By: Rob Tornoe
Will future journalists, looking back in time at past Pulitzer Prize winners, see 2012 as the moment online-only news organizations became credible in the eyes of Pulitzer judges?
Not only did The Huffington Post take home a Pulitzer for David Wood’s story on wounded veterans, but Politico also won an award for the biting political cartoons of Matt Wuerker. HuffPost media reporter Michael Calderone referred to this year as a “milestone in the influential Pulitzer committee’s recognition of online-only news organizations.”
2012 could also be remembered as the year the Pulitzer board came close to awarding a prize for tweeting. The Tuscaloosa News won the Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting by covering the aftermath of a devastating tornado through a combination of on-the-ground reporting and live tweets by reporters and photographers — instantly sharing the news as it happened.
Notably absent this year was a winner for Editorial Writing. According to Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler, this is the ninth time the board has opted for no award in the history of the category. There was also no award given in the Fiction category this year, the first time that has occurred in 35 years.
In the case of Editorial Writing, juror Bob Davis, editor of The Anniston (Ala.) Star, told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, “There were a lot of really good editorials.” So if quality wasn’t an issue, what happened?
According to Gissler, the Pulitzer Prize board reviewed the jury’s report on 44 editorials nationwide, and none of the entries was able to gain a majority vote. The same scenario occurred last year, when the board was unable to deliver a majority vote in the Breaking News category.
“There were multiple factors involved in these decisions, and we don’t discuss in detail why a prize is given or not given,” Gissler said.
The power is really up to the Pulitzer board. While no consensus was reached in the Editorial Writing category, the board awarded two prizes in the Investigative Reporting category: one to the AP for its exposé of NYPD spying practices and one to The Seattle Times for its investigation into methadone-related deaths in Washington state.
The New York Times came away with two awards this year, one for its reporting on famine-plagued East Africa, and one for an investigative series on loopholes that allow the wealthiest Americans and corporations to avoid paying taxes.
The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, the country’s two largest newspapers in terms of average circulation (based on figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the six-month period ending March 31), were shut out from the awards.
Also excluded was satirical newspaper The Onion, which published an anonymous editorial last year claiming, “If The Onion is not awarded a Pulitzer Prize within the next year, I will murder 50 people.” Now that it’s official, let’s all hope this doesn’t come true.
The next time critics assail the journalistic chops of The Huffington Post, David Wood can simply respond by holding up his Pulitzer Prize.
The veteran journalist, who has spent decades covering war for the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun and others, became accustomed to the sight of wounded soldiers in hot spots across the globe. But for the series “Beyond the Battlefield,” Wood said he wanted a different vantage point.
“I’ve always wanted to do a project on the severely wounded, because I’ve seen a lot of these guys get evacuated from battle zones but never knew what happened to them,” Wood said. “O’Brien said ‘go.’”
That’s executive editor Timothy O’Brien, who gave Wood the freedom to completely envelop himself in the story of wounded veterans. From the start, the two knew this wouldn’t be a typical Huffington Post story, and Wood ended up spending the next eight months interviewing veterans and their families.
Working for the popular website had advantages for Wood during his reporting, including a convenient way to uncover individuals to include in the story. “It’s unbelievable that we’ll put a story up on the site, and on the same day it would have 5,000 comments,” Wood said. “I’d get 50 to 60 emails, and one might be a nurse who talks about civilian caretaking and sends me her phone number.”
The most important takeaway for Wood was the revelation that wounded veterans don’t want people to ignore their wounds, which they often view with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
“They’re very proud of the wounds they have received in service of their country,” Wood said. “They want to be seen, and want to be recognized and reintegrated back into society.”
For much of the last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer has been in the news, but for all the wrong reasons. Despite being put up for sale, dealing with budget and staff cuts, and moving out of their historic 100-year home, the Inquirer’s beleaguered staff was able to put together an influential investigation into violence in city schools and win the paper’s 19th Pulitzer Prize, this time for Public Service.
“We took a lot of hits during this story that could have easily distracted the staff,” said executive editor Stan Wischnowski, who committed about 15 people to the project that took nearly a year to report. “Despite the cutbacks, our investigative work will never stop.”
In 2009, John Sullivan — then a member of the Inquirer’s investigative team — pitched the idea to take a hard look at the Philadelphia school district after dozens of Asian-American students were assaulted by a gang of other students at South Philadelphia High School.
The level of violence the paper found pervading the school district was immense. According to the data acquired from the district, Freedom of Information Act requests, and other sources, there were about 30,000 incidents of violence over a five-year period. On any given day, in any one of the district’s 150 schools, there were 25 incidents of serious violence.
Based on the Inquirer’s reporting, the school district took a number of steps to respond to the problem, including reinstating a school safety advocate responsible for monitoring school violence, a position that was removed a couple of years ago due to budget constraints.
“The series has reminded the community we serve how critical our role remains,” Wischnowski said. “It has reinvigorated the newsroom and reminded everyone what it means to have a watchdog role.”
Her friends may tease her about keeping a police scanner on her nightstand, but falling asleep and waking up to the sound of news has paid off for Sara Ganim, who was first to break the Penn State sex abuse scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Ganim, a 24-year-old crime reporter for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., received a tip from a source that a grand jury was investigating Sandusky for sexual abuse allegations in connection with his charity, The Second Mile. After tracking down many rumors, she finally located an alleged victim and learned there had been an investigation into a previous incident.
After breaking the news and creating a national media firestorm, Ganim stayed focused on the story, taking time away from what she referred to as “the daily feeding of the beast” to continue her coverage. Despite the national attention and glut of reporters on the ground from ESPN and other larger publications, it was the Patriot-News and Ganim that were first to report that prosecutors were filing child sex-abuse charges against Sandusky.
Ganim didn’t shy away from new media techniques in her reporting. On the night Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired, Ganim was on deadline and shot scenes and interviews using the video camera on her cellphone and emailed them directly to the newsroom.
“The copy desk was able to watch them and transcribe the quotes and get them right into the story,” Ganim said. “If I had gone with a notebook and a pen, we would have never made deadline by the time I got them in.”
Throughout her reporting, emotions ran high due to the legendary status of Paterno, and more than once Ganim received brushback from supporters who felt any negative coverage, no matter how truthful, was unnecessary and hurtful.
On the day of Paterno’s funeral, Ganim spoke to people in the procession line to find out how they would remember the legendary Penn State football coach. One woman spoke to her about telling her son about Paterno, only to chase Ganim down when she realized who she worked for.
“You’re a reporter for the Patriot-News?” Ganim recalled the woman asking her. “You can’t use anything I said because you’ve been unfair to Paterno.”
Investigative Reporting: 2 Winners
Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan, and Chris Hawley, The Associated Press
A little over a year ago, the Associated Press determined one area that warranted greater reporting was the substantial rise in power of intelligence agencies in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
What started as reporting on the CIA and related intelligence issues became a focused look at the NYPD when intelligence officials alerted reporters that it was the most interesting thing going on in the intelligence community.
That tip led AP reporters down the path to their Pulitzer Prize-winning series, which exposed the creation of an aggressive surveillance program designed to gather intelligence on Muslim neighborhoods, businesses, and houses of worship.
“At the time, we really didn’t know how big it was going to become,” said Mike Oreskes, AP senior managing editor for U.S. news. “Our most important technology was shoe leather, because once you get out working, you don’t know what you’re going to find.”
The series was certainly met with some blowback, prompting protests, a demand from 34 members of Congress for a federal investigation, and a staunch defense by NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But through it all, the team stayed focused on reporting and on getting all the facts to the public.
“We kept reporting things that no one in the city of New York knew about,” said Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”
“It’s our job as journalists to find out things that people otherwise wouldn’t know about, and to hold a mirror up to show society something they wouldn’t have seen,” Oreskes said.
Investigative Reporting: 2 Winners
Michael Berens & Ken Armstrong The Seattle Times
It began with a long, complicated, unsolicited email from a local doctor, densely packed with medical jargon pertaining to methadone.
From that kernel, Seattle Times reporters Michael Berens and Ken Armstrong uncovered the state’s listed preference of methadone as a painkiller for Medicaid patients and recipients of worker’s compensation. A little-known public body was steering vulnerable patients away from safer medication toward methadone, which is cheaper, but also more dangerous and unpredictable.
With such a complicated topic on hand, the reporters started by amassing facts. The first place they looked was death certificates, which Berens referred to as “one of the most valuable tools to journalists.” They culled through the 35,000 deaths per year to pinpoint not only which people had methadone in their system when they died, but how many of those were categorized as accidental deaths.
Next, the pair began cold-calling family members, which Berens said proved to be very difficult given the circumstances of the deaths.
“In most cases, the families were embarrassed about the death,” Berens said. “Most of the people who died had battled a long history of pain and medical care, so the situations grew painful and emotionally tragic.”
State officials claimed methadone was equally as safe as other pain medications, but the Time’s precise reporting mixed with helpful graphics proved this wasn’t the case. “We didn’t say there were 2,000 deaths,” Berens said. “We said there were 2,176 deaths, and here’s every one of them on a map.”
On the day after the series was printed, a statewide emergency warning was issued in Washington. The state also acknowledged that methadone wasn’t as safe as officials had claimed and switched its classification from the drug of first choice to the drug of last choice.
After they found out about their Pulitzer win, Berens and Armstrong decided the best use of the prize money would be to donate it to the newsroom to fund further investigative training.
“The Pulitzer represents a victory for the entire paper, not just the two reporters whose byline appeared on the story,” Berens said.
New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman nominated himself for his stories covering famine in East Africa. While “some reporters might have felt his editors knew best” about the nomination, Times foreign editor Joseph Kahn said, “Jeffrey put himself forward for the Pulitzers — and for that, Jeffrey, bless your heart.”
Gettleman was first to report that the radical Islamist group al-Shabab was preventing starving people from leaving Somalia and blocking food convoys into famine areas, claiming that Western food aid was a conspiracy to harm Somalis.
“It almost seemed too cold-blooded to believe,” Gettleman said.
Gettleman has covered Somalia for almost six years and, for a country of about 10 million people, he’s convinced that more news per capita happens there than just about anywhere else on the planet.
“I’ve covered pirates, Islamist militants, American covert strikes, famine, warlords, weddings, and even a Somali-American guy from a Minnesota suburb who set up his own mini-state in the middle of the desert,” Gettleman said. “I feel committed to Somalia, which is why it was so gratifying to win the Pulitzer for my Somalia coverage.”
The story pierced the national media after the Times ran a photograph by veteran photographer Tyler Hicks along with Gettleman’s piece (the pair also won a George Polk Award for their coverage). The controversial photo shows a malnourished child curled up on a blanket with every rib visible underneath his taut skin.
“I think that picture and story catalyzed a lot more attention on Somalia at a critical time,” said Gettleman, who along with Hicks was among the first journalists to get into the hospital during the famine. “In a way, that picture distilled the direness of the situation and the urgency way better than anything I wrote.”
Gettleman’s main goal was to shine a light on the famine and reduce it to human terms. By describing how people were suffering and how it was all preventable, he thought he might be able to move readers to help.
“I tell people that as a journalist, you have to be objective but you don’t have to be morally neutral,” Gettleman said. “You want to be fair, but you don’t want to be numb.”
In the summer of 2009, Isaiah Kalebu broke into the home shared by two women, raped them at knifepoint, and killed one — Teresa Butz. The trial testimony of the survivor, Jennifer Hopper, formed the narrative of Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, published by Seattle-based weekly The Stranger.
“It’s really cool that a relatively small alt-weekly can publish something that resonates on this level,” Sanders said.
The story was the third feature in a series on Kalebu’s attack and subsequent murder trail. After the second piece in the series, “The Mind of Kalebu,” was published, Sanders was approached by Hopper, who at the time was still anonymous. With the trial under way, prosecutors didn’t want her talking to the media on the record.
“We sat down for coffee and an off-the-record conversation,” Sanders said. “She said she was reading what I had been writing about the crime and was interested to speak with me.”
After that conversation, Sanders didn’t see her again until the trial. “The piece is built from what I know of the story from the two years that I’d been connected,” Sanders said. “Her testimony was two days, on a Wednesday and a Thursday, and we realized we wanted to write a long piece about it.”
Sanders wrote the story that weekend, and it appeared in print the next Tuesday. He admitted “it was not an easy piece to do.”
Once he found out he won the Pulitzer, one of the first people Sanders contacted was Hopper, who stopped by the newsroom to congratulate him.
“I remember reading the finished piece and crying the whole time,” Hopper wrote in a letter to the Pulitzer jurors. “Not just because it was an honest portrayal of an intensely emotional couple of days, but because he was willing to say what no one else would.”
Public Service: The Philadelphia Inquirer
Breaking News Reporting: The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News staff
Investigative Reporting: Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan, and Chris Hawley of The Associated Press; Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong of The Seattle Times
Explanatory Reporting: David Kocieniewski of The New York Times
Local Reporting: Sara Ganim and members of The Patriot-News staff, Harrisburg, Pa.
National Reporting: David Wood of The Huffington Post
International Reporting: Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times
Feature Writing Eli Sanders of The Stranger, Seattle
Commentary: Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune
Criticism: Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe
Editorial Writing: No award
Editorial Cartooning: Matt Wuerker of POLITICO
Breaking News Photography: Massoud Hossaini of Agence France-Presse
Feature Photography: Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post