Pulitzer Judging Starts — So Step Inside the Jury Room

By: Joe Strupp

Pam Fine still gets excited about being a Pulitzer Prize juror. As one of dozens of judges who will gather this week at Columbia University to decide which of the hundreds of entries will make the finalist cut for journalism’s most prestigious award, the managing editor of the Indianapolis Star feels like a kid in a candy store.

“It’s hog heaven,” Fine, who will take part in her fourth jury duty on Monday, told E&P. “To be put in a room for three days and asked to read the best journalism in the country. You feel like you are part of the process.”

Although the winners are not chosen until the 18-member Pulitzer Board meets next month, the 14 juries arguably have as much impact on the process since they have to whittle down entries in each category to the three finalists. In some cases, that means sifting through more than 100 submissions to get the magic trio.

“You can see some of the best work in the country and it is one way that you can give back,” said Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a two-time juror.

None of the jurors is paid for his or her time, or even given airfare or hotel accommodations, although the Pulitzer office keeps most well-fed as they pass pages around the tables and dissect material. And the coffee keeps flowing, jurors said.

The judges also are not told on which jury they will serve until they showed up Monday morning, a move in part to keep pre-judge lobbying from taking place. But that does not keep editors at many papers from sending out reprints of their work this time of year to draw attention to a likely submission. Like production companies sending tapes and DVD’s of Oscar contenders to members of the Motion Picture Academy, newsroom leaders often want jurors to see their work in time to read them fully.

“They are bragging about it and they are proud of it and if someone is a Pulitzer juror — then they will know about it,” said Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a four-time juror who is not involved this year. “It has been going on since I have been in the business, it is not uncommon.”

Clifton cited a reprint of a 2006 AIDS series he received this week from The Sun-Sentinel.

“It is a way to show off a little I suppose,” said Nancy Conway, editor of The Salt Lake Tribune and a juror for the past two years. “It has never influenced me.”

Last year’s juries included 77 judges, ranging from staffers of The New York Times to The Bulletin of Bend, Ore. The jurors gather in two rooms at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where each jury is seated at a different table with a pile of entries in the middle, they say.

The group represents some of the most respected newspaper veterans, as well as a wide cross-section of journalists that includes the likes of legendary former Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Eugene Roberts and alternative newspaper reporter Nigel Jaquiss of Willamette Week in Portland, Ore.

“I was impressed that editors of larger papers were engaged in discussions with no second-class feeling for smaller papers,” said John Costa, editor of The Bulletin, who served on the explanatory reporting committee last year. “There is a lot of reading and talking.”

Although the exact process varies among the juries, veterans said the general approach is to sit down and begin reading the submissions, which are passed around the table for each juror to review. After reading a submission, jurors mark their thoughts, often with a simple Yes or No, as to whether it should be a finalist, or a numerical rating.

“It moves around,” recalls Clifton. “If it’s got too many No’s already, the likelihood is that it is not going to last. If you come across something that is really outstanding, you make a note of that and you eventually establish a standard that will be the bar.”

Other jurors offered a similar assessment, noting that one or two outstanding submissions usually become the measure by which others are viewed. “It takes three people to vote something out and there is literally a mountain of stories that builds under the table by the end of the second day,” Fine said. Bill Boyle, senior managing editor of the New York Daily News and a second-year juror, said the unacceptable submissions “literally go to the floor.”

Roberts, a former Pulitzer Board member who served on his eighth jury last year, said it is not difficult to see which entries deserve a second look and which do not. “You don’t have to get far into a story to realize it doesn’t measure up,” he said. “Once you find one or two that you like, the pace speeds up.”

Judges say they look for a mix of good writing and impact, depending on the category. Feature writing, for example, is mostly judged by writing, while public service is often affected by the impact on an issue and others, such as breaking news or local reporting, need to show an ability to get important information out.

“I look at the writing, the resources a newspaper has and how they used those resources,” Rosenhause explained. Most of the judges said they treat small and large newspapers equally, usually not giving smaller dailies a break for limited resources. “I think the small papers are given as much of a serious read as the larger ones,” said Conway. “I think they expect to be treated the same.”

Costa of The Bulletin says a paper’s resources should not impact their standing. “I think that would devalue the prize,” he adds. “It has to be the very best work.”

Jurors admit that if they see an entry with mostly No’s or low scores, it can get a less-than-complete read, although only one juror who spoke with E&P said they have chosen not to read an entry at all if it has low scores from others.

After each jury whittles the entries down to five, 10, or 15 of the best, then the fun begins, some say. Deliberations take varied forms on day two, but most contend they are fair and intelligent. “Typically, the debate centers on the flaws,” Clifton said. “You need to have a reason not to advance it.”

Boyle called the deliberations “extremely interesting and cordial.” He also found himself surprised at several elements of the judging, including casual relationships among judges and the lack of egos or arrogance. “It is not some hidden away ivory tower thing,” he said. “Everyone tries to be a human being. I probably could have worn blue jeans if I wanted.”

As a member of the Public Service jury, which eventually nominated The Sun-Herald of Biloxi, Miss. as a finalist (and eventual winner) for its Hurricane Katrina coverage, Boyle said he went into the judging not expecting to give the hurricane reporting much chance. “I went in with the idea that we had had enough of wounded newspapers winning,” he admitted. “But that quickly fell by the wayside.” Biloxi eventually shared that Pulitzer with the Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

During the deliberations, the jurors also sometimes consider letters sent in supporting or opposing a submission. The supportive letters are common, often written by editors to accompany the submission. But those criticizing a story, often from a subject, come about only once in a while.

Fine, who also served on the Public Service jury last year, recalls the letter sent to the Pulitzer Board from an anonymous employee of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, claiming improper actions related to the paper’s submitted coverage of the state’s Coingate scandal. The Blade employee, George Tanber, later confessed his authorship and was eventually fired.

“That was the only negative thing I saw for anything in four years,” Fine said. “You see a lot of [positive] supporting material.” The Coingate entry was named a finalist by the jury, but failed to win the final prize.

Clifton recalled his service in 2002 on the investigative jury, which considered a Seattle Times entry that had uncovered problems at a local cancer research center. He said the research center had sent in letters criticizing the work. “They had two or three letters and we had to evaluate the validity of the complaint,” he said. “It was a hard discussion, but we wound up selecting it to go forward.” The entry remained a finalist, but did not win.

Also during the deliberations, jurors may consult with members of other juries, and even pass along entries if both juries agree. “I think we had an entry and it was cross entered into another category and there was some discussion of where it fit best,” Conway said about last year’s discussions. Boyle, who was on the breaking news jury, recalls Roberts, who was in public service, coming over to his group to ask about the Biloxi entry, and if it should be changed.

“People roam around and think and really get into the discussions,” Boyle said. “I didn’t see anything remotely unethical, trading or asking about how their paper was doing.” Clifton recalled one year when members of another jury were coming to him to complain that one person was “driving them crazy.”

“She was being a stickler,” Clifton said, declining to name the troublemaker. “They were really going at it.”

As the use of online entries has expanded in recent years, the first laptop computers have been utilized in the jury rooms, according to Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler. He said more will be available this year as the entry guidelines expand to include any online elements, except for photo entries.

By Wednesday, most final decisions have been made, jurors say, with “mostly a mop-up operation” taking place. Jurors must formally sign off on the finalists and, of course, sign the pledge not to leak the finalists, which invariably happens. Although none of those who spoke with E&P would admit to having leaked finalist lists, they are not surprised that it occurs.

“The nature of the business is gossip, so it gets out,” Boyle said. Costa agreed. “It is not something I participate in,” he says. “It is just human nature, it doesn’t surprise me.” Clifton said leaks are not “that bad of a thing.” “If you come home and you are lucky enough to be a finalist, you are going to tell someone,” he says, adding that he has never leaked. “It happens.”

Still, Gissler remains firm that the Pulitzers want jurors to respect the secrecy request. “We urge jurors to take the pledge of confidentiality seriously,” he said.

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