We Want an Award of Our Own

By: Steve Outing

If a group of faculty at the University of North Carolina journalism school are successful, online journalism practitioners will have their own version of the Pulitzer or Peabody awards. As the Pulitzers are the top award for print journalism and the Peabodies for broadcast news journalism, UNC’s proposed awards would be exclusive to the online journalism world. It would be another step in raising the credibility and legitimacy of online journalists.

For now, the idea remains a (serious) proposal put together by a group of faculty at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. They propose to administer the awards at UNC, using an as-yet unacquired endowment. The idea has gained approval from the full faculty and the next step is finding a benefactor.

Paul Jones, a faculty member who teaches digital journalism and is a key author of the online news awards proposal, says that this is needed to recognize that within the journalism profession, online practitioners are engaged in a new way of doing business. He contends that the UNC-backed awards will not take away from other journalism awards — some of which have online categories within the overall award program. “The Pulitzers do a fine job in newspapers and the arts; the Peabodies do a fine job with television,” he says. “There are plenty of awards to go around in traditional journalism without weakening them.”

The venerable Pulitzer Prizes, administered at Columbia University (New York), are considering adding an online news award; a Pulitzer committee is assessing that possibility. Should the Pulitzer board agree to add an online journalism component, it’s conceivable that an outstanding online journalist could win an online Pulitzer and a UNC award in the same year — in the same way that a television journalist might win a Peabody and an Emmy.

Who will step up to the plate?

For the UNC awards to become reality, of course, the organizers must come up with a benefactor willing to put up what likely will be in the “low millions” of dollars to fund the awards permanently. (A benefactor would not have to come up with it all at once, but might set up a trust to fund the awards over several years. Or, a number of organizations might join to fund this effort.) Jones says that there are many possibilities, including a news organization or news industry tycoon endowing the awards — as early 1900s newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer did for the awards that bear his name.

But many people have a vested interest in growth of the online medium, and Jones says that other likely benefactors might be today’s technology and Internet tycoons, like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple/NeXT), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founder), or the founders of Yahoo!

The proposed awards don’t have a tentative name yet, because that is waiting on the securement of such a benefactor. Thus, the online equivalent of the Pulitzers could be something like “The Yahoo! Online Journalism Prizes.” That’s an intriguing thought. Or, what might traditional news executives think of the “Gates Prizes for Online Journalism”? That might raise a few hackles in the newspaper industry, whose many an executive has had harsh words for the software giant’s moves into direct competition with newspapers in cyberspace.

Jones’ personal preference is for a benefactor to be someone or some organization with an investment in serious, quality journalism.

What qualifies?

Details of specific online news awards remain broadly defined in the proposal, and Jones imagines the awards starting with a few categories, then growing over the years. A likely category would be something like best spot news, for example.

As to what qualities for an online award, Jones points out that many online news organizations operate in concert with traditional media — and the online components of such cross-media efforts would qualify.

Much online news content to date can best be termed “shovelware,” but repurposed/repackaged content will not be eligible for these awards. Rather, they will be about original news created for the online medium.

Some theoretical candidates for these awards might be:

How some news Web sites handled the Mars landing. The Dallas Morning News, for breaking an important Timothy McVeigh trial story on its Internet site rather than in the newspaper. Staffers and freelancers who do original reporting for the New York Times on the Web (or any other site that commits to original online writing). CNET, for outstanding online-only technology reporting. Independent journalism from online-only news organizations like The American Reporter, which produced some reporting from Malaysia that Jones particularly admires. Jones also believes that less traditional examples of “online journalism” should be eligible for the prizes. For example, there’s the radio station in Bosnia whose signal was shut down, so it sent their broadcasts out via the Internet. He also points to the Zapatistas, Mexican rebels who used the Internet to frame their debate with the Mexican government. And independent journalists operating their own news Web sites, sans a traditional news organization behind them, also might qualify.

“These are unusual (examples) for news people to think about, but they’re not unusual for the Internet,” Jones says.

UNC’s credentials

UNC’s school of journalism is a prime candidate to host such online news awards. The faculty have been teaching digital journalism since the early 1990s, and it has been incorporated fully throughout the curriculum, with many classes including online components that make up one-third to half of the class curriculum. Several professors and instructors at the school are devoted exclusively to teaching new media journalism.

If successful with this proposal, UNC would join the ranks of Columbia — host to the Pulitzers — and the University of Georgia — host to the Peabody awards.

Contact: Paul Jones, pjones@sunsite.unc.edu

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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