Behind the Pulitzers

Philly Daily News columnist and blogger Will Bunch, an unsung visionary of the newspaper biz, writes a very good post on the significance of the latest Pulitzers.

The most telling problem is this: Not a single Pulitzer was awarded this year for what we would call old-school local enterprise reporting. Not one. By local enterprise reporting, we mean exposing a corrupt state or local official, or problems with a local institution like a hospital or a nursing home or a hazardous waste dump. (You can quibble about the outstanding coverage of San Diego congressman “Duke” Cunningham, but he is a federal official caught up in D.C. scandals, while the Rocky Mountain News feature prize was for a Marine delivering bad news from Iraq, also a local twist on a national story.)

That would be a disgrace in any year, but it’s really bad now — because newspapers are pretty much the last people left who can tell you when your mayor is on the take, or when development is choking your local reservoir. Local TV and radio don’t have the staffing or the inclination, big media is too big, and bloggers and citizen journalists can help, but most don’t have the time or the experience of a trained (and paid) investigative journalist.

I think Will’s right and what he really takes away from this is criticism of newsroom priorities: Do they put their resources where they should, into what they can and should do uniquely, or in commodity news we already know (a theme I keep singing).

It’s sad, because while urban news organizations had slashed true enterprise reporting in the face of the job cuts, we are pathologically unable to stop covering the exact same stories that everyone else is . That was really driven home to me last winter, in the week after the Daily News lost some 25 staffers, or 19 percent of our employees. I was urgently dispatched to the Philadelphia courthouse because no one was present for the verdict in a case that had gotten a middling amount of local coverage.

When I got there, there was also a reporter from the Inquirer, the leading radio news station, and another news outlet. We sat there twiddling out thumbs, listened to the same pronouncements from the bench, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the hallways getting the same quotes from the defense lawyer, and the same quotes from an assistant DA.

What a colossal waste of Philadelphia’s journalism talent! Three of us should have been out in the neighborhoods or sifting through documents at City Hall, trying to scoop the other two while keeping Philly informed. …

Mass coverage of every murder and every verdict is relic of a bygone era. There needs to be a new kind of local AP-style organization, to ensure that only one valuable journalist is spent on these events in an era of such reduced manpower.

Amen, brother. Read the rest.

: Now about the Pulitzers…. I do see a difference this year both in the awards and the papers. Some are complaining and some are cheering that the awards are political, praising reporters and papers who went after the Bush administration. The Pulitzers this year are, for better or worse — I leave that to you — more about politics than before.

So what should the Pulitzers reward? Until now, I saw too many papers edited for the Pulitzers, not their publics. They did investigations, all right, but they were grandiose, multipart, eye-numbing probes aimed at pleasing a prize jury, not at news that affects the lives of the people living in their communities. I argued that the Pulitzers were bad for journalism because they skewed the priorities of newspapers. To my surprise and delight, I’ve heard editors and reporters at papers that used to do that saying the exact same thing lately. They know that these stories sucked resources for the sake of prestige and ego and that in the end these stories separated these papers from their audiences. These megaseries said that the papers cared more about far-away places or the dramatic stories of the unusual few and not about the everday needs of their readers.

So what should the Pulitzers reward? I complained that in awarding the Times-Picyaune with two well-deserved medals, the august committees did not see fit to specifically award Nola.com. No, they think, they award prizes to newspapers. But when they did their best work, the T-P was not a paper. It connected via online. The Pulitzers should be rewarding that specifically. They should be encouraging old newspapers to think past the press. For that is exactly what these news organizations must do if they hope to survive. If the Pulitzers truly cared about journalism — about its future and its very survival — they should be rewarding reporting and service to the community that occurs in any medium, not just trapped on dead pages.

If they truly cared about journalism, they would be rewarding local reporting, for local is the one thing that newspapers must do well to distinguish themselves in the borderless world of online news. Read Will Bunch. And they would reward service that affects the lives of readers, for that is the value that will make them come back.

But they don’t. And they won’t. And though I’m happy for the journalists in New Orleans and Mississippi for the recognition they received, I still say that if I ran a news organization — not likely — I would not submit entries to the Pulitzers and similar prize juries. The award that matters is the return visit of a reader well-served.

  • JD in Oslo

    I go along with your post, but allow me to add a little humour when the subject is Pulitzer prizes:

    John, the farmer, was in the fertilized egg business. He had several
    hundred young layers, hens, called pullets and eight or ten roosters, whose
    job was to fertilize the eggs.

    The farmer kept records and any rooster that didn’t perform went into the
    soup pot and was replaced.

    That took an awful lot of his time so he bought a set of tiny bells and
    attached them to his roosters. Each bell had a different tone so John could tell from a distance which rooster was performing. Now he could sit on the porch and fill out an
    efficiency report simply by listening to the bells.

    The farmer’s favorite rooster was old Butch, a very fine specimen he was,
    too, but on this particular morning John noticed old Butch’s bell hadn’t
    rung at all! John went to investigate. The other roosters were chasing
    pullets, bells-a-ringing. The pullets, hearing the roosters coming, would
    run for cover. But to Farmer John’s amazement Butch had his bell in his
    beak so it couldn’t ring. He’d sneak up on a pullet, do his job and walk on
    to the next one.

    John was so proud of Butch, he entered him in the county fair and Butch
    became an overnight sensation among the judges.

    The result …

    The judges not only awarded Butch the “No Bell Piece Prize,”
    but they also awarded him the “Pulletsurprise” as well.

    Clearly, Butch was a politician in the making.(?)

    Who else but a politician could figure out how to win two of the most
    highly coveted awards on our planet by being the best at sneaking up
    on the populace and screwing them when they weren’t paying attention?

  • http://krucoff.com krucoff

    You know, there was a great local reporting story that would have fit the bill perfectly: the Spokane Mayor Sex Scandal.

    Oddly, unlike Jay Rosen and Steve Lovelady who praised Steve Smith and called the Spokesman-Review’s coverage an excellent example of responsible media that answers to its readers/citizens and not an old school journalism ethics committee, you trashed them for it.

    I never could understand your point of view on that, especially for a story so worthy of accolades, not to mention a “paper” that has fully embraced the openness of the Internet and blogging.

  • Jessica

    I agree with you, Jeff, except that I will continue to submit entries for awards. Why? Because it’s a measurable result my publishers understand. When my paper wins awards, it gives us a stronger platform when we argue for more staff, newer equipment, raises, etc.

    However, my philosophy about awards (and what I try to convey to my staff) is: serve the readers first and foremost. The awards are just a side benefit and they will naturally come if you put your readers first. I discourage talk such as “this is the kind of article/subject that will win awards.” The awards are not an end of themselves.

  • http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com JennyD

    Jeff, so how would, say, the Trenton Times be able to submit online material when it shares all its material with a big, aggregator site called nj.com? If the Trenton Times has to share all its material with the other Newhouse papers online (as also happens at Mlive), then how can these newspapers move beyond paper and be online as independent entities? It worked in New Orleans because the Newhouses only have one paper at NOLA.com.

  • jc

    Actually, JennyD, the Trenton Times doesn’t have that much of a problem, because nj.com tags the Trenton Times material as such (and the Star Ledger stuff is labeled Star Ledger, and the Jersey Journal stuff is labeled Jersey Journal, etc.). Considering it is an aggregate site, it actually doesn’t do a bad job at delineating the different papers.

    For a real doozy of an aggregate site, look at northjersey.com. This site contains content from The Record (in Bergen County, NJ) and the Herald News (in Passaic County) plus other publications the company owns. And you can’t tell what comes from what most of the time.

    (Disclosure: I’ve worked for both companies, though not in their internet divisions)

  • http://www.mythusmageopines.com/wp Alan Kellogg

    None for corrupt officials? Ah, yeah.

    Sometimes it does pay to read to the bottom of the list. :)

  • N

    I completely agree with Mr. Bunch. My cousin co-wrote a very in-depth and investigative piece exposing a corrupt politician in the Virgin Islands. She was nominated for a Pulitzer last year along with her partner. I believe for the mere fact that her piece was in the minority of reporting themes that she didn’t win. Long live freedom of the press. I believe its one of the last freedoms we have left.

  • http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com JennyD

    I agree jc, having looked at both sites. But I have to say that I think the Newhouse sites are basically dreadful in this aggregated form. nj.com is particularly loud and stupid. Mlive is just dull.

    But I wonder if having a brand on the web, a real brand of a newspaper, might encourage the paper to more fully embrace online. This mish-mosh of papers and news looks like it might alienate editors.

  • Dexter Westbrook

    The Ohio “Coingate” scandal is a good example of what Mr. Jarvis is talking about. Here is a story that literally turned Ohio politics upside down, yet not a whisper from the Pulitzer committee.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2005/02/aftermath.html M. Simon

    I have been covering one of the biggest corruption stories in America at my blog.

    What we call “addiction” is in fact a false diagnosis. Long term addiction is in fact self medication for trauma. I have discussed drug company complicity in this. In fact the new head of the NIDA has come to a conclusion on the subject similar to what I have been propounding for four years. i.e. Drugs do not cause addiction.

    So our war on drugs is in fact a war on the afflicted run for the benefit of drug companies and the prison industrial complex.

    I have done articles on how the drug companies who sell medicines for “anxiety” profit from keeping such competition off the market.

    A local free weekly ran my articles until the local police pressured them to stop running my articles: bad for their business and police morale.

    Now I don’t expect an award. However, you would think that such corruption of drug companies and law enforcement might be of more than local interest.

    In fact I have put the case to both Rosen and Loveday. No interest. Zero. Nada. Some day this story will break because the medical evidence keeps piling up. In the mean time I keep plugging away.

    Here are a few of the articles. Decide for yourself. (more on my sidebar) scroll down).

    The War On Unpatented Drugs.

    Is Addiction Real?

    Heroin

    Genetic Discrimination

    A well known secret

  • Toni

    “not a whisper from the Pulitzer committee”

    ??? It was a nominated finalist!

  • http://lonewacko.com/ TLB

    In light of “high” journalistic “standards”, could someone explain pro-illegal immigration propaganda to me? I scan several immigration-related stories per day, and they’re almost always full of misleading statements or outright lies. Other than by ignoring such articles, how exactly does one square that sort of coverage with the proposition that reporters and newspapers are stalwart defenders of the truth?

  • PJ

    My vote for the top old-school story’d be CBS’ investigative reporting of Miami police, where citizens went in to inquire how to make complaints, and got brutally harrassed, even threatened with death, by police officers. In response the local PBA head put out a bulletin on these reporters.

    Now that’s the kind of reporting we need more of; the type of shit that gets “the man” hunting down the reporters is the kind of stuff Pulitzers were made for.

    http://cbs4.com/topstories/local_story_033170755.html
    http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/14218941.htm

  • Laika’s Last Woof

    “Clinton’s problem wasn’t that he started wars, it’s that he started wars that didn’t have a particularly coherent narrative.”

    “Ahh! A narrative! Thank the Gods!” Karl Rove must’ve exclaimed when he saw the towers crumple.

    You’ve got some nerve.

  • DEAN BERRY — REAL AMERICAN

    Because of how evil the amerinazis have made America, Jesus Christ has removed His blessing. Can’t you tell? http://www.deanberryministries.org/index3.html

  • http://cockalorum.blogspot.com AST

    The point came home during the last election when the Deseret News sent a reporter to cover the party conventions. The press service pieces were cynical and snyde, while the local reporter wrote about the experience and what the local delegates were doing. It brought back the old feeling I used to get watching Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley covering the conventions live. It was a big show with human interest. Now the press writes everything off because it’s packaged. Once reporters become jaded to the point where nothing is new to them they cease to be reporters and become amateur novelists.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2005/02/aftermath.html M. Simon

    Pro illegal immigration:

    What happens to the economy when you eliminate 10 million workers and 20 million consumers?

  • DEAN BERRY — REAL AMERICAN

    Because of how evil the amerinazis have made America, Jesus Christ has removed His blessing. Can’t you tell? http://www.deanberryministries.org/index3.html

    ………..

  • Lee

    The Pulitzer is going the down the same path as the Nobel Peace prize. Too bad.

  • http://fdnf.typepad.com Eddie

    Nick Kristof winning for his Darfur columns (and endangering his life on several occasions travelling there to cover the ethnic cleansing in that troubled region) was about the only slam dunk award… everything else was either undeserving or arguably weaker than some of the other stories in their fields.

  • http://rhhardin.blogspot.com Ron Hardin

    Stop worrying about the Pulitzer and start worrying about the soap operaization of everything.

    The soap opera audience may be the biggest and most reliable audience, but it’s not enough to support the news business.

    When soap opera potential edits the news for everybody, everybody else tunes out.

    Everybody else is the majority.

  • http://donsurber.blogspot.com don surber

    “They should be encouraging old newspapers to think past the press.”

    There you go again, Jeff. Newspapers led the way online, followed by TV and then by bloggers. But I do agree:

    “If they truly cared about journalism, they would be rewarding local reporting, for local is the one thing that newspapers must do well to distinguish themselves in the borderless world of online news.”

  • Menlo Bob

    If I read your quote correctly, reporters think journalism awards should be based on exposing malfeasance, corruption and scandal. Well okay, but what about all the other stuff that people need to know about? Little wonder that readers are bailing out of that hopeless sink hole of negativism.

  • http://russianmushroom.blogspot.com Ivan Lenin

    Amen, comrade Jeff.
    I want to read about what happened next block, other than somebody got raped and murdered. It takes creativity to make something like that interesting, and right now too many journalists and bloggers waste their creative energy on driving the same political points back and forth. It’s boring.

  • http://www.cybercossack.com blackminorca
  • Pingback: Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Thursday squibs

  • http://www.inopinion.com David Mastio

    A big factual error in the piece you quote:

    The editorial writing Pulitzer went to exactly the kind of coverage you are extolling.

    See links here: http://www.inopinion.com/features/?itemid=556

    Doesn’t really undermine your point, but give em some credit.

  • http://hartsbigpicture.blogspot.com/2006/04/pulitzers-commodified.html hart

    You and other influencers in the ‘sphere have argued forever about the need for news to “get local” both online and in print. No argument from me there. Our shop traffics heavily in “local” news, albeit in a unique way. But I have to say that by taking the Pulitzer board to task this year, you are torturing your argument. Hurricane season 2005 was a huge, huge **local** story to communities all around the Gulf of Mexico. The storms visited not just catastrophic physical damage to people, their homes and communities, but it also ripped apart social and political infrastructures and created an environment where taxpayer and private funds were wasted and used for corrupt purposes just about everywhere one looked. The newspapers — their reporters, photographers and editors — that won awards this year (and the broadcast outlets which won their own awards) covered those issues in a spectacularly dedicated way. So come off it. Give credit where credit is due, even as you properly urge news organizations to “get local.”

  • http://gumbopie.blogspot.com Steve Teeter

    Two comments from New Orleans — First, regarding thinking “beyond the presses, in evaluating the Times-Picayune the Pulitzer folks did for the first time allow the paper to submit materials that had been published only online. As you noted, during the height of the crisis that was the only way they could publish at all, and it was greatly appreciated by me in exile in Jackson, MS. Second, while the T-P won for coverage of breaking news, that category is a little misleading. Almost as soon as the winds stopped blowing, the coverage turned into precisely the type of local enterprise reporting that Bunch was talking about. Local readers know the paper has been relentless in investigating what went wrong, especially focussing on the Army Corps of Engineers. Questions such as whether the Corps built the levee walls up to the standards of their own design (they did) and whether those designs were adequate to the task (they weren’t) have been front page stories here every day. Yes, the Corps is technically a Federal entity, but how they performed locally is the big question, and the mayor, the governor, the city council, the police, etc., are hardly getting a free ride. The T-P is doing the job.

  • http://forgottenprophets.blogspot.com/ Jack H

    Journalists have squandered the legacy that old Hollywood movies gave them. Brash but honest cynical idealists who embodied and celebrated the best of the American spirit. “The Front Page.” “It Happened One Night.” After “All the President’s Men,” they seem to think that their job is to destroy – not for the sake of cleansing rottenness, but to promote their agendas and careers. Maybe it’s always been that way, but not in the public eye. I see journalists nowadays as pretty much on a par with abortionists and class-action laywers. There’s gold in them thar pockets! Let’s git it.

    I wrote something light on the subject, here:

    http://forgottenprophets.blogspot.com/2006/04/how-can-it-be-hot-out-it-was-just-cold.html

    and something darker, here:

    http://forgottenprophets.blogspot.com/2006/02/white-sheep.html

    Ah well. The times, they are achangin’. The bad the Times doesn’t. The dead tree media have become the petrified forest media – might as well be writing in cuneiform, for all the relevance it has.

    But enough.

    Best,

    Jack H

  • Ralph Phelan

    Why do people want to be Pulitzer Prize winners? Is it really such a great honor to get to join the same club as Walter Duranty and Peter Arnett?

  • Pingback: BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » The Pulitzers enter 1994

  • Pingback: BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » The problem with Pulitzers

  • Pingback: In defense of the Pulitzer Prizes « Korr Values