit Center for Public Integrity. Its series, “Copy. Paste. Legislate,” used a 50-state computer analysis “to reveal the nation’s largest unreported special-interest political campaign,” as the Shorenstein Center put it. As many as 10,000 legislative bills, it said, “were copied nearly word-for-word from text written by industry groups, lobbyists and political activists.”

Work named as a Selden Ring or Goldsmith finalist often turns up among Pulitzer winners and finalists, too — as do honorees from competitions by Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional journalists, sponsors of the News Leaders Awards, and the American Society of Magazine Editors, whose results also are yet to be announced.

One Selden Ring finalist was New York-based ProPublica’s own project, “The TurboTax Trap,” which exposed how the tax-preparation giant Intuit used advertising and technology gimmicks to help it profit from low-income customers who could have qualified for free tax help. The other finalist: a Chicago Tribune-ProPublica investigation, “The Quiet Rooms,” which showed how Illinois schools systematically mistreated children with behavioral and emotional disabilities.

Craig Whitlock’s “Afghanistan Papers” was among the Goldsmith finalists, each of which receives $10,000.

Other Goldsmith finalists included:

  • The Oregonian’s Shane Dixon Kavanaugh for “Fleeing Justice,” about Saudi Arabian citizens in the U.S. who got Saudi help in escaping criminal prosecution;
  • Kaiser Health News’s Christina Jewett for “Hidden Harm,” about improper deals that medical device makers struck with the Food and Drug Administration;
  • Kyle Hopkins, for “Lawless,” local reporting by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica that revealed the state of Alaska’s lax hiring requirement for police in rural areas, resulting in “criminals as cops.”

Changes this year

The Pulitzer Prizes come with $15,000 — except for the prestigious Public Service prize, which takes the form of a gold medal. But they remain the most sought-after in journalism, of course.

Pulitzer administrator Canedy said that this year, the committee is no longer disclosing how many entries were received, a shift in policy from 2019, when its then-14 journalism categories attracted 1,162 submissions, slipping from the prior year’s 1,217. (There are also seven Pulitzer categories for arts and letters.)

The reason for the decision? The numbers “fluctuate year to year, and it is impossible to draw any conclusions from those changes,” she said, while also noting that in general “our numbers this year have not declined at all.”

This year’s announcements won’t be held in front of a live audience, of course, but should be livestreamed at 3 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, April 20.

No matter how many winners one may predict from reviewing last year’s pre-pandemic-year journalism, a few Pulitzer surprises are guaranteed. So stay tuned.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” writes for Poynter about prize-winning reporting and other topics. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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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…
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