Inside Word at Pulitzer Announcement: Entries Down, But Online Up

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By: Joe Strupp

It was a far busier scene than usual at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism for Monday’s annual Pulitzer Prize announcements. Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler, who formally revealed the winners that included six prizes for The Washington Post, faced a crowd of at least 40 visitors in the third-floor World Room of the Journalism Building.

As he set forth to pass out the blue folders of lists that give the lucky winners each year, the crowd included at least four bloggers on laptops, numerous handheld recording devices and three tripoded television cameras — two from Russian news outlets. “We are here to cover it,” said Alexey Veselovskiy, U.S. correspondent for Russia’s NTV. “I have never been here before.”

On the lack of a winner in editorial writing, Gissler offered few specifics, other than to say the prize is not given if a majority of the 17 voting board members is not reached for one of the finalists. “There are always multiple factors in that decision,” said Gissler, adding that no winner has been chosen 25 times in the awards’ 91-year history. “The entries had merit and were seriously considered.”

After the lists were passed out, and those in attendance rushed to spread the news via cell phone, laptop and, in some cases, old-fashioned phones down the hall, Gissler noted that this year’s journalism submissions, at 1,167, had been down somewhat from last year’s 1,225. He also stated that between 15% and 20% of entries included some kind of online component.

“I think this will be growing, papers are getting better at integrating online elements,” Gissler said.

The Pulitzers began to accept online entries in all categories last year, except photography, which again requires still images, no video.

“Online figured in the Public Service category entries, and there was an extensive slide show in that package,” Gissler said of the Post’s Walter Reed Army Hospital entry. “The [Post’s] breaking news reporting of the Virginia Tech tragedy also had an online element.”

Gissler said that 44% of Public Service entries had an online component, while 25% of investigative and explanatory entries did. Asked if the awards would ever create a Web-only category, Gissler said, “We have no plans, but we are carefully monitoring it. The question is to what extent do you depart from the intention of the Pulitzer Prize.”

The crowd size at the announcement was a big of a shock. Just a few years ago it did not top 15 and usually included just a Columbia University news crew.

At one point, after the official announcements, reporters were shoving recording devices and microphones in Gissler’s face and firing questions in a scene reminiscent of something outside a major court trial or inside an NBA locker room.

Gissler commented on “the excitement factor,” speculating that “we’ve had relatively few finalists leaked this year, so many winners will truly be surprised.”

But later, when advised that at least three Web sites had earlier today asserted, accurately as it turned out, that the Post had won six awards and the Times had won two — a sign that some Board members, not mere judges, had leaked information — Gissler said, “I don’t tell anyone anything.

“My concern is always confidentiality,” he added. “I urge it one everyone, but I can’t police the world.”

Still, Gissler said this year’s winners showed a great mix of watchdog journalism, wonderful writing and subject matter, as well as at least one winning piece related to Iraq. He pointed out that several board members remarked to him that the entries showed newspapers and wire services were still producing great work, despite the economic tough times and industry downsizing.

“In many ways, this is the golden age,” he said. “The jurors who came here were inspired by the work they saw. Amid all of the gloomy talk about newspapers, they left this building inspired. Many said they felt rededicated to journalism.”

As Gissler released staffers to pass out the winning lists, he offered his annual declaration that it would “forever change people’s lives.” When asked later about that statement, he added a further view that revealing the winners “is like sprinkling fairy dust on their lives.”

This year’s winners and finalists came from 27 different news outlets, spanning the likes of Reuters and the Concord (NH) Monitor. The largest crop of entries, 145, came in Local Reporting, won by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for its stories on skirting tax laws to pad pensions of county employees.

“Big papers won more awards this time,” Gissler said. “But smaller papers were represented.”

Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times, which shared the investigative award for its series on toxic imports, won his third Pulitzer, while the Post’s Dana Priest took home her second for the Walter Reed project.

Anne Hull, who shared the Public Service Prize with Priest, had been a finalist five previous times, but had never won.

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