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 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.