Downie Assesses Pulitzer Sweep for ‘Post’: Why This Year?

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By: Joe Strupp

Is it irony or just today’s newspaper reality that The Washington Post won nearly half of the Pulitzer Prize journalism awards on Monday — its most ever — just a week after launching its second buyout in less than two years?

Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. admits it is strange, but more a sign of the times and another example of why newspapers have to work even harder to utilize resources in today’s shrinking revenue stream.

“We have needed to make adjustments and we will make them again,” Downie said about how he responds to reduced staffing, which lowered his workforce from about 900 just a few years ago to some 800 now. “It is still possible to do that kind of journalism.”

That kind of journalism won the paper six Pulitzers on Monday, ranging from the Public Service Award for its Walter Reed Hospital expose to the feature story by Gene Weingarten on subway violinist Joshua Bell. Others included Columnist Steve Pearlstein winning the first Commentary Pulitzer for a business columnist, Steve Fainaru’s International Pulitzer for probing the Blackwater security firm, an in-depth series on Dick Cheney that took the National reporting prize, and coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre that won for Breaking News.

“A lot of things came together, I think, in the last year,” says Downie, who gives most of the credit to the staff. “A lot of it is responding to the challenges in our community and in the world….

“I think the last year was an exceptional year for the Post,” he added. “There were other years when we did not win, but I think the work merited it and that is going to happen.”

It cannot be ignored that this year’s Pulitzer sweep brings Downie’s Pulitzer count to 25 awards the paper has won since he took over in 1991, not counting editorial page entries. That dwarfs former Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who oversaw 15 newsroom Pulitzers as editor from 1965 to 1991.

“It is not the count so much,” Downie says when asked about the awards collection. “It is just satisfying to do the journalism we have done.”

The Pulitzer success this week has, of course, renewed rumors about Downie’s possible retirement, given that resources will continue to shrink and the paper has a new publisher in Katharine Weymouth. When asked about his future, all the editor would say is, “we have a new publisher and she and I have a lot of work to do and she and I are working together.”

Post staffers were treated to a reception on the newspaper’s 9th floor Monday to celebrate, while Publisher Weymouth had a gathering at her home for the winners, Downie said.

The Post’s six-award sweep is topped only by The New York Times in 2002, which won seven Pulitzers, many for its Sept. 11 coverage. That year, the Post also won two, including the national reporting prize for Sept. 11-related stories on terrorism.

Downie stopped short of saying the Times and the Post had an advantage with such a major story in their backyards, but stated: “9/11 was a particular kind of story. You would expect [newspapers in those] two cities would do well enough to win prizes.”

Downie noted that, even with recent cutbacks, he still has more news staffers than he had when he took over for Bradlee. He admits some of the recent cuts came after a period of overstaffing. “The newsroom had grown so big, we were not operating as efficiently as we could and we are continuing to restructure the newsroom,” he explained.

Asked about the fact that more major newspapers had won this year than usual, Downie said industry cutbacks are making it difficult for some smaller market outlets. “I do think that [at] some of the small and medium papers, the resources have been cut so much that it makes it harder to do good work,” he said. “It is hard to do outstanding journalism.”

Like many editors, Downie contends the paper never “plans for a Pulitzer,” saying the focus on good, in-depth coverage is the first priority. “If you look at the journalism that won these, they were not conceived to win prizes.”

Downie pointed to several of the winners to emphasize the success was drawn from different approaches. On the Virginia Tech coverage, he said: “It was a very important local story and we had the resources for it– 60-some people from our staff worked on it at one point or another.

“The others are the kind of accurate reporting that is important to The Washington Post,” he added. “We focus our resources on accountability reporting.”

He praised Pearlstein for “having the freedom to be as far ahead as he was, warning people about the sub-prime mortgage.”

But, he added, the Post “is also a place where you can be different and quirky,” a reference to the Weingarten feature, which the Pulitzer Board described as: “chronicling of a world-class violinist who, as an experiment, played beautiful music in a subway station filled with unheeding commuters.”

Downie said at least 100 news staffers were involved in some way with at least one of the six winning entries.

He stressed that much of the success is based on “hiring reasonably well, enabling talent to thrive, and having a newsroom that is not top-down.” He also adds, “it is their work, not mine.”

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