Pulitzers 2010: A Watershed Year

By: E&P Staff

The joke goes that every Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist knows how the first sentence of his or her obituary will read. But it might be noted that in 2010 a prominent Pulitzer mention showed up, if not in the birth announcement of online-only journalism, then at least in a coming-of-age ceremony.

By awarding the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting to a reporter for ProPublica, the Pulitzer board for the first time honored a non-profit, independent online news organization that does not print or broadcast on its own, but often seeks out collaborators for its stories. In addition to its outright win, ProPublica work was a finalist for the most prestigious Pulitzer of them all, the Gold Medal for Public Service.

And with its award for editorial cartooning, the Pulitzer board similarly honored SFGate’s Mark Fiore for work that not only appears only online, but is animated.

The Pulitzer board often sends messages with its choices, and this year they sent a strong signal of approval of collaborative journalism, says Roy J. Harris Jr., the former Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism. 

“The rise of ProPublica, which did very well, was a sign that collaborations have a very real future and a terrific present,” Harris says. “That’s a very strong signal that collaborative journalism is here to stay as a way to make up for declining investment in homespun investigative reporting.”

But the Pulitzers also contained a mixed message for online-only, Harris adds. He notes that work from online-only local sites — think Voice of San Diego or MinnPost — did not make the cut. “I think it’s a maturing process,” he says. “It’s still early, and I suspect there will be a breakthrough.”

There were other notable omissions. ProPublica was widely regarded as a front-runner for a Prize — but for its collaboration with The Times-Picayune and TV’s Frontline for reporting on police shootings in the aftermath of Katrina. And for the third consecutive year, The Wall Street Journal failed to win a Pulitzer.

The National Enquirer’s much-hyped entry of its reporting on the John Edwards paternity scandal also struck out with the board. Harris’ theory: “My view was that the sourcing was the great void there, that by and large, editors and readers don’t want to see stories with lots of ‘a person close to John Edwards’ quotes. It’s a signal the Pulitzer board is very standards-oriented.”

This year’s Pulitzers also stood up for the little guy, picking two reporters from the scrappy Philadelphia Daily News as co-winners of the investigative reporting prize with ProPublica — and awarding the Gold Medal for Public Service to the 33,000-circulation Bristol (Va.) Herald-Courier.

Pulitzer boards like stories with impact, and both those papers delivered. The Daily News triggered suspensions and an FBI investigation with its yearlong series about a rogue police narcotics unit. And Virginia is well on its way to changing the law that the Herald-Courier discovered allowed coal mining companies to short-change, or even evade entirely, royalties due to landowners. — Mark Fitzgerald


Breaking News Reporting: The Seattle Times Staff

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting is often a bittersweet honor, because the news event in question is rarely a feel-good story. This year The Seattle Times won the category for the inspiring work of the staff on especially awful news — the execution-style shooting deaths of four Spokane police officers taking a break in a coffee shop, and the ensuing 40-hour manhunt for the killer.

“Certainly our joy in winning for a story like this is tempered by the enormity of this tragedy and the effect it had on the families of the police officers,” Times Executive Editor David Boardman said in an interview minutes after learning of the award while attending the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) convention in Washington, D.C.

But even as the sickening story was developing, the Times — and by extension, all newspapers — had reason to proud, he added: “We are very gratified that the community turned to the newspaper at this critical moment. You can see we very much matter to people. We were the place people went for the Truth Squad.”

The Pulitzer board’s recognition of the entire staff was particularly apt in this story, which beyond police reporters involved investigative reporters, videographers, photographers and all manner of digital journalists. “We were probably the first newspaper that used Google Wave to break news,” Boardman says.

The Times made use of social networking sites that opened a floodgate of information, but it also used those tools to clear up misinformation.

For the Times, the Pulitzer honor came after an especially brutal year. The paper unwound its joint operating agreement with Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which converted to an online-only news site with a tiny staff. Inside and outside the Blethen family paper it sometimes seemed that it was the Times itself that was in danger of failing.

As it happened, Publisher Frank Blethen and his son, Associate Publisher and Editorial Page Editor Ryan, were with Boardman at ASNE, 3,000 miles away from the newsroom. But, tipped off to expect a Pulitzer, they arranged to have a Webcam set up so they could watch the newsroom celebration. In the first minute after the announcement, the camera went flying from its resting spot, tipped over by a celebrating journalist. — Mark Fitzgerald

 
National Reporting: Matt Richtel and members of The New York Times Staff
 
Jumping on a story on everyone’s mind, then staying with it through print and multimedia, The New York Times’ Matt Richtel and other staffers were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for covering the dangers of using cell phones and other portable devices while driving.

This was no one-off effort. Richtel has stayed on the story ever since, as state and federal  governments have ramped up efforts and legislation to end the practice. Richtel wrote a half-dozen longer pieces and a couple with others. “Eight other reporters got involved at various levels,” he recalls.

“This was not so much a series as an enterprise,” he adds. To the traditional long-form journalism that appeared in print, the series added Web reporting, video, blogging and every sort of multimedia feature. “We had conference calls with probably a dozen people three or four times to set up the multimedia packages,” Richtel says.

In producing this series about distracted drivers, Richtel was equally aware of today’s distracted reader. “We understand it’s not just about other media — it’s about attention span,” he says. ”We thought through all these stories and said, ‘We’ve got to keep people’s attention.’”

Richtel thought his reporting might end with the first story, but “we got the reaction that you fantasize about” as a young journalist, he says. As more stories were approved, the reaction only increased — proof, he says, that the story gave voice to an issue that was ready to erupt.

“We just kept on asking good dumb questions,” he says. He also acknowledged that much of what moved the work was the result of others’ terrible misfortunes.

But to the extent readers and authorities have reacted, “it is deeply gratifying to me when we can think about the implications,” he says. “What else is journalism, if not that?” — Jim Rosenberg

Criticism: Sarah Kaufman, The Washington Post

Sarah Kaufman was on assignment in Mississippi when she got a call from her editor Marcus Brauchli at The Washington Post on Sunday night that she would be the recipient of Pulitzer Prize for criticism. She had to take a vow of silence until the Pulitzer board officially announced the winners on Monday afternoon.

The Pulitzer board cited Kaufman for her “refreshingly imaginative approach to dance criticism, illuminating a range of issues and topics with provocative comments and original insights.”

Kaufman won for 10 pieces of dance criticism that drew inspiration from a variety of subjects and territory, among them a popular YouTube video of a wedding party dancing down the aisle and the grace and precision of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. 

On the genius of Cary Grant, she wrote: “It’s the movement that hooks us. It always does. Intuition? Training? Astute directors? Whatever its source, Grant knew a timeless truth: There is nothing we watch so keenly as the human body in action, because the way it moves tells a story.”

Kaufman, who studied ballet, tap and modern dance in her youth, tries to keep a fresh perspective on the subject. She has been the Post’s dance critic since 1996.

“I think it’s very important for critics to be independent and keep their own counsel and uncover new ways of viewing the art form,” she says. “I try and do that with dance and broaden it out. I write for the reader above all. I’m really, really excited to bring attention to the dance world.” — Jennifer Saba

Feature Writing: Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post

Gene Weingarten’s chilling, compassionate story about parents who accidentally kill their young children because they forgot to take them out of the car reminds readers not to get too complacent or too smug. It only takes a cell phone call or a distraction with work to scramble someone’s memory. It could happen to anyone. Including Weingarten.

The Washington Post writer who took home his second Pulitzer Prize for feature writing explains how the story hit close to home during a chat on Washingtonpost.com: “As it happens, I went into this story with an overwhelming empathy for the parents whose inattention led to the deaths of their children. I believed it could happen to anyone, and I believe that because it almost happened to me. Twenty-five years ago, I almost killed my daughter.”

He explains that it was during the 1980s when he was working as an editor at The Miami Herald and was on duty to take his 3-year-old daughter Molly to day care. He spaced out and was rattled when he pulled into the parking lot at work, only to hear his daughter speak.

The experience still haunts Weingarten — so much so that when he read the story of the death of Virginia toddler Chase Harrison, he knew had to write about it. And he had to finally tell his daughter Molly what almost happened. Even 25 years, he says, he couldn’t look her in the eye while relating the near-accident.

On his win, he says he’s proud for several reasons but the biggest one “is that there is a chance that it will save some young lives.” — Jennifer Saba

Feature Photography: Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post

Apparently, it wasn’t enough for photographer Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post to take the grand prize in Editor & Publisher’s 10th annual Photos of the Year contest. On Monday, he added journalism’s highest honor — a Pulitzer Prize — for Feature Photography to his resume.

The Pulitzer-winning images were first showcased by the Denver Post last fall in “Ian Fisher: American Soldier,” a multimedia package that detailed in words, photos and video the two-year journey of Ian Fisher from high school to Army boot camp, to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs to deployment in Iraq. Walker chronicled the process in photos collected into eight slide shows that take the viewer from intimate moments with friends and family to the sandy streets of Iraq.

Tim Rasmussen, the Denver Post’s assistant managing editor/photography, was hopeful that Walker would win, but as he put it, “being deserving of this award and winning it are two different things.” 

Following Fisher from his decision to enlist, through basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia, all the way through his first deployment in Iraq was an experience Walker shared in every day. “I feel like I experienced his ups and downs in my own way,” he said.

“The most important thing about the story was Ian and his family and their honesty,” he added. “They opened up their lives to me and trusted me, and all I did was shoot pictures.” — Shawn Moynihan

International Reporting: Anthony Shadid for The Washington Post

As the Pulitzer Prizes announcement neared, Anthony Shadid waited anxiously for days — but not for word about an award. Just 48 hours before he learned he had won a second Pulitzer in international reporting, his wife delivered a baby.

Shadid has been working at The New York Times since last fall, but won for his reporting in Iraq while still at The Washington Post. The prize is “in some ways a testament,” he says, to his mentors at the Post, where that sort of reporting “has the spirit of Don Graham,” the Washington Post Co. CEO.

Both of Shadid’s Pulitzers were for coverage of Iraq, but this time around the story was even more complicated than the work that won the Prize in 2004. Back then, he recalls, the war was essentially the only story and with comparatively few restrictions and some hard work, he could make sense of it for readers.

“It’s a much more complicated landscape now,” he says. One question looms over all the reporting, he adds: “What is this country leaving behind in Iraq?”

Indeed, the Pulitzer board noted that focus, praising his “rich, beautifully written series on Iraq as the United States departs and its people and leaders struggle to deal with the legacy of war and to shape the nation’s future.”

Shadid is already on his way back to Baghdad, having stayed in Cambridge, Mass., barely back long enough to become a father and win another Pulitzer. But while to a “complicated … and precarious” Iraq his wife and baby will go no farther than Beirut. — Jim Rosenberg

Investigative Reporting: Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News and Sheri Fink of ProPublica, in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine

So much is remarkable about the article that won ProPublica writer Sheri Fink the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting — the gripping narration of the life-and-death dilemmas that emerged at a New Orleans hospital isolated and deteriorating in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, the tireless reporting over a two-year period, the deep impact it has had on thinking about medical ethics, and that fact that it won the first Pulitzer ever for a non-profit news organization that doesn’t print a newspaper — that it’s easy to overlook one more remarkable aspect of  “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,’’ the 13,000-word account published in The New York Times Magazine last August: Every source is quoted by name.

Even more remarkable: Virtually none of the 140-plus people she interviewed for the story demanded anonymity. “It didn’t come up as much as you’d expect in a story like this,” says Fink. The story, after all, revolves around the decision by desperate doctors to euthanize some patients.

Dr. Ewing Cook even acknowledges ordering a lethal dose of morphine for a patient.

“Dr. Cook is a very forthright man,” Fink says. “He believes in what he did at the hospital. And other people did, too. If people feel comfortable that the reporter is going to tell their story accurately and give it the appropriate context, they will [speak on the record] if they really believe what they did was right.”

Certainly, Fink was the right reporter for this particular story of a hospital collapse in a natural disaster. Fink is a medical doctor who has delivered aid in combat zones herself, and had already reported on providing medical care while Bosnia was convulsed by war.

Fink won the Pulitzer along with Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News, who demonstrated the same reporting doggedness in their series “Tainted Justice,” which exposed theft and perjury by the Philadelphia Police’s Narcotic Field Unit.

But ProPublica’s Pulitzer captured the industry’s attention because it conferred a journalistic seal of approval on a non-profit news operation that produces no print product and collaborates with newspapers and broadcast outlets to get its reports out.

“I think journalism as a whole is an important profession, an important part of our society and we need to have new models that will keep it going, and complement existing models and uphold journalistic standards and excellence,” Fink says. “Hopefully these types of new models will continue to emerge and flourish. If this recognition helps, then I’m very happy.” — Mark Fitzgerald

National Reporting: Matt Richtel and members of The New York Times Staff

 
Jumping on a story on everyone’s mind, then staying with it through print and multimedia, The New York Times’ Matt Richtel and other staffers were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for covering the dangers of using cell phones and other portable devices while driving.

This was no one-off effort. Richtel has stayed on the story ever since, as state and federal  governments have ramped up efforts and legislation to end the practice. Richtel wrote a half-dozen longer pieces and a couple with others. “Eight other reporters got involved at various levels,” he recalls.

“This was not so much a series as an enterprise,” he adds. To the traditional long-form journalism that appeared in print, the series added Web reporting, video, blogging and every sort of multimedia feature. “We had conference calls with probably a dozen people three or four times to set up the multimedia packages,” Richtel says.

In producing this series about distracted drivers, Richtel was equally aware of today’s distracted reader. “We understand it’s not just about other media — it’s about attention span,” he says. ”We thought through all these stories and said, ‘We’ve got to keep people’s attention.’”

Richtel thought his reporting might end with the first story, but “we got the reaction that you fantasize about” as a young journalist, he says. As more stories were approved, the reaction only increased — proof, he says, that the story gave voice to an issue that was ready to erupt.

“We just kept on asking good dumb questions,” he says. He also acknowledged that much of what moved the work was the result of others’ terrible misfortunes.

But to the extent readers and authorities have reacted, “it is deeply gratifying to me when we can think about the implications,” he says. “What else is journalism, if not that?” — Jim Rosenberg

Public Service: Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier

No one gave the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier advance notice that it had won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday, a courtesy extended by insiders who leak to the big papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

It was around 2:30 on Monday afternoon that Managing Editor J. Todd Foster had a premonition that perhaps the paper would be acknowledged. So he ran out and picked up two bottles of inexpensive champagne and threw them in the trunk of his car, just in case.

It’s a good thing he did: At 3:05 the Herald Courier received word that it had won the Public Service gold medal for its work by 28-year-old staff writer Daniel Gilbert, exposing the mismanagement of natural gas royalties rightfully owed to Virginia landowners.

The eight-day series, which ran in December 2009, uncovered millions in delinquent payments to landowners thanks to a Virginia law that allowed natural gas companies to set up a complicated royalty system that often never meted out money to its rightful owners. The series caused the Virginia legislature to reconsider the law, which is currently pending in Richmond, said Foster.

It took 13 months of work for Gilbert to finally get to the bottom of the story after he received a tip from a reader to pay special attention to the gas and oil board in Virginia. “I was able to learn there was $25 million in escrow that belonged to landowners who couldn’t collect it,” said Gilbert.

Because the story required data-mining know-how, Gilbert had requested that the paper send him to a weeklong boot camp held by Investigative Reporters and Editors. “I went to the publisher’s condo that night with alcohol and got him to agree to send Daniel to the IRE workshop,” said Foster, who praised Herald Courier Publisher Carl Esposito for his support.

To Gilbert, the paper’s Public Service award validates the work of newspapers. “This underscores public service and accountability reporting in rural areas,” he said. “If a newspaper is not going to do it, it’s not going to happen.” — Jennifer Saba

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Published: May 19, 2010

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