Pulitzer Prizes: Keeping the Little Guys Down?

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By: Joe Strupp

Zack Stalberg still remembers the oddest experience he had during his two-year stint as a Pulitzer Prize jurist.

The longtime editor of The Philadelphia Daily News was on the committee choosing finalists in the commentary category in 2002 when a submission from The Onion, the irreverent humor newspaper, came before the group.

“As it went around the table, you could see that people were blown away by this work,” Stalberg said about the entry, which included the paper’s mock Sept. 11 coverage. “But it was a little too different, a little too risky. I voted to make it a finalist, but nobody else did.”

Although it would be surprising to see the Pulitzer Board award its coveted medal to what is essentially a parody of a newspaper, such an incident highlights what some feel is the reverence — some might say restrictions — under which the Pulitzer judging operates.

For years, many in the industry have criticized the awards for favoring larger newspapers with vast resources. Although lower-circulation newspapers — such as The Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence, Mass., which won last year, and the Rutland (Vt.) Herald, which took a prize in 2001 — will occasionally win, the vast majority go to large regional or metropolitan papers.

This year, in fact, nearly half of the finalists in the 14 journalism categories are among four major newspapers, according to a list obtained by E&P. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post account for 20 of the 42 finalists on this list. Among the 22 others, none have a daily circulation of less than 100,000.

In the 87-year history of the Pulitzers, a non-daily paper has won only four times. The last was the 2000 international award to Mark Schoofs, then of The Village Voice in New York, for an intense, lengthy and costly series on AIDS in Africa. Schoofs, who eventually joined The Wall Street Journal, endured about six months in Africa at a cost of $10,000 to the Voice for the project, during which he also suffered from malaria.

“My sense is that there is a bias toward the big papers and traditional journalism,” says Stalberg. “There is clearly a tilt today to the bigger papers that have more resources.”

But others who have served on the Pulitzer juries, such as Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, contend that the best work should be recognized no matter where it originates. “The Pulitzers have got to stand for the achievement of outstanding quality,” said Clifton, a four-year jury veteran, who added that small papers get a special look if they deserve it. “Often, a paper that produced a really good piece of work wound up getting extra consideration, even if it wasn’t quite the level of performance that you’d expect for a Pulitzer Prize finalist.”

Change in the Works?

Some have suggested in recent years that the Pulitzers break down awards by circulation category, or even geographically, to even the playing field. Critics of that idea say it would water down the impact of the awards, which are often compared to the Oscars because they employ similar broad categories and carry enormous weight in building a paper’s reputation.

“Films compete that have budgets many times smaller than the next film,” Des Moines (Iowa) Register Editor Paul Anger said about the Oscar comparison. “Does that give an advantage to a movie? Sure it does. But that doesn’t mean the process isn’t fair.”

“You are first looking for the real examples of excellence,” one former Pulitzer board member who requested anonymity said about the process. “If a small paper’s work rises to the top, I think everyone cheers a little more for them.”

Still, some former judges contend that jurors and board members have an automatic bias, or at the very least, a tendency to give more weight to the bigger papers because of their reputations. “It is believed that they are more likely to put forth a winning entry,” one former juror who requested anonymity said about the major metros. “The juries offer up finalists that they feel will make them look good.”

Sig Gissler, Pulitzer administrator and a non-voting board member, defended the process, saying it rewards the best work, but is not limited only to larger papers. “There is quite a variety of newspapers that have won,” he contends. “There are no plans to alter any categories by size.”

Great Honor

There is a reason that the Pulitzers have the weight, and many will admit, the resume boost, they do. Because the honor is so difficult to garner, and requires competition against so many other nominees, its meaning is greater.

Pulitzer officials receive more than 2,000 submissions each year, with 21 categories, including the seven non-journalism awards for music and literature. That means there are an average of 95 submissions per category, although the journalism categories likely have more submissions than the non-journalism entries.

Unlike the Oscars, the final voting is limited to a powerful few. Eighteen members of the Pulitzer Board choose the winners from among the three finalists in each category put forth by the 21 Pulitzer juries. But, the board has the power to move finalists around and consider a submission that did not make the finalist group.

There are also few restrictions on who can serve on the board, which chooses its members itself. Each member is limited to three three-year terms. Pulitzer rules say only that the board should make sure “close attention is given to professional excellence and affiliation, as well as diversity in terms of gender, ethnic background, geographical distribution, and in the choice of journalists and size of newspaper.”

The current board includes 10 daily newspaper editors, two newspaper publishers, five members of academia, and one editor of a news wire service. But only one of those editors, Mike Pride of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, is from a newspaper with a circulation of less than 100,000.

Veteran board members say that strict policies are in place to avoid any conflict of interest during judging, although bias can’t help but creep in occasionally. Among the rules is a practice that board members must not only recuse themselves from discussions of categories in which their newspaper is a finalist, but also from any category in which a paper under common ownership is nominated.

But some former jurors contend that a juror or board member can’t help but influence the process, even if they leave the room. “It is done in very subtle ways,” says one ex-jurist who did not want to be named. “They are going to come back to the table and find out if their paper was chosen. Sometimes it is hard to say no.”

The procedures have changed with the times, Gissler says. At one time, during World War II, there was a telegraphic category for overseas war reporters, while 1999 saw the first option for online entries, which can now be included as part of a submission in the Public Service category. “It has evolved,” Gissler stresses. “It is a dynamic process.”

Springing a Leak

But Gissler notes that the annual leaking of finalist lists has become a problem. For the past three years, E&P has obtained leaked lists that have been nearly 100% accurate. If such leaking grows more widespread, which is likely given the rapid growth of the Internet and other communications options, it could lead to increased lobbying and pressure on board members.

“I don’t think folks stop to think about the mixed message that sends,” Gissler said about the leaking. “It is a problem.”

Board members are reluctant to discuss any aspect of the procedures on the record and fear diminishing the process if they appear to be revealing anything. Jurors are annually asked to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to reveal the finalists. But the leaks occur anyway.

Pulitzer officials have always declined to officially release the finalists for several reasons. The first is to avoid pressure on the judging process, but also because the procedures allow the board to move finalists around and choose winners that were not nominated by the juries.

“We just appeal to people to be responsible,” Gissler said about the leaks. “That is part of the building blocks of journalism.”

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