Pulitzer Prize Day: Many Hold Their Breath

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By: Joe Strupp

?Change some lives forever??

That’s the phrase Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler will likely utter later today, around 3 p.m., when he hands out the list of Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists for 2008. Although the lucky recipients will be posted online later in that same half hour, the tradition of the awards, which date back to 1917, still beckon for a formal, in-person moment.

The crowd inside the World Room on the third floor of Columbia University?s journalism building is not a packed group of would-be winners or hangers-on. The small group is comprised of some reporters seeking the news, other interested parties and, of course, the Pulitzer staffers who pass around the official folders of information like gold nuggets to hungry prospectors.

And, even in this age of supposed dying newspapers and troubled newspaper companies, the Pulitzer remains as prestigious and influential as ever. Each year when Gissler proclaims his ?change lives? comment, which routinely follows some opening remarks and details about this year?s voting, lives are, indeed, changed.

As the saying goes, the Pulitzer Prize is the first line in a winner’s obituary, and often the highest achievement a journalist will accomplish. They remain the most-coveted, most-respected and possibly most difficult to obtain. With no circulation categories or other divisions to give smaller papers a better chance, everyone is on equal footing among the 14 journalism categories.

And, of course, only newspapers and wire services can win them. CNN, CBS News, and Huffingtonpost.com, are out of luck. Walter Cronkite never won a Pulitzer and, unless he becomes a newspaper reporter or columnist, Anderson Cooper likely never will.

Part of the mystique is the history, dating back to Joseph Pulitzer?s creation of the award and the stipulations that the Pulitzer Board, whose members range from current editors to longtime professors, make all of the decisions. They take the finalists in each category, but often move them around, drop some finalists in favor of others not put forward by the juries, and can decide to give none in a category, or more than one.

At a time when newspapers are in financial trouble, as evidenced by this morning’s reminder in The New York Times of Tribune honcho Sam Zell?s continued problems, the Pulitzer remains possibly more important than ever.

They are among the reminders of what newspapers can do and, in my mind, still do better than anyone: dig up and tell the news.

Examples of past recent winners, from the Times-Picayune?s double-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage to The Washington Post and New York Times? past work uncovering secret foreign prisons and domestic wiretapping, respectively, newspapers still ferret out the stories better, more completely, and with greater accuracy.

To their credit, the Pulitzer honchos have also changed with the times, allowing online submissions in every category since last year. As newspapers grow and expand online and prove they can break news as well as ever, this allows them to continue to show their journalistic muscle.

Some have called for changes to the awards, such as letting in non-newspaper and wire service mediums, adding circulation or other categories, and, of course, announcing finalists in advance.

Don?t count on it. Some of the mystique of these honors is based primarily on those longtime rules. But I still believe it is the emphasis on the best work among those who can enter. And since those are limited to newspapers and wire services, that continues to be the best in journalism.

That wide-open contest, as it were, allows for any newspaper in the country to essentially win. In the past, the likes of the weekly Point Reyes (Ca.) Light have won alongside big names like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Winners are honored for covering foreign wars and turmoil, as well as a local disaster involving youngsters dying in a tragic boating accident.

As happens every year, winners will have their lives changed forever — whether that means a raise, a new job, or simply a new prestigious honor (not to mention knowing how their obit will begin). Finalists will have something to show off, even if it is not a win. In the case of some categories, such as editorial cartooning and commentary, also a possible leg up for next year. History has shown the Pulitzer Board seems to favor past finalists in those situations.

In any event, the next time you are reading about the dying newspaper industry or troubled print journalism world, log on to Pulitzer.org and see who has been providing the best journalism in the past 90 years.

And, after 3 p.m. today, the best in the past year.

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