Pulitzer 2009: Some Surprises, and Nod to Online

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

The 2009 Pulitzer Prizes, announced on April 20, had something for everyone: a major daily winning a string of awards, the first mainly online entry to take a finalist prize and a handful of smaller dailies sprinkled in the bunch. While The New York Times grabbed attention with five prizes, the accolades were well spread, from Las Vegas to Glens Falls, N.Y., and on topics ranging from Afghanistan to western wildfires.

“These are tough times for newspapers, but amid the gloomy talk there was a kind of elixir,” Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler said during the announcements, referring to the feeling among Pulitzer Board members as they met to select the winners the week prior. “The watchdog still barks and the watchdog still bites,” he added. Fewer entries came in overall, however, with 1,028 submissions, down from last year’s 1,167.

Gissler also warned that if newspapers continue to cut back, no other news outlets will be as well- positioned to do Pulitzer-level work. “Who would be doing this day to day if we didn’t have newspapers?” he asked.

Several winning entries came from papers suffering in the down economy. the Detroit Free Press and the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., ? which shared the Local Reporting prize ? have both cut delivery or production on certain days, while two Pulitzer winners from the Tribune had recently been laid off.

“It comes in a year when a lot of newspapers are on the ropes,” New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told E&P just after he learned of the wins. “It is a reminder of what newspapers can do that others can’t.” Besides lengthy and costly reporting, he cites having enough resources to file countless FOIA requests and repeatedly going to court if need be.

But online clearly took a spot in the Pulitzer mix more prominently than ever before, with the awards allowing Web-only news sites a chance to compete for the first time ? though none of them won. Half of the 14 winners, however, were boosted by significant multimedia content. Politico, which produces a print newspaper but is mainly known for its popular Web site, was named a finalist, for cartooning, and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times won for its PolitiFact fact-checking operation, primarily an online offering. Some 65 entries from 37 online-only outlets were received, but 21 sites were rejected from competing because their day-to-day content was not “primarily” original reporting but more link-aggregation. At least half a dozen members of the Pulitzer jury were from Web-only newsrooms.

“It is fair to say that online-only news organizations had a fairly significant role,” Gissler adds. “They have made a successful step forward for the Pulitzer Prizes.”

Public Service: Las Vegas Sun
It started with a flurry of news stories in the Las Vegas Review-Journal about construction deaths on the Vegas strip. The reports began to add up ? one, then two, then nine write-ups, all in a short time span.

It caught the attention of the Las Vegas Sun, the enterprise-oriented paper that is distributed in the Review-Journal, its joint operating partner.

The Sun sent reporter Alexandra Berzon to check out the construction deaths ? and she went on to write more than 50 stories that covered the severe safety flaws of building sites in Las Vegas, bringing the issue to the attention of federal officials.

The Sun’s work earned it the 2009 Pulitzer for public service. The awards committee cited it for “exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas strip amid lax enforcement of regulations leading to changes in policy and improved safety conditions.”

“We’re thrilled and stunned,” said Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley. “When you are a paper this size, you don’t expect to win the Pulitzer in public service.”

Since the series was published, Kelley said, there hasn’t been one death reported since June: “It’s wonderful to be recognized and it’s even better [the stories] stopped people from dying in these conditions.” — Jennifer Saba

The New York Times: Five Prizes
Executive Editor Bill Keller of The New York Times said the Gray Lady’s sweep of five Pulitzers shows why newspapers are still relevant ? and should not be written off so quickly in the growing Web world. Keller stressed that winning so many awards in news-related categories indicates why having such resources is important. “A lot of great freelancers do great work, and I am a fan of citizen journalism,” he said. “But there is some stuff that only an experienced professional news staff can do.”

He pointed to the international award and cited the tremendous resources involved in covering news in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, noting at least nine names were attached to those entries. “That is a big investment, the travel, security, time,” he noted. “It is really hard work to do. That is why fewer and fewer papers do it.” Keller joked about the photo prize, “There was a kind of myth that the Times was a word paper rather than a photo paper.”

The awards come as the Times faces economic problems that have already sparked a 10-day staff furlough and salary cut. “I am an optimist,” he declared. Work like that honored by the Pulitzer, he points out, is “the reason some newspapers will survive.” — Joe Strupp

Local Reporting (Tie): East Valley Tribune, Mesa, Ariz.
For all the woes suffered at the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz. ? cuts in frequency as well as in the newsroom ? the paper’s Pulitzer win for local reporting means all the more to its staffers.

Like the Detroit Free Press, which also received the local reporting prize, the East Valley Tribune cut its print-edition days in January. It currently publishes Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. This month, the paper will drop Saturdays.

The Pulitzer committee cited reporters Ryan Gabrielson, 28, and Paul Giblin, 45, for “their adroit use of limited resources to reveal in print and online, how a popular sheriff’s focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigation of violent crime and other aspects of public safety.”

But only half the team was present in the newsroom when the winning prizes were announced. Giblin had been cut in a round of January layoffs that swept half the newsroom. So was the assignment editor on the stories, Patti Epler. “Considering what we have gone through, this is just sweet,” said Gabrielson.

Said Giblin, “I thought journalism was done with me when I got laid off. This is nice.” He has co-founded a local online-only news outlet, arizonaguardian.com. — Jennifer Saba

National Reporting: St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
One of the two Pulitzer Prizes the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times won Monday represents the closest the Pulitzer Board has come to bestowing its prestigious award on online journalism.

PolitiFact, a fact-checking initiative for the 2008 presidential campaign, was designed and operated as a Web-first reporting project. Now the site’s “Obama- meter” and “Truth-O-Meter” rating systems continue to monitor President Obama and others on their current performance.

“PolitiFact, for us, was the first product we ever created with the Web-first idea totally in mind,” Times Executive Editor Neil Brown noted. The Web site was even built outside the newspaper’s content management system.

“Items almost never appear in print before the Web, it’s almost always the other way around,” said Brown. “Sometimes they never make print at all.”

Of the National Reporting award, the Pulitzer Board said PolitiFact “used probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine more than 750 political claims, separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters.”

The newspaper also won in the Feature Writing category. — Mark Fitzgerald

Editorial Writing: The Post-Star, Glens Falls, N.Y.
Mark Mahoney, who brought the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing to the 31,000-circulation Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y., says government secrecy is “just something that’s always bugged me. The government belongs to the people, and there’s just no reason for them to keep any secrets ? who the hell are they?”

The Pulitzer Board noted Mahoney’s campaign for government transparency, citing his “relentless, down-to-earth editorials on the perils of local government secrecy, effectively admonishing citizens to uphold their right to know.”

“‘Shush’ is not open government,” was a headline which typified the frequent editorials Mahoney wrote about local and county government secrecy. He excoriated county government for trying to adopt a budget without complete transparency.

“One of the things we try to do is to instruct people on how to [get public information] themselves, to empower themselves,” said Mahoney. He created a blog, “Your Right to Know,” which includes advice on getting public information. One of the Pulitzer-nominated editorials was a self-help guide of sorts to requesting and obtaining documents.

“We wrote, ‘If you need any help, give me a call,'” Mahoney said. And people did call, including a man who had been trying to get payroll information from his municipality for the past five years.

Mahoney has been the editorial page editor at Lee Enterprises-owned Post-Star since 1999. — Mark Fitzgerald

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