When the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, there were only four journalism categories. Last year’s 14 journalism categories received almost 1,200 submissions. As journalism’s most coveted award celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, the only way to look forward to the next 100 years is to look back.
Named after newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the Hungarian-born owner of New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch created the awards in the writing of his 1904 will. Now administered by Columbia University in New York City, this year’s winners will be announced April 18.
When Pulitzer Prize administrator Mike Pride reflected on the biggest changes to the prizes, he pointed to the accommodations made to online news organizations and magazines. In 2006, the Pulitzer board allowed online content in all of its journalism categories. Three years later, the competition expanded to include online-only news organizations. The submission process also adapted to technology as the board changed to an all-digital entry and judging system in 2012. And over the last two years, several journalism categories have expanded to include many online and print magazines. By opening up the competition, Pride said it allows them a chance to recognize journalism on all platforms. In the past few years, Pulitzers have been awarded to the likes of the Huffington Post, ProPublica and Center for Public Integrity.
Mitch Pugh, executive editor of the Post and Courier in Charleston S.C., said he welcomed the digital competition. The Post and Courier won the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service in 2015 for its “Till Death Do Us Part” domestic violence series. It was the first Pulitzer for the newspaper in 90 years and the series was the first project for the newly-created watchdog investigative team.
“It pushes us to all do better,” Pugh said, discussing his digital counterparts. “We’ve even partnered with digital sites like the Center for Public Integrity on stories.” The nonprofit, digital investigative news site won its first Pulitzer in 2014.
On his newspaper’s own award-winning series, Pugh said digital played a big part in its presentation. The online portion of the series incorporates video, photos, and data and infographics.
Although winning the award for a domestic violence series made it a “sad and humbling experience,” Pugh said it also made a big impact in the community and with state lawmakers.
“It has reenergized the newsroom,” he said. “It’s made us ask ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’” Currently, the Post and Courier is working on four to five major investigative projects.
The Seattle Times also won a Pulitzer Prize last year. Honored for Breaking News Reporting for its account of a landslide that killed 43 people, it was the newspaper’s tenth Pulitzer. Echoing the same sentiments as Pugh, Seattle Times editor Kathy Best said it was “bittersweet” to win the award for such a tragic event, but she was “very proud of their coverage.”
“It validated our use of reporting skills from our breaking coverage to our watchdog coverage of the landslide,” she said.
Winning the Pulitzer has not added pressure to the newsroom, Best said, but it has confirmed that they need to keep their standards high when it comes to their reporting. “We have to keep producing the most valuable journalism,” she explained.
When asked about what she thought about the journalism categories expanding to include digital-only news sites, Best said the real question was, “How much longer can we publish on newsprint? We’re moving toward a digital future with additional storytelling from video, audio and interactive graphics.”
Opening up the awards to include digital publications is “good for us in the profession,” Best said. “It has prompted us to make sure we’re providing compelling journalism.”
As journalism evolves from print to more digital-oriented projects, Best said perhaps one day the same level of scrutiny given to words and writing during judging will be given to elements like video and graphics.
“How we define a story will include all aspects, not just text,” she said.
Prestige and Honor
For those inside the industry winning a Pulitzer is the highlight to one’s career and can give the publication a much-needed boost. This year, the Oscar for best picture went to “Spotlight,” which documented the Boston Globe’s coverage of sexual abuse by priests. Their reporting was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
To those outside of the industry, Best said a Pulitzer still means something to readers. It shows “this is the best of the best,” she said. And by opening the door to more digital submissions, the Pulitzers will be able to attract a younger audience and will no longer be known as just the “print prizes.”
Pugh said the name still has the same cachet as it did 10 to 30 years ago. The only difference, he said, has been the rise of digital websites competing alongside traditional print companies for the honor of being recognized as a Pulitzer Prize winner.
“Whether it’s a newspaper or website, the platform should be irrelevant,” he said. “It should be about the reporting…and if you look back at all the winners and their stories, they all made a difference.”
For Pride, who has been preparing for the centennial anniversary for a year-and-a-half, he said the organization has adapted over the last 100 years and will continue to do so. Although the journalism categories are rooted in traditional media, he said there may come a day when a Pulitzer is awarded to a “non-text” submission.
According to Pride, their direction is to determine how best to accommodate these new emerging platforms and he believes the prize process will withstand any changes.
“I feel confident with our process,” he said. “I hope the prizes will continue for 100 more years. As the board was planning for this milestone, we thought along those terms and about our next generation.”
More than a 100 events are planned for the centennial anniversary from Guam to Alaska. Larger marquee events will take place in St. Petersburg, Fla., Dallas, Los Angeles and Cambridge, Mass. For more information, visit pulitzer.org.