Pulitzer Judging Days Away — Are These the Frontrunners?

By: Joe Strupp

As the Pulitzer Prize jurors meet next week to choose finalists for the coveted awards, they face a difficult challenge as few hands-down favorites are being found among the many worthwhile contenders.

Unlike last year’s crop of submissions, which included the Hurricane Katrina coverage, various Washington, D.C. scandals, and a good handful of national security-related disclosures, frontrunners this year come from a wide-range of areas, and in numerous categories.

With no huge breaking story, such as the Columbine shootings or the Sept. 11 attacks — which gave local newspapers a clear advantage in the past — jurors say they have a real chance to chose among a variety of submissions with equal weight.

“There is not any news event that draws coverage to the front,” says Janet Weaver, editor of The Tampa Tribune and a four-time juror. “This is the first time I am going in with a real blank slate.” Suki Dardarian, deputy managing editor of The Seattle Times, who served on the Public Service jury last year and will return this year, agreed. “It could be less clear,” she said of the likely finalists this round. “I don’t think that you need the big one. When you sit down at the table, you want to give them all a chance.”

Paul Anger, editor of the Detroit Free Press and first-time juror, said the lack of a front-runner is good. “I think it is wide-open this year,” he said. “Sometimes the awards can be pre-ordained. This is the kind of year that is refreshing and leads to real scrutiny.”

Still, as the dozens of jurors head to New York for next week’s three-day review, which will end with each of the 14 juries submitting three finalist to the Pulitzer Board, some front runners have emerged.

A review of many of the preliminary awards, which often predict Pulitzer success, and interviews with several current and former jurors, indicate the top contenders appear to be mostly enterprise and investigative works. While a few Iraq-related candidates and one or two breaking news submissions are in the running, most of the favorites thus far stem from old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.

And many of the notable submissions could win for one of several categories.

Among the top front runners is The Hartford Courant for its series on mentally ill soldiers serving in Iraq. The series by Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman has already won the Selden Ring for Investigative Reporting from the USC Annenberg School for Communications; a George K. Polk Award for military reporting; and the National Press Club’s Worth Bingham Prize. That series could win for international reporting, explanatory journalism or investigative reporting.

Another favorite appears to be The Seattle Times’ series, “Your Courts, Their Secrets,” on judges sealing civil court cases. That reporting by Ken Armstrong, Justin Mayo, and Steve Miletich was a finalist for the Selden Ring and the Shorenstein Center’s Goldsmith Prize, while also taking an American Society of Newspaper Editors Award. If jurors give it a nod, the final prize could come in investigative, public service or the new local reporting category, which replaces the previous beat reporting section.

At The Miami Herald, reporter Debbie Cenziper has received early acclaim for her series, “House of Lies,” about corruption in the Miami-Dade County Housing Agency. Cenziper won a Polk Award for the series, while also being named a finalist for the Shorenstein Award. Again, her entry spans several potential categories, from public service to local reporting to investigative.

In financial reporting, The Wall Street Journal’s Charles Forelle, James Bandler and Mark Maremont will likely get attention for their reporting, “Stock Option Abuse,” which chronicled unethical manipulation among top executives. The trio has already been honored with a Polk Award and a finalist nod from the Shorenstein Center.

Few major foreign entries are being discussed, although some Iraq-related contenders are in the mix. Along with the Courant’s mental illness report, C.J. Chivers of The New York Times is in the Iraq running with his story on a U.S. medic’s treatment of a soldier wounded by a sniper, which included some dramatic photos of the incident and won an ASNE prize. Also in the foreign realm is Lydia Polgreen of the Times, whose coverage of the carnage in Darfur took a Polk Award.

Another New York Times contender may be Andrea Elliott, whose “An Imam in America” series could lake a local reporting award, or feature reporting. It already won an ASNE prize. Also from the Times is William Glabersons’ coverage of New York State’s local village and town courts, which sparked a statewide review of the courts and won him an award from Governing magazine.

As usual, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have their share of likely finalists. For the Post, its “Harvesting Cash” series by Dan Morgan, Gilbert Gaul and Sara Cohen may earn praise. It has already received a Shorenstein finalist nod. The Post’s Anne Hull, who wrote about the effect of the Iraq War on “a range of Americans,” recently took an ASNE prize.

At the Los Angeles Times, Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber could get a Pulitzer in either public service, explanatory reporting or local reporting for their “Transplant Patients at Risk” investigation that has recently been named a Shorenstein finalist. Also at the Times, Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling should get attention for their five-part series on environmental damage to oceans. “Altered Oceans,” received a Polk Award.

A number of local reporting efforts are also in the mix. At the risk of leaving some out, those already getting notice are Ths Boston Globe’s “Debtor’s Hell” series on debt collection agencies, which is a Shorenstein finalist; The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s series “Abandoning Our Mentally Ill,” about poor housing for mentally ill patients, which took a Selden Ring finalist nod, as well as its ASNE-award winning coverage of a local factory explosion that killed three workers.

There is the Chicago Tribune’s Barbara Botman, who won an ASNE prize for her coverage of the final five months in the life of a hospice patient; Robert Little of The Sun in Baltimore for his series “Dangerous Remedy,” about an experimental drug, which took a Polk Award; and The Oregonian’s coverage of corruption in a multibillion-dollar program to help the disabled, which won a Polk Award.

Among the most difficult categories to handicap are those for commentary and editorial cartooning.

In the commentary category, the late Molly Ivins of Creators Syndicate, who has never won a Pulitzer but been a finalist twice, may get a nod for sentimental reasons, as well as her continued sharp pieces on the Bush Administration and Iraq, along with struggles in recent years with the cancer that eventually took her life. Art Buchwald of Tribune Media Services, a former winner, may see some notice because of his death, despite the fact that his columns, although written under extraordinary circumstances, were not up to his past quality.

Look for Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writers Group and Cynthia Tucker of Universal Press Syndicate, a finalist two of the past three years, to be in contention. Parker has never been a finalist, but is considered one of the better conservative columnists who does not follow a straight GOP line.

Other likely favorites are Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert of The New York Times, and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.

In editorial cartooning, Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press, a finalist last year, may be due. He is known for great color, humor and hard-hitting views. Recent winners who have a slim chance to repeat include Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle and Matt Davies of the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.

Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, who won more than 30 years ago in 1975, may emerge as a top winner this year. After being a finalist two of the past three years, he drew special attention this year with increased appearances of B.D., a character who lost a leg in Iraq.

Along with a category change, which replaced beat reporting with local reporting, the Pulitzers also have further opened their categories to online submissions, said Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler. Although online entries had been allowed in each category last year, they were limited to text and still images. This year, for the first time, any online element, including podcasts, video and databases, can be included, except in the photo categories, which require still images.

“We will have a growth in online,” Gissler predicted. “We had a significant amount last year. But expect even more this year.”

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