Pulitzers Confirm a ‘Dangerous Trend’

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By: Will Bunch

We’re going to let you all in on one of our many dirty little secrets here in the world of newspaper journalism. Each and every April, we get to experience a kind of a second birthday.

It’s that day when Columbia University doles out the Pulitzer Prizes and just like your real birthday, it’s a day that we once anticipated with a certain amount of excitement in our youth, but have come to view with a certain kind of existential numbness as we get deeper into our newspaper careers.

To be sure, there are wild surprise parties for some, with pony rides and pinatas (in fact, we joined about 106 of our best New York Newsday buddies in crushing that poor pony in 1992). But mainly it’s a day of quiet discontent, reflection on lost opportunities, maybe even jealousy toward those spoiled rich kids in New York or D.C.

This year seemed a little different, though. Certainly, in this incredibly polarized time in American history, a lot of people saw the 2006 Pulitzer winners through a political prism. Bill Bennett wants the hero journalists who broke the unlawful NSA spying and secret CIA prison stories to go to jail, while Jane Hamsher is mad that “Steno Sue” Schmidt — who once reported the heroic exploits of Jessica Lynch that never happened — finally bagged one.

We actually thought that some darned good stories won — certainly the spy stuff and some remarkable work by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. But looking at the Pulitzers from the perspective of a journalist and not a partisan, the real story of 2006 is not what happened, but what didn’t happen. Indeed, we look at the Pulitzers, and we see not just a celebration of a few great stories, but also a silent confirmation of some of the most dangerous trends in modern journalism.

The most telling problem is this: Not a single Pulitzer was awarded this year for what we would call old-school local enterprise reporting. Not one. By local enterprise reporting, we mean exposing a corrupt state or local official, or problems with a local institution like a hospital or a nursing home or a hazardous waste dump. (You can quibble about the outstanding coverage of San Diego congressman “Duke” Cunningham, but he is a federal official caught up in D.C. scandals, while the Rocky Mountain News feature prize was for a Marine delivering bad news from Iraq, also a local twist on a national story.)

That would be a disgrace in any year, but it’s really bad now — because newspapers are pretty much the last people left who can tell you when your mayor is on the take, or when development is choking your local reservoir. Local TV and radio don’t have the staffing or the inclination, big media is too big, and bloggers and citizen journalists can help, but most don’t have the time or the experience of a trained (and paid) investigative journalist.

There was at least one great example of the kind of journalism that we need more of in 2006 — the Toledo Blade’s coverage of “Coingate,” tracing millions of lost taxpayer dollars because of local corruption — and for some unknown reason it was stiffed by the Pulitzer board. Meanwhile, two local papers won for their remarkable coverage of a remarkable act of God named Hurricane Katrina. What that shows is the enormous amount of talent at America’s small newspapers — talent that is kept on too tight of a leash when there’s not a life-or-death crisis (more on this in a minute.)

In fact, if you look closer at the Pulitzers, you’ll see the sad toll that economics and job cuts have already taken on American journalism. The two big newspapers that survive by covering national and global affairs for a small elite gobbled up a whopping seven prizes between them. In a time when electronic voting scams and other voting problems have threatened democracy here at home, the Pulitzer for “explanatory journalism” went to a series on democracy…in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Knight Ridder chain, under immense cost-cutting pressure, won just one Pulitzer, for its Biloxi hurricane coverage. Indeed, the newspapers with the steepest job cuts — the Inquirer and the Daily News here, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun, to name a few, were completely shut out.

We’re not the only one looking at the big picture. Here’s what Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard and a past Pulitzer winner, said yesterday on PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer:

“I think there’s no question that the budgets for investigative reporting are going down. I think there’s no question also that many of — especially the publicly owned newspaper companies are devoting less money to this very expensive and time-consuming kind of reporting, and focusing on a kind of hyper-local kind of reporting, which is the sort of the mantra of the newspaper industry as they try to combat the effects of the Web and so forth and decline in advertising.

“I think this is a very, very hard question, because investigative reporting goes to the very heart of the sort of public role, the public obligation role that the newspaper business has had from the middle of the 19th century. It was a business, but it was a business that had an obligation to spend a significant amount of money doing this kind of watchdog work.”

The work you see on Pulitzer day is the very best, and the very best is as good or better than it’s ever been. But that very best work does not represent, I think, what is going into this kind of reporting broadly, in terms of the newspaper industry overall.

I think it’s more complicated than “hyper-local” reporting, however that is defined. I think that job cuts and decreased spending on investigative reporting has two overlooked impacts:

1. Duplication. It’s sad, because while urban news organizations had slashed true enterprise reporting in the face of the job cuts, we are pathologically unable to stop covering the exact same stories that everyone else is . That was really driven home to me last winter, in the week after the Daily News lost some 25 staffers, or 19 percent of our employees. I was urgently dispatched to the Philadelphia courthouse because no one was present for the verdict in a case that had gotten a middling amount of local coverage.

When I got there, there was also a reporter from the Inquirer, the leading radio news station, and another news outlet. We sat there twiddling out thumbs, listened to the same pronouncements from the bench, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the hallways getting the same quotes from the defense lawyer, and the same quotes from an assistant DA.

What a colossal waste of Philadelphia’s journalism talent! Three of us should have been out in the neighborhoods or sifting through documents at City Hall, trying to scoop the other two while keeping Philly informed. Remember those local reporters in New Orleans and Biloxi and their amazing work on Hurricane Katrina. This is what too many of those people were doing before the hurricane struck.

We need to be honest: Mass coverage of every murder and every verdict is relic of a bygone era. There needs to be a new kind of local AP-style organization, to ensure that only one valuable journalist is spent on these events in an era of such reduced manpower.

2. Access. Why do you think the White House press corps breaks so few investigative stories? The minute they write such an article, they are persona non grata in the West Wing, and it’s hard to cover the White House when the White House hates your guts. That’s even more true on the local level.

That’s why there’s a need for investigative reporters who aren’t assigned to a beat. When I worked at Newsday on Long Island in the 1980s, there was a large investigative team that worked in a tiny room with no nameplate on the door, so secretive was its mission.

But with fewer journalists, it is only the beat writers who remain — and it is very difficult for beat writers to afflict their comfortable sources. There’s been some interesting debate lately about the lack of sports investigative journalism, about how stories like the baseball steroids scandal or boorish behavior in college sports were allowed to fester.

Again, we have a case study for Access 101. The Giants beat writer, the guy who has to ask Barry Bonds about that 3-2 changeup in the locker room some 162 times a year, is the last guy who can write about his alleged steroid abuse. But in the stripped down world of modern newspapers, the beat guy remains while the others have been bought out.

Last month, we spent an exhilarating day at Philadelphia’s Annenberg School in a room with some 50 fellow journalists and bloggers, developing models to re-invent local news so that citizens across the U.S. — and not just in Manhattan or Dupont Circle — get the information they need. We call them “norgs” — “news organizations” that use the Web or iPods as easily as newsprint, that build bridges between citizen journalists and salaried one and earn revenue from the local community as they deliver its news.

Let’s hope the norgs model can work, because if democracy is lost by that uneasy day when the Pulitzers are announced in 2016, there’s gonna be a lot of explanatory journalism to do.

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This column first appeared on Will Bunch’s Attytood blog.

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