4 lessons for local journalists from this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners

April 18, 2018
Category: Tech & Tools

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

Local newsrooms had a good year in the 2018 Pulitzer Prizes, winning six of the 14 journalism awards. Here’s what stood out:

Local newsrooms are in the best position to cover breaking news.

That doesn’t always mean they are the best-resourced or the best-prepared. But they’re the ones on the ground the fastest and that’s where some of the best journalism happens. We can see this in this year’s breaking news winner, The (Santa Rosa, California) Press Democrat.

“The real test of a newspaper is in a disaster, and our journalists rose to the occasion when our community needed them most,” Publisher Steve Falk said in a Press Democrat story on Monday.

Last year, the Pulitzer Prizes changed the rules for the breaking category, opening it up to any newsroom that covers a breaking story.

A local newsroom still won (and another was a finalist.)

This is also evident in Ryan Kelly’s breaking news photo win. You can read more here about how he got the photo, but his newsroom spent a year before that August march covering the story.

Here are the questions local newsrooms have to ask themselves:

Beat work pays off.

Two years ago, The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Terry DeMio started covering the heroin epidemic as a beat. That led, eventually, to a staff project that won this year’s Pulitzer for local news.

In 2016, when he created the beat, then-editor Peter Bhatia told Poynter about the choices newsrooms have to make now. (He’s now at the Detroit Free-Press.)

"Any editor can tell you that there are way more issues to cover than we can actually get to, but my focus here has been making sure that we're doing the most important things really well and in depth, and in that context, heroin certainly rises to standing on its own as a beat."

Questions to ask:

Working together, even if it comes in the form of competition, makes everyone better.

Neil Brown, Poynter’s president and a Pulitzer board member, made this point yesterday:

“It’s clear that good reporting by one newsroom helps generate even more good journalism by others. We need more reporters working on stories to bring matters to light, and in doing so that puts more power in the hands of citizens.”

We saw partnerships with newsrooms that are connected through a corporate parent with USA Today Network and the Arizona Republic’s “The Wall.”

It works outside of your news organization, too. ProPublica Illinois partnered with the Chicago Tribune for this Pulitzer finalist work. And ProPublica partnered with NPR for this finalist work.

But as Brown said, it can also work in the form of competition.

The New York Times and The New Yorker won for work both did that helped launch the #MeToo movement. And the Times and The Washington Post shared a prize for coverage of the Trump campaign and Russia.

So:

We’re still losing great local journalists.

Kelly’s last day in a newsroom was the day he made the photo that won for breaking news photography.

On Monday evening, we caught up, and I asked him if he was at all tempted to come back to daily news. He was not.

We talked about all the reasons for this a lot last month. For Kelly, who now runs social media for a brewery, the reasons he left were still the right reasons – flexibility, less stress and a more stable industry.

Next week we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming. In the meantime, check out Melody Kramer’s 2015 piece on rethinking membership. Gather has a great summary of a recent conversation on membership. And check out this course from Poynter’s News University on analytics for reporters.

See you next week!