Ahead of the announcement of the 106th Class of Pulitzer Prize winners, author Dean Rotbart examines the prize record of Paul E. Steiger, who oversaw a combined 18 successful award entries as the head of two different news organizations, one of which he founded. Adapted from “Steiger: A Journalist in the Public Interest” (Coming 2023)
Paul E. Steiger served as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal from 1991 until May 2007. Later that year, he launched ProPublica, serving as its editor-in-chief, CEO, and president through 2012.
During his 21 years at the helm of the two newsrooms, members of Steiger’s staff received a combined total of 18 Pulitzer Prizes — 16 at the Journal¹ and two at ProPublica — and were finalists an additional 10 times.
As a child, Steiger’s mother, Mary Walsh Steiger, a schoolteacher, counseled her son — a polio survivor — that “comparisons are odious.” She told him he shouldn’t weigh his attributes against the other boys, either academically or on the athletic playing fields.
It’s guidance he embraces to this day.
Nevertheless, one of the critical attributes of successful journalists is competitiveness, and that demands a healthy amount of measuring oneself against one’s journalism peers and rivals.
Steiger is reluctant to compare his record to that of others who are widely acknowledged to own a place in the pantheon of great 20th and 21st-century newspaper editors.
Any such comparison is an imprecise undertaking because, in several respects, The Wall Street Journal isn’t like other respected newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
For starters, the Journal’s principal focus — even after it began a broad diversification of coverage under managing editor Norman Pearlstine in the 1980s — was and remains to deliver the paper’s subscribers a more concentrated dose of business and financial news than does any major metropolitan daily.
That, alone, reduces the number of articles and staff members dedicated to non-financial news and features.
While general and local news can be an awards magnet — city hall, crime, culture, schools, and the like — the Journal’s brief is national and international in scope.
Further stretching comparisons between the Journal and other prominent newspapers is the fact that until September 2005, less than two years before the end of Steiger’s tenure at the paper, the business “daily” was a weekday-only enterprise.
And, of course, to this day, the Journal isn’t a bona fide contender for journalism honors that recognize achievements in categories including editorial cartooning, breaking news photography, or feature photography.
Taking into account all those differences, one scorecard that nonetheless is often used to recognize the achievements of executive editors, editors-in-chief, and managing editors at daily newspapers is how many Pulitzer Prizes their news organization notched under their direction.
For any journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize is a career-altering achievement, much like a performer who wins an Academy Award or a quarterback who wins the Super Bowl. It is an achievement that will attach to the winners for the remainder of their lives and, often, beyond.
Based on numbers alone, Steiger is undoubtedly a top five luminary when measured against other modern-day newsroom chieftains.
Leonard Downie Jr., whose tenure as executive editor of The Washington Post from 1991 to 2008 closely parallels Steiger’s time at the Journal, rests atop the list of contemporary Pulitzer Prize patrons. During Downie’s era, the Post newsroom brought home 25 Pulitzers², including the first-ever back-to-back Gold Medals for Public Service in 1999 and 2000.
A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times is credited with earning 24 Pulitzer Prizes during his stewardship of the paper, including running the daily news operations for about 16 years, beginning as managing editor in 1969. According to his official Times biography, Rosenthal oversaw the daily and Sunday operations for about 10 years, officially stepping down on Jan. 1, 1988.
Another prominent Pulitzer maestro was Gene Roberts, who spent 18 years as the executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper had never won a Pulitzer before Roberts took the reins in 1972, and by the time he resigned in 1990, the Inquirer counted 17 of the honors³ in its trophy case.
In evaluating Steiger’s newsroom leadership, both at the Journal and ProPublica, the number of his Pulitzer wins alone⁴ don’t adequately reflect his and his staff’s achievements.
Three of the awards, in particular, merit special recognition.
The first among them came in 1997 when a team of Journal reporters headed by Michael Waldholz and David Sanford won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their 1996 trailblazing — and taboo-breaking — coverage of the AIDS epidemic and the struggle surrounding promising treatments for the disease.
In the early 1980s, the Journal was among the first news organizations to report on a mysterious illness affecting gay men — then referred to as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID.
Under Steiger’s leadership, and not without considerable pushback — both internal and external — the Journal in January 1996 began aggressively reporting on AIDS and the emerging evidence that a “cocktail” consisting of two existing AIDS medicines combined with a newly Food and Drug Administration-approved enzyme-blocking drug might hold the key to suppressing or even eradicating the virus.
The subject matter was controversial for several reasons. Among the most prominent, there were vocal activists in the gay community who feared that research dollars that they wanted to see directed toward finding a vaccine to prevent AIDS might be siphoned off if too much media attention was focused on treatments that would allow individuals to live with the HIV virus once it was acquired.
Additionally, gay culture and the specific behaviors that fed the transmission of the AIDS virus were delicate topics. Many editors at major news outlets were reticent to discuss gay sex for fear of offending the sensibilities of a sizeable portion of their readers and viewers.
For its time, the Journal’s prize-winning coverage — consisting of 10 articles that ran between Jan. 30, 1996, and Dec. 20, 1996 — was remarkable, clearly placing the paper far out front of any of its competitors and debunking the then-common perception that the Journal’s competence was primarily covering business and economics.
Among the 10 articles the Journal submitted to the Pulitzer judges was a haunting first-person account by David Sanford, a features editor on the paper’s Page One, who was gaunt, fatigued, and — as of 1995 — dying of AIDS. Although 6-foot-2 inches tall, he weighed only 161 pounds.
Sanford and the Journal didn’t shy away from explaining how and where he contracted the deadly virus.
“My battle with AIDS, I’m certain, began in December 1982, at a bathhouse in Manhattan’s East Village during a sexual encounter with a man whose name I didn’t catch,” Sanford wrote. “… going to the baths was a big part of gay culture back then.”
This was The Wall Street Journal. The “daily diary of the American dream.” The newspaper of record for all-things financial. The town hall of “conservative” journalism.
The Sanford article, in particular, challenged long-held mores of the Journal newsroom. Nevertheless, Steiger gave Waldholz and others who covered health care, pharmaceutical companies, the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention free rein to charge ahead with their reporting.
(The Journal’s squeamishness in writing about sex and the human sexual anatomy lingered for years after the paper’s 1996 AIDS coverage. In 2004, Steiger was chastised by a member of Dow Jones & Company upper management for allowing the paper to publish a front-page story about a breakout brand of women’s lace thongs — accompanied by a color photo of the lingerie. A prominent illustrated article about women’s underwear, he was admonished, is not appropriate for a “family newspaper.”)
Sanford began his first-person narrative by noting that he had provided the Journal with an obituary he had written for himself. “I certainly didn’t want anybody else writing it,” he explained.
After detailing his slow and agonizing dance with death, however, Sanford also chronicled how his treatment with the new protease inhibitors pulled him back from the precipice. At age 53, he was on the rebound, going to the gym once again and needing new clothes to match his new, higher weight.
“Thanks to the arrival of the new drugs … I am probably more likely to be hit by a truck than to die of AIDS,” Sanford wrote.
(Sanford continued working for the Journal until his retirement in July 2015.)
Steiger and the Journal’s second extraordinary Pulitzer Prize was awarded for its near-miraculous coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the paper’s main Manhattan newsroom — located just across the street from the World Trade Center — was obliterated by the bomb-like debris and ash that erupted following the collapse of the twin towers.
For much of the day, Steiger was incommunicado with the paper’s other senior editors and staff, and some feared he had perished or been seriously injured. Although unhurt, the then 59-year-old editor had been deluged with smoke, ash and detritus from the fallen towers. Along with thousands of others, he fled on foot to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan.
Steiger eventually made it to his Upper East Side apartment, showered, and joined other senior editors at the apartment home of one of his deputy managing editors, Byron “Barney” Calame. From there, he scripted the now-iconic six-column, double-decker front-page headline for the Sept. 12 edition:
TERRORISTS DESTROY WORLD TRADE CENTER
HIT PENTAGON IN RAID WITH HIJACKED JETS
While Steiger’s hands-on role on Sept. 11 was limited by his displacement, the people and processes he put into place long before that day proved indispensable to putting out a next-day edition. The Pulitzer board honored the staff of the Journal for their “comprehensive and insightful coverage, executed under the most difficult circumstances.”
It was and remains the only Pulitzer Prize that The Wall Street Journal ever earned for local news.
The most remarkable Pulitzer Prize that Steiger is associated with, however, is the 2010 award for Investigative Reporting, which was presented to ProPublica’s Sheri Fink for her 13,000-word article, published on Aug. 30, 2009, in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine.
Fink’s story, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,” captured the intense drama that unfolded in 2005 at Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans, when the hospital was cut off from the rest of the city by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters.
ProPublica originally nominated “Deadly Choices” for the 2010 Pulitzer for Feature Writing. But as is its prerogative, the Pulitzer board — which was chaired by Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The Miami Herald, and included Jim Amoss, editor of The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune — moved her story to the Investigative Reporting category.
(That year, the board also awarded an investigative prize to Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News for their exposé of a rogue police narcotics squad.)
Fink’s story was unquestionably an outstanding work of journalism. She subsequently expanded her article into an award-winning book, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.”
But there is something unique about Fink’s award that qualifies it — and Steiger’s role in fostering it — as arguably the most impressive Pulitzer winner of the past 50 years and perhaps ever.
Steiger’s first 16 Pulitzers, those he oversaw at The Wall Street Journal, were won by a large and well-established newspaper that had been around since 1889. The New York Times, which has won 130-plus Pulitzers, was founded in 1851. At The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr. collected his record-setting Pulitzers on behalf of a paper that has been published since December 1877. Gene Roberts’s Philidelphia Inquirer, founded June 1, 1829, as The Pennsylvania Inquirer, ranks only behind The Hartford Courant (1764 as a semi-weekly) and The New York Post (1801) as the oldest continuously published newspaper in America.
ProPublica, by comparison, was only in its second year of operations when Fink won her Pulitzer Prize. Moreover, unlike Downie, Rosenthal, Roberts, and other well-known 20th and 21st-century journalism giants, Steiger stands alone not just for overseeing Fink’s award but also for founding and shepherding the very news organization where she worked.
ProPublica became the first non-ink-and-paper news organization to win a Pulitzer Prize since the award was first bestowed upon Herbert Bayard Swope of the New York World in June 1917 for his dispatches entitled “Inside the German Empire.”
During his lifetime, Joseph Pulitzer, for whom the prizes are named, purchased both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York World. It was Pulitzer who proposed the creation of a journalism school, which in 1912, a year after his death, became the Columbia (University Graduate) School of Journalism, which to this day administers the Pulitzer Prizes.
Before it ever had a name, an editor, or an operational blueprint, the original idea for ProPublica came from Herb and Marion Sandler, the billionaire co-founders of Golden West Financial Corporation.
In 2006, the Sandlers approached Steiger to gauge his interest in shaping their concept into a fully functioning and effective news operation. To help lure him, they pledged $10 million annually to fund the proposed project.
Steiger accepted the challenge. His vision, initially scribbled on the back of an envelope, was of a nonprofit news organization dedicated to promulgating the rich and in-depth investigative reporting that newspapers were increasingly unable to afford.
ProPublica set up shop in 2007-2008, and at the time Sheri Fink reported on the goings-on at Memorial Medical Center in August 2009, the news organization consisted of roughly 30 total staffers. It was a tiny fraction of the newsroom roster that Steiger had enjoyed at the Journal, albeit one with more full-time investigative reporters.
As editor-in-chief, Steiger left the direct oversight and hands-on editing of Fink’s article to Susan White, a founding senior editor, and Stephen Engelberg, founding managing editor.
In keeping with ProPublica’s core canon of making its reporting available to other news organizations, the nascent news outlet teamed with The New York Times Magazine to showcase Fink’s reporting. At the Times, magazine editor Ilena Silverman further helped shape Fink’s story, which was also carefully vetted by the paper’s top management.
The 2010 Pulitzer cited “Sheri Fink of ProPublica, in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine.” (Fink’s article for the Times also won that year’s National Magazine Award for Reporting.)
Fink’s coverage of Memorial Medical Center, both for ProPublica and in her book, raised crucial issues concerning the preparedness of government and private-sector officials to manage large-scale disasters.
As Gerald Marzorati, editor of The Times Magazine wrote at the time, “Four years have passed since Hurricane Katrina made landfall. But the story of what the storm visited upon New Orleans has yet to recede.”
Indeed, Fink’s story continued to echo during the height of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. As Marzorati correctly observed in 2009, “ours is a world not immune to pandemics and terrorist attacks or natural disasters. The issues surrounding medical care in such dire situations require a public conversation our country has yet to really have.”
ProPublica’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize was a watershed for the 103-year-old award organization. The win began a new era, one in which the once-exclusive community of newspaper-only candidates was broadened to include a full range of digital-only news outlets, magazines, and even broadcasters.
Although their names are not listed officially along with their Pulitzer Prize-winning staff members, Downie, Rosenthal, Roberts, Steiger, and the many other top editors over the decades who have facilitated the award-winning entries merit due recognition.
Mary Walsh Steiger would blanch at any boasting that her son was one of the greatest newsroom editors of our age. His record, however, speaks for itself.
¹ Before Steiger’s ascension to the managing editor’s office in 1991, The Wall Street Journal had won fewer than 16 Pulitzer Prizes for its news coverage in the entire history of the paper.
² Here is the breakdown: Criticism (5), Public Service, National Reporting, and International (3 each), Feature Writing, Explanatory, and Investigative (2 each), Beat Reporting, Breaking News, Commentary (News), Spot News Photography, and Feature Photography (1 each). Between the years 1993 and 2008, the Post also won two Pulitzers for Commentary written by Editorial Page columnists (1994 and 2003). However, Downie did not oversee the editorial page, which was run by Fred Hiatt.
³ The 17 Pulitzers Prizes won during Roberts’ tenure as executive editor were: National Reporting (4), Investigative Reporting (3), Public Service, Local Reporting, Feature Writing, and Feature Photography (2 each), Editorial Cartoons and International Reporting (1 each).
⁴ During Steiger’s years as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, the paper also won two Pulitzer Prizes for Commentary and one for Criticism. However, the three awards are not credited to Steiger’s record since he had no responsibility for the paper’s editorial pages.