Pulitzer Judges Recognize Web Standouts in 2013

By: Rob Tornoe

Pulitzer Judges Recognize Web Standouts in 2013

In the newsroom of The Denver Post, a cheer erupted when staffers found out the paper had won a Pulitzer for its breaking news coverage of the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater. Just hours later, lonely champagne glasses were resting on the sidelines as newsroom staff quickly rallied to cover the breaking story of the Boston Marathon bombings.  

So goes the news business.  

As in years past, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners offer an opportunity for journalists to analyze larger trends developing across the industry. Despite the many challenges news organizations still face, Sig Gissler, a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, said this year’s collection of entries proved very robust, with 25 news organizations earning finalist slots.   

As we move further into the digital age of journalism, surprises are expected. More all-digital outfits and little-known organizations will win awards at all levels. Both The Huffington Post and Politico won awards last year for work that appeared exclusively online, and nonprofit ProPublica, which only started publishing in 2008, has already won two awards.    

But was anyone, anywhere expecting to hear, “The Pulitzer Prize goes to: InsideClimate News”?  

“There have been little weekly newspapers many years ago that have won a Pulitzer, but InsideClimate News is certainly among the smallest,” Gissler said. “I think their award shows a kind of reconfiguration, in the sense that there’s an opportunity for small, online-only organizations to make a strong impact.”  

The Brooklyn-based, online-only news site won the Pulitzer for National Reporting for its coverage of the flawed regulations governing our country’s oil pipelines.

In addition to InsideClimate News’ unlikely win, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch was named a finalist for the second year in a row — this time for uncovering systemic failures in protecting residents at the state’s developmental centers. “It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the finalists,” Gissler said. “They’re indicative of things to come.”  

The New York Times nabbed four awards, the most of any news organization. Executive editor Jill Abramson said she sees this as “a real tribute to the newsroom’s excellence and dedication. We are proud to have broken new ground in multimedia storytelling and global investigative journalism.” John Branch’s story of a deadly avalanche near the Stevens Pass ski area in Washington won the prize for Feature Writing, which was certainly helped by the Times’ unique presentation of the story online. The multimedia display was widely heralded as a visual masterpiece and drew millions of readers.  

This year’s Pulitzer judges continued to show their love for The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, awarding the Pulitzer for commentary to columnist Bret Stephens. It’s the Journal’s second award for Editorial Writing in three years (there was no award given in 2012).  

Ever since Rupert Murdoch purchased the paper in 2008, the Pulitzer board has failed to recognize the Journal’s reporting. The paper didn’t even earn a second-place finalist nod in any category this year. Its last award for reporting came in 2007, when the Journal won for Public Service.  

USA Today, now the nation’s third largest newspaper in terms of circulation, failed to receive an award for yet another year. Since its launch in 1982, USA Today has never won a Pulitzer and holds the lonely distinction of being the only newspaper among the largest ten newspapers by circulation in the U.S. never to do so.  

The Fort Lauderdale-based Sun Sentinel ended its Pulitzer drought with its first win, awarded for a series about off-duty cops speeding around the Florida turnpike. As Roy Harris Jr. at the Columbia Journalism Review noted, the series was a runner-up in this year’s American Society of News Editors, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Scripps Howard competitions but managed to bag the big prize, something that editor Howard Saltz said “jazzed the newsroom.”  

“We’re calling it the ‘Pulitzer buzz.’ The staff feels really good about itself, and it has reinvigorated people to do excellent work, because they feel it will be noticed and accomplish something,” said Saltz, who noted increased calls from advertisers looking to support the paper.  

Another unlikely winner was Javier Manzano, who won the award for Feature Photography. Not only is Manzano the first freelancer to win a Pulitzer since 1996, Manzano won for a single photo — a shot of two rebel soldiers waiting in a sniper’s nest in Syria, illuminated by rays of light shining through bullet holes.  

“I feel privileged to be (in) the company of my colleagues who also work as freelancers in some of the most challenging environments with little or no outside support,” Manzano told Poynter.  

Public Service: South Florida Sun Sentinel
If you own a car, then you’ve enjoyed the experience of driving down the highway and noticing a police car speeding toward you from behind. If you’re lucky, you quickly move to a different lane just in time for the cop to fly by you at speeds well above the legal limit. If not, you deal with the stress of having a police car tailgate you as you struggle to stay within the speed limit.  

Nearly every driver can relate to this story. But when it came to off-duty cops speeding in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., reporters at the Sun Sentinel decided to document the police officers’ actions and reveal how reckless their behavior really was. 

“As good investigative journalists, you toss your lines out in the lake, and you see if you get any bites,” said Sun Sentinel editor Howard Saltz. Alerted to the problem after a state trooper clocked a Miami police officer going 120 miles per hour, the team tried different methods of tracking police officers’ speed, including radar guns. Sally Kestin, the paper’s lead reporter on the story, came up with the idea of using the police officers’ SunPass records to document how fast they were traveling between toll booths.  

Not every trip was recorded. As Saltz noted, if a police officer was driving his own vehicle or went home on a road other than the Florida turnpike, that data wouldn’t have turned up. Even without those trips, the Sun Sentinel team created a database with records from nearly 4,000 police car transponders, which was broad enough to show a clear trend of speeding and reckless driving.  

“At one point, the reporters walked into one precinct holding, with two hands, a manila folder full of documents,” Saltz said. “An administrative person thought the docs were from all the police departments in the area and was taken aback when the reporter responded, ‘No, these are just yours.’”  

Once the police department saw the data, it immediately fired the offending officer who caused the investigation, and implemented strict rules and harsh punishments for police officers caught speeding while off-duty. A follow-up story by the Sun Sentinel showed “an 84 percent drop in high-speed incidents over the same period last year.”  

“I don’t want to sound pompous, but we made the community safer, and that’s a satisfying feeling,” Saltz said.

Local Reporting: Brad Schrade, Jeremy Olson, and Glenn Howatt, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Like many other Pulitzer Prize-winning stories over the years, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s series about infant deaths at poorly regulated day care homes began as a simple one- to two-day story about a day care center that violated several safety regulations.   Editor Nancy Barnes said there were certain facts that stood out to the reporting team that begged for more digging.  

“The particular day care center the team reported on had a lot of problems, and it took a long time for the state to shut it down,” Barnes said. Further investigation uncovered a dramatic spike in the death of infants, particularly at home-based day care centers, prompting Barnes to ask, “Hey, what’s going on here?”  

Reporters Brad Schrade, Jeremy Olson, and Glenn Howatt went to work, building a database of state data on day care centers, which eventually documented a sharp rise in infant deaths at child care facilities over a five-year period.  

“We kind of happened into what was a serious public health problem in the state,” Schrade said. “We just kept asking questions and digging.”  

According to Barnes, the largest amount of blowback came from the home-based day care centers, which were revealed to be a major source of the problem.  

“They didn’t want any extra inspections. Everyone felt, ‘Well, that’s your problem, not mine,’” Barnes said. “But our research was clear — professional centers weren’t having the problem; it was happening in less-expensive homecare centers.”  

The series resulted in tougher regulations for day care centers, and the state has pending legislation involving training inspection levels. The new regulations are paying off, lowering annual infant deaths from 50 last year to just one so far this year.  

“I’m a mom, I put my kids to sleep on the stomach, and I didn’t know before our series how dangerous it could be,” Barnes said. “The awareness our series created in the community has really helped everyone, including homecare centers.”

Feature Writing: John Branch, The New York Times
“Snow fall is now a verb,” New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said of her newsroom, following the success of the unique Web presentation of John Branch’s story about the Tunnel Creek avalanche. “Everyone wants to ‘snow fall’ now, every day, all desks.”  
The multimedia publication of Branch’s story, a six-part tale that explored the death of skiers caught in an avalanche and the science behind the natural phenomenon, took the Web by storm, amassing 2.9 million visits and 3.5 million pageviews in its first six days online.  

While the series included all the normal bells and whistles readers have come to expect on the Web — video, interactive graphics, sound — it was the Times’ minimalist approach that really caught the eye of readers.  

“I thought, let’s streamline this and make it more elegant to try to help the reader get through the story,” Branch said. “It was really a decision of quality instead of quantity, and it not only got readers to the story, but it also helped them through the story.”  

In terms of the story itself, a freelancer covered the initial story of the avalanche, but months later, it rested in the back of Branch’s mind. Not only were there a lot of witnesses, rare for an avalanche, but if fatalities were on the rise, Branch thought there was a story to be written.  

So, he spent three to four weeks interviewing witnesses of the avalanche, eventually uncovering the story of a loosely formed group of 16 veteran skiers and snow boarders who headed to a remote ski area and were caught in a dangerous situation. The story itself is massive. Taking 14 print pages, “Snow Fall” was one of the longest continuous narratives the New York Times has ever run, and Branch is as surprised as anyone.  

“Who would have thought a year ago that we would write a 17,000-word piece on an avalanche?” Branch said. “I knew it was cool, but it’s great that the New York Times is suddenly very cool. The gray lady hasn’t always been cool for 20-year-olds.”  

Breaking News Reporting: The Denver Post
“We knew it was a tough story to have to cover,” said Denver Post news director Kevin Dale. “But the thing that would be worse would be to not step up and perform when your community needs you.”  

There was only one evening producer in the newsroom when chatter came over the police scanner about a possible shooting in a Denver movie theater. First, the night editor and Dale were called. Then, one by one, reporters, photographers, and the other editors began coming back into the newsroom and pitching in on coverage of the story, regardless of their normal job duties. Four years ago, the Post had a breaking news staff dedicated to covering events such as this. But when Dale reorganized the staff, he broke the group up and distributed them throughout the newsroom, sending a message that breaking news is part of every team’s job.  

“It is now part of everyone’s DNA to get on it,” Dale said, noting that the social media training given to every staff member paid off in terms of tweeting verifiable facts, rather than innuendo.  

“First, we stopped, took a breath, and reiterated to everyone that we wanted to be right,” Dale said. “People would be coming to the Denver Post to learn the real story, and if that meant we were going to be a little behind on a detail, so be it.”  

The Post’s coverage strategy was threefold. First, Dale sent reporters to the scene, where they tweeted facts as they were verified; instantly getting information out to residents. Next, editors in the newsroom gathered the tweets and packaged them into news stories that were constantly updated throughout the day on the Post’s website. For the paper, a senior writer gathered the most up-to-date information and fashioned it with more context and depth for the paper.  

“It’s a staff award, and it really is a staff award,” Dale said. “If someone didn’t touch it, they were probably on vacation.”    

Explanatory Reporting: The New York Times
Apple is the most valuable company in the world. It’s also an American company. So, when a team of journalists, including Times business reporter Charles Duhigg, wanted to explore economic issues such as tax avoidance and the exportation of manufacturing jobs overseas, Apple was the logical choice to use as a lens to tell the story about these issues. Because many Times readers own iPads, iPhones, and Mac computers, a certain amount of blowback was expected.  

“Many critics of the series said, ‘Why are you picking on Apple, when you could tell it about dozens of other companies?’” Duhigg said. “Apple holds an important place in the national consciousness and is considered a leader, because Steve Jobs is seen as a modern-day Thomas Edison.”  

It wasn’t easy for the team to uncover information about the notoriously secretive company, but working from a database of about 600 ex-Apple employees, eventually reporters found individuals who were willing to talk. And those individuals allowed the team to peer into previously unknown practices, including the movement of Apple’s manufacturing process overseas.  

“At one point, Apple said they needed something like 8,000 engineers to oversee manufacturing,” Duhigg said. “In the U.S., it would have taken nine months to find and relocate them. In China, it took 15 days.”  

Another aspect the team was able to uncover were the lengths Apple would go to in order to avoid paying taxes, such as using subsidiaries in foreign countries to avoid taxes by the billions.  

In one case, a mailbox was the only evidence of an Apple subsidiary that was created to avoid paying certain taxes to European countries. After months and months of reporting, editors wanted more confirmation that the mailbox still existed.  

Duhigg turned to Scott Sayare, a Times reporter based in the newspaper’s Paris bureau. All it took was one phone call by Duhigg to put Sayare on an airplane to Luxembourg. Once there, Sayare visited the street, found the mailbox, took a picture, and sent it back to the newsroom, proving the mailbox’s existence.  

Then, acting on his own initiative, Sayare hung out until he saw a worker heading into the building. Following him in, Sayare went up to the Apple office and surprised an executive, who ended up sitting down and confirming the entire story of tax avoidance.  

“This is the reason I love working at the New York Times,” Duhigg said. “Sayare was able to give us details that we didn’t even have.” 

International Reporting: David Barboza, The New York Times
Times Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza started hearing rumors about immense amounts of wealth certain Chinese officials were amassing in secret as far back as 2005. “This is a regular topic of dinner conversation when bankers, lawyers, and accountants gather in Shanghai and Beijing,” said Barboza, who waited until 2011 to start pursuing the story.  

There were two major roadblocks. First, it was dangerous to write anything about princelings of senior Chinese families, much less an investigative piece exposing secret dealings. But the much tougher roadblock was figuring out how to tell the story.  

“I switched to (covering) one person and doing it really well,” Barboza said. “It was natural that I narrowed in on the Wen family, because I knew the most about them.”  

Barboza set out on the time-consuming task of examining the massive amount of public records involved to uncover the secret deals rumored to exist. Barboza speaks Chinese but can’t read it, so he relied on translators to help him go through corporate documents that were 300 pages in some cases, eventually piecing together key data over an entire year.  

Barboza’s reporting uncovered that relatives of the prime minister have controlled a fortune estimated at $2.7 billion over the last decade. Like any good reporter, Barboza took his findings to the family, seeking confirmation and comment, a difficult task in a communist society that closely controls the media.  

“The family of the prime minister knew everything before we published and had a chance to dispute things,” Barboza said. “We made sure everyone knew and had a chance to defend themselves.”  

While both the government meeting and the family meeting were off the record, the family reacted by blocking the New York Times’ website in China within hours of the piece going online Oct. 25. The New York Times also operates a Chinese website, and both remain blocked in China to this day because of the story.  

“I’m not a prosecutor or activist, so I don’t think too much about the impact my reporting will have,” Barboza said. “When I leave China, I just want a group of clippings saying I looked at every aspect of business reporting, and that I did a great job.”  

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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