Pulitzer Prize update: A deeper dive into what might win next Monday

Taking cues from the Investigative Reporters and Editors and News Leaders Association annual awards, here's an updated Pulitzer Prize preview

April 28, 2020

With the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes scheduled to be announced next Monday after a two-week delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, Poynter has a chance to update its earlier Pulitzer preview to include some additional exceptional candidates.

In recent days, Investigative Reporters and Editors selected winners for its annual awards — from entries that, like the 2020 Pulitzers, must have appeared during the prior calendar year to be considered. And Monday, the News Leaders Association announced selections for its awards. Both contests have categories that overlap somewhat with the 15 journalism divisions set up by the 104-year-old Pulitzers, the gold standard for industry awards. (Pulitzer Prizes also are awarded in seven categories covering arts, letters and music.)

Each year, Poynter’s previews follow what other journalism competitions selected — work that could also excel in the two-tiered Pulitzer judging system. This year, jurors met in February at Columbia University, before restrictions on group meetings were established. When Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy then announced the delay to May 4 she said the 18-member board would make the final prize choices via a “virtual meeting” to be held before then.

Canedy, who was named to the position in 2017, said in an answer to a Poynter email query that 3 p.m. Eastern time on Monday remains the target for the committee’s livestreamed announcement.

“I didn’t think I could add any more firsts related to my role as Pulitzer Administrator: first woman, first person of color and youngest person in the role in more than a century,” Canedy said in the email. “But as it turns out, I will also be the first person to announce the winners from her living room.”

Among top candidates for Pulitzers cited in our earlier preview were The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers report in December; The Seattle Times study of what might have caused two Boeing 737 Max airliner crashes; The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, looking at the early years of slavery in America; and the Houston Chronicle’s scoops about the Trump administration’s child separation policy involving immigrants crossing the Mexican border. Such work was recognized in earlier journalism competitions for Long Island University’s George Polk Awards and the Scripps Howard Foundation’s prizes.

Additionally, “Profiting from the Poor” — a collaboration of the Memphis-based MLK50: Justice Through Journalism organization and ProPublica, about debt-collection abuses — was cited in our earlier preview for winning the University of Southern California’s Selden Ring Award. And a joint project called “Copy. Paste. Legislate,” from The Arizona Republic, USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity, was honored with the Goldsmith Prize by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. That second collaboration used a 50-state computer analysis “to reveal the nation’s largest unreported special-interest political campaign,” according to Shorenstein.

Among work not mentioned in our earlier preview: an extensive Washington Post analysis of the nation’s opioid crisis and ProPublica’s detailed probe of the Navy’s 2017 collision involving the USS Fitzgerald, which killed 17 sailors — both of which won News Leaders Awards.

IRE winners often also do well at Pulitzer time in areas beyond the Investigative Reporting category, of course. Work with an investigative focus competes in multiple Pulitzer areas, including Public Service; Local, National and International Reporting; and occasionally Breaking News Reporting and Explanatory Journalism, along with the newest Pulitzer category, Audio Reporting, established just last year.

The remaining seven Pulitzer divisions are Feature Writing, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing, Cartooning, Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography. Our preview, primarily geared to the newswriting-based prizes, doesn’t consider winners in the latter seven.

Some of the honors noted in the earlier preview were extended in the competitions by IRE, and by News Leaders — a collaboration of the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors. NLA’s Justice in Journalism prize went to the Times’s 1619 Project. Meanwhile, IRE gave its Freedom of Information Award to Post reporter Craig Whitlock’s Washington Post Afghanistan Papers work, and cited MLK50’s Wendi C. Thomas and others for “Profiting from the Poor” as one of two winners in its largest print/online category, Division I.

The other IRE Division I winner: ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine for their collaboration, “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch,” which looked into the activities of a jailhouse informant.

In IRE’s slightly smaller Division II, Lisa Gartner of The Philadelphia Inquirer won for “Beaten, then Silenced,” a study of boys abused in a reformatory, which also had won a Polk Award. IRE’s Division III award went to Hearst Connecticut Media for “At Risk: Boys & Girls Clubs and Sexual Abuse,” with the Division IV award going to South Carolina’s Post and Courier, for “It’s Your Time to Die,” work by Jennifer Berry Hawes, Stephen Hobbs, Glenn Smith and Andrew Whitaker that exposed fatal abuses within the state’s prison system.

Among other IRE honorees that could draw Pulitzer interest: a Texas Tribune investigation into problems with the state’s citizenship checks, “Inside Texas’ Botched Voter-Rolls Review.” And in two radio/audio divisions that could position work for the new Pulitzer audio category, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal news organization and PRX won for “Amazon: Behind the Smiles,” while the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting won for “Prosecution Declined.”

Another NLA winner — for Impact and Public Service — was The Washington Post’s “The Opioid Files,” from reporters Scott Higham, Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich. That yearlong study examined the scope of the nation’s opioid addiction, and benefited from a long fight to get records from the Drug Enforcement Administration and drug industry officials.

ProPublica and reporters T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi won a Deborah Howell Award for Writing Excellence for “Fight the Ship: Death and Valor on a Warship Doomed by Its Own Navy,” about the USS Fitzgerald collision. And in that category’s smaller-publication division, Eric Boodman of STAT News won for his medical reporting, which “chronicled the anguish of parents of a baby who died from sudden infant death syndrome.”

NLA’s Al Neuharth Breaking News Reporting Award went to The Baltimore Sun staff for coverage of shady business dealings involving the mayor of Baltimore.

For Local Accountability, an award went for “The Quiet Rooms,” a probe by ProPublica-Illinois and the Chicago Tribune into institutional mistreatment of children with behavioral and emotional disabilities. And for Local Accountability among smaller publications, the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica won for “Lawless,” a project that revealed the state of Alaska’s lax hiring requirement for police in rural areas.

A Punch Sulzberger Award for Innovative Storytelling went to the staff of Newsday for “Long Island Divided,” the result of a three-year investigation that revealed discriminatory practices in the real estate industry.

For newsrooms involved with these and other stories, the anticipation continues until 3 p.m. Monday.

Neil Brown, Poynter’s president and a Pulitzer Board member, was not consulted for this article.

Correction: A draft release of the News Leaders Association awards listed an incorrect description for The Baltimore Sun’s work that won the Al Neuharth Breaking News Reporting Award. It has been corrected. 

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.