What the Pulitzers ought to be

May 1, 2006

I spent nearly 30 years in newsrooms, never won a Pulitzer Prize, wish I had, never will. I have worked with a number of reporters and photographers who won–none thanks to my help–and they deserved their prizes. I know people who served on Pulitzer juries, and they’re conscientious and incorruptible. And I’ve never seen a Pulitzer awarded for work I didn’t think was outstanding.

So call this sour grapes, but I’ve come to believe that the Pulitzers — for all the celebrity, the champagne, the career-capping glory they bring — are bad for the profession. They purport to stand for excellence in journalism, but if they do it’s in the same way that Rolls Royce stands for excellence in car-making.

And that’s the problem. The Pulitzers are big, clunky trophies for the rich. They honor lavish work that has no bearing on the reasonable strivings of most journalists, dazzling achievements that are a galaxy apart from the nimble municipal reporting that energizes a robust civic culture. They amplify a structure of dominance within the profession that sneers at the work of most newsrooms, and every year they send out the same, deeply wrong-headed message: That great journalism is primarily national and international in scope, and is practiced mainly by the country’s wealthiest news organizations.

The Pulitzers should be re-imagined and restructured. At present, they are much less a prod than they are a reproach to the vast majority of working journalists.

Unlike lesser contests, the Pulitzers have no circulation categories. They make no allowance for the grotesque disparities in size and resources among the 1,400-plus daily newspapers that are the principal contenders. Plus they have no categories at all for what most of those papers actually do.

So the big boys sweep. They’re the ones that pay good salaries and attract great talents, provide research support, travel money and above all, time – two months, six months, whatever it takes to produce breathlessly detailed, hard-hitting narratives to be hammered into shape and finally packaged into winning entries by in-house promotional staffs.

Accordingly, every year, most Pulitzers are divvied up by the giants, and the only real question is whether this year the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or Los Angeles Times noses out the perennial frontrunner, the New York Times.

True, every year, one or two smaller papers are recognized, some grizzled newsroom veteran is finally honored, and in a traditional gesture of noblesse oblige, one big prize– often the public service award–goes to the daily whose community has been flooded, burned, hurricaned, buried, earthquaked or somersaulted by riots. Unlike FEMA, the Pulitzer board can be relied on for guaranteed compensation to towns whose papers keep publishing despite natural calamity and the consequent disappearance of automotive, help-wanted and real estate advertising.

But if the winning entries are good, even great — and they invariably are — where’s the harm?

It’s that the Pulitzers honor what most journalists get to do only after they die and go to heaven, if then. For starters, here on this earth most don’t get near stories of historic moment. They’re trying to keep your communities honest. The best stories they get to pursue wouldn’t catch the eye of a Pulitzer juror for a nanosecond, even though they matter intensely to their communities–land use scams, petty thieving, the lies of municipal officials and hometown fat cats. The Pulitzers have no category for local news, let alone sports or business, and the most recent awards suggest that jurors took pains to ensure that even the categories that might go for local efforts–beat reporting, columns and feature writing–did not. [Note: A prize for Local Reporting was added in 2007.]

The question I’m raising is not whether the most prestigious prizes in the profession are being awarded justly, but what they’re being awarded for–and what message do they thereby send to journalists. Right now, the message to young reporters is that if they’re serious about winning a Pulitzer, they should get hired by The Times.

The Pulitzers should reward choice, sacrifice, perseverance and service, not just marquee impact, and they should honor the accomplishments of those who struggle not just with sources and critics but with the limitations, the scarcity and the clamor of their own under-funded newsrooms.

It’s ironic that a profession that is supposed to care about society’s underdogs saves its most coveted honors for its own top dogs.

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