By: Joe Strupp
When the 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalists were leaked shortly after jurors chose them nearly two years ago, the coveted Public Service nominations caused a stir because The Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss. got the nod — and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans did not.
Just six moths after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, many expected that both papers would be up for the award given their heroic work on the story. Although both papers eventually shared that Gold Medal award when the Pulitzer Board chose winners that April, the Public Service jury was criticized by many for initially excluding the New Orleans paper as some wondered how they could choose one paper without the other.
Well, a soon-to-be published book about the award, “Pulitzer’s Gold” by Roy J. Harris Jr. (2008, University of Missouri Press) reveals that the Public Service jury actually considered nominating both papers for the award, and even asked if they could combine them into a joint nomination. They discarded the idea after Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler informed them that such a move was against the rules.
“The jury was reluctant to give two of its three finalist selections to coverage of one event, even an event like America’s worst hurricane ever,” Harris writes in the book, due out next month.
The jury had agreed on the other two finalists — The Washington Post for coverage of the U.S. war on terror and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, for reporting on the “Coingate” scandal — but remained stuck on which of the two Katrina papers would get the third spot.
“So a query was sent to?Gissler. Could the jury simply make a joint entry, nominating both gulf papers??” Harris writes. He quotes legendary editor Eugene Roberts, one of that jury’s members as saying, “Basically, [Gissler] said no, it wasn’t possible?.We should come up with a total of three and if the board wants to award two Gold Medals, then that was their prerogative, but not ours.”
Roberts confirmed the story to E&P on Monday, adding, “if left to our own devices, we would have nominated both papers.” Asked why the jury did not simply make the Sun Herald and the Times-Picayune two of the three finalists, Roberts said the jury did not want to exclude other work of a different nature: “We tried to have our cake and eat it too.”
Janet Coats, editor of The Tampa Tribune and chair of that jury, echoed that view. “We just kept getting hung up on the whole idea that they should both be considered, but we wanted other subjects to be considered,” she told E&P.
Coats added that the jury spent about half a day debating which of the Katrina papers to choose: “Our notes to the board reflected our struggle with all of that.”
In the end, Coats and Roberts said the Sun Herald got the finalist nod for several reasons. One, according to Harris’ book, was that the paper had published every day after the hurricane and had “pulled off a near-miracle of publishing.”
Coats also pointed to the Sun Herald’s online work. “This was a smaller paper, with a newsroom that was a victim of the disaster as much as its community had been, and you saw the completeness of their voice,” Coats told Harris. “Its editorial image got stronger and stronger and stronger.” Roberts adds in the book, “they were everywhere for a staff of their size.”
Then there was the fact that the Times-Picayune was also going to be a finalist in another category, Breaking News, for the Katrina coverage — a prize it eventually won. Roberts said the Breaking News jury was at the table next to the Public Service jury during deliberations, so his group knew the New Orleans’ paper would get another chance. “We knew the board would see it anyway.”
Still, the Public Service jurors took an extra step to ensure the Times-Picayune was not completely left out of the running, writes Harris: “Jurors?prepared a note to the board elaborating on their thinking and listing the Times-Picayune among its three ‘alternates’ for the Public Service prize.”
Harris writes that “the jury sent the signal that both gulf coast papers were worthy.”