May 9, 2022

On Jan. 6, 2021, protestors — supporters of then-President Donald Trump — stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.

While U.S. lawmakers scrambled and hid for safety, insurrectionists overtook the hallowed halls of the Capitol in an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power following a fairly held election.

By evening’s end, the Capitol was cleared and Biden’s election was certified. Democracy held. Jan. 6 was over.

But it was not forgotten.

The troubling events of Jan. 6 started well before that day, and the ramifications have lasted long since — with many elected officials still falsely arguing that Trump won the election.

On Oct. 31, 2021 — 298 days after the horrific events of Jan. 6 — The Washington Post published a stunning three-part series about one of the worst days in U.S. history. But it wasn’t just about that one day.

That series was the centerpiece of the Post’s Jan. 6 coverage that was deservedly recognized Monday with the top prize in journalism: The Pulitzer Prize Award for Public Service.

The series (according to the Post) involved more than 75 journalists (including 25 reporters) and included interviews with more than 230 people; thousands of pages of court documents and law enforcement reports; and hundreds of videos, photographs and audio recordings. In a statement at the time, Matea Gold, national political enterprise and investigations editor, said, “An event of the magnitude of the Capitol attack demands deep and revelatory reporting. This newsroom-wide collaboration provides our readers with a definitive account of Jan. 6 and its lasting impact on American democracy.”

As the Post has said, Jan. 6 was really not an isolated event — “it was a battle in a broader war over the truth and the future of our democracy.” The Pulitzer Board called it a “compellingly told and vividly presented account of the assault on Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, providing the public with a thorough and unflinching understanding of one of the nation’s darkest days.”

In a statement, Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said, “There is nothing more central to the American experiment than democracy. … In 2021, that democracy came under attack from within. The challenge for the fourth estate was clear: We were no longer just a watchdog of the institutions and elected leaders of our democracy, but an indispensable defender of democracy itself.”

Buzbee added, “No organization performed that duty more fearlessly, consistently or comprehensively than The Washington Post. From those early hours of Jan. 6 through the entire year, The Post provided an unflinching, unparalleled and indispensable account of the attack — with contributions from more than 100 journalists. The Post’s work has been read and watched by millions, cited in congressional investigations and served as a true public service to the nation.”

The other Public Service finalists were the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for “powerful coverage that exposed an unknown epidemic of electrical fires in the city’s rental properties and widespread lack of accountability”; and The New York Times’ chilling report on the vast civilian toll on U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Perhaps in any other year, or even with a different set of judges, the Times’ story — a disturbing account of innocent civilians being killed by U.S. military strikes — would have won the Public Service Pulitzer.

For the record, the story did win a prize. It was smartly moved by the board to International Reporting, where it won the Pulitzer — one of three claimed this year by the Times. The others? Salamishah Tillet in Criticism, for “learned and stylish writing about Black stories in art and popular culture — work that successfully bridges academic and nonacademic critical discourse,” and the staff of the Times for National Reporting on a project that “quantified a disturbing pattern of fatal traffic stops by police, illustrating how hundreds of deaths could have been avoided and how officers typically avoided punishment.”

Once again, the Pulitzers recognized the Times and the Post in what seems like an annual rite of passage. That isn’t to suggest, however, that the prizes are undeserved. Quite the contrary.

Yes, the Times and Post are massive operations with seemingly endless resources and staff. But they should be admired — and were rightfully recognized Monday — for putting those resources, staff, talent and work ethic to utmost use for telling good and, more importantly, critical stories.

They are generally considered to be among the finest journalism outfits in the world and that’s because they are. Monday, again, showed it.

But local powerhouses also showed their journalistic chops, specifically the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Houston Chronicle and Tampa Bay Times — all of which took home well-deserved Pulitzers on Monday.

The Herald won for Breaking News for its coverage of the collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium complex. Kansas City Star columnist Melinda Henneberger, who deserved a Pulitzer before now, won in Commentary for her “persuasive columns demanding justice for alleged victims of a retired police detective accused of being a sexual predator.” Houston Chronicle editorial writers Lisa Falkenberg, Michael Lindenberger, Joe Holley and Luis Carrasco won in Editorial Writing for writing about voter suppression tactics and the rejection of the myth of widespread voter fraud. And the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times and journalists Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray won in the Investigative Reporting category for “Poisoned” — an exposé on highly toxic hazards inside a Florida battery recycling plant.

The Tampa Bay Times continues its impressive run. It has now won Pulitzer Prizes two years in a row and six in the past 10 years — further enshrining itself as one of the best local newspapers in the country.

Times chairman Paul Tash said, “We do this difficult work to make a difference here at home, but it’s thrilling that our peers judge it among the finest journalism in America.”

It also was heartening to see outlets not normally recognized by the Pulitzers get their moment in the spotlight this year.

In what might be the most unexpected — and again that doesn’t mean undeserved — prize of the day, the staff of Quanta Magazine — and notably Natalie Wolchover — won the Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting for a cool story about the complexities of building the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Local Reporting Pulitzer went to Madison Hopkins of the Better Government Association and Cecilia Reyes of the Chicago Tribune for their look at the history of failed building- and fire-safety code enforcement, which led to serious violations and dozens of deaths.

Again, local journalism stands up for the voiceless by shining a light on the powerful.

Meanwhile, for many followers of the Pulitzers, Feature Writing is one of the more glamorous awards of the day. For that, I want to revisit something I wrote for Poynter back on Aug. 10, 2021:

“I’ve been writing this newsletter for more than two and a half years and have recommended hundreds upon hundreds — maybe thousands — of stories for you to read/watch/listen to. I cannot think of many I would recommend more than a new piece in The Atlantic by Jennifer Senior.”

That story — “What Bobby Mcilvaine Left Behind” — was about a family’s reckoning with loss in the 20 years since 9/11.

I called Senior’s work a “stunning piece of writing and story that will stay with you long after you’ve read it. Truly powerful.” I also added, “Senior not only beautifully and, at times, painfully tells the intimate story of grieving, but also reveals her deep personal questions that elicit exceptionally honest responses.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, said, “Jennifer’s story, her first for The Atlantic, is one of the most sophisticated pieces of magazine journalism we’ve ever encountered, a miracle of narrative, told with unmatched skill, empathy, and eloquence.”

I would tell you more about the details of the story, but if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. It remains among the best pieces of writing I have ever read, and I was overjoyed to see it win the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing on Monday. The Pulitzer Board praised it for,“masterfully braiding the author’s personal connection to the story with intrepid reporting that reveals the long reach of grief.”

Masterful indeed.

Photography also had an impressive year. The Feature Photography Pulitzer went to Reuters’ Adnan Abidi, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, Amit Dave and the late Danish Siddiqui for images of COVID-19’s toll in India. Siddiqui was killed last July while covering a clash between Afghan Special Forces and Taliban insurgents in Kandahar.

The prize of Breaking News Photography was shared by the Los Angeles Times’ Marcus Yam for images of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan and photographers from Getty Images for coverage of … the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

More thoughts on the Pulitzers …

  • Nice touch by the Board to give a Special Citation to the journalists of Ukraine for “their courage, endurance and commitment to truthful reporting during Vladimir Putin’s ruthless invasion of their country and his propaganda war in Russia.”
  • Insider won its first ever Pulitzer for Illustrated Reporting — a category that replaces Editorial Cartooning. Insider’s Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col and Josh Adams won for “How I escaped a Chinese internment camp.” It was a compelling piece of work and an innovative way to tell the story. Nicholas Carlson, global editor-in-chief of Insider, told staff in a note, “I’m also over-the-moon elated for all of us and incredibly proud of all of you. A newsroom cannot win a prize like this without a high degree of consistent quality from everyone in it. Take time to celebrate and share in the joy of today’s news. This is a historic win for our newsroom and company.”
  • I’m struck by how the Pulitzer Prize judges took their responsibility with the utmost diligence — recognizing a wide array of outlets and journalists. And congratulations to the Pulitzer juries for trimming down each category to finalists that were as varied as they were strong.
  • For the best examples of just how far the Pulitzers dug to find good work, check out the category of Audio Reporting. The staffs of Futuro Media and PRX won for “Suave” — a profile of a man reentering society after more than 30 years in prison. It was a well-earned award, but the prize also could have easily gone to the other finalists. One was NPR for stories on war and threats to democracy in East Africa. The other, and my personal favorite, was NBC News’ podcast “Southlake” — a look at the anti-critical race theory movement in a Texas community and school board.
  • Pulitzers for more than journalism were handed out Monday. There were also awards in Letters, Drama and Music. And do you know what might have been the most impressive work honored on Monday? The Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. That went to Andrea Elliott for “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City.” The Pulitzer Board described it as “an affecting, deeply reported account of a girl who comes of age during New York City’s homeless crisis — a portrait of resilience amid institutional failure that successfully merges literary narrative with policy analysis.” Elliott is an investigative reporter for The New York Times.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” was not even among the finalists in any category.
  • I wrote mostly about the winners in today’s newsletter, but do yourself a favor and go through the official Pulitzer Prize list of winners and finalists, all of whom are deserving of your attention.

More Poynter coverage of the Pulitzers

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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