Editor's Note: Check out our recent E&P Reports vodcast with the Pulitzer Prize winning staff of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
On June 11, newsrooms gathered virtually and, in some cases, in person as Pulitzer Prize Board co-chairs Mindy Marqués and Stephen Engelberg revealed this year’s list of winners on a live stream. Despite a tough year for newsrooms, the Pulitzer Board did not see a drop in submissions. In fact, Marqués said they received 1,173 total entries for 2021, which is a slight increase compared to the past two years.
Originally scheduled for April, the announcement was delayed due to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine (Pulitzer Board members wanted to safely meet in-person for deliberations). Since the announcement was moved from April to June, many newsroom staffs were also able to get vaccinated so they could watch the announcement and celebrate in-person together.
This year, there were 16 winners in the 15 journalism categories with a special citation award issued to Darnella Frazier “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.” For a complete list of winners, visit pulitzer.org.
This fall, the Pulitzer Board plans to honor the 2020 and 2021 winners in a joint in-person ceremony at Columbia University in New York City.
“We know that every journalist dreams of being able to walk across the stage and get their diploma, so we’re hoping that if conditions allow it, we’ll be able to hold a dual celebration,” Marqués said. “The social component is really important. We want to give winners their moment, but also celebrate the fact that people can once again gather in person.”
As we continue to navigate a year full of uncertainty, E&P asked Marqués and Engelberg what they anticipate for next year’s Pulitzer Prizes. Although they both admit there is a benefit to virtual meetings, they expect the judging process to return to in-person meetings if it is safe to do so.
As for coverage, Marqués thinks COVID-19 and racial equity will still be prominent topics, and perhaps the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Fla. will also produce Pulitzer Prize-worthy content.
For Engelberg, it’s almost “impossible” to know. “But I predict to you that when you look at the finalist list nine months from now, you will remember this conversation and go, ‘Wow, that wasn’t right at all.’”
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s to always expect the unexpected.
A Return to Celebrations
The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that exposed racial and economic inequities, government failures in the U.S. and beyond, and filled a data vacuum that helped local governments, healthcare providers, businesses and individuals to be better prepared and protected.” In addition, Wesley Morris, critic at large for the Times, won the prize for Criticism for “unrelentingly relevant and deeply engaged criticism on the intersection of race and culture in America.”
On the day of the announcement, a small group of editors and winners gathered in the newsroom, according to aTimes spokesperson. The newsroom also live-streamed the event to the entire company, which included comments from publisher A.G. Sulzberger, editors, and winners.
During the event, executive editor Dean Baquet acknowledged the hard work of the newsroom. “I just want to pause for a moment on the full power of these prizes and what they say about what you accomplished in a year when many of you suffered from your own loss and disruption. Literally hundreds of people had a hand in this coverage.”
Baquet also recognized that the Times’ COVID-19 tracker was a major part of their entry. “At a time when the country and the world needed you to do what government sometimes failed to do—to keep count, to mourn, to explain—you did it with power.”
According to graphics director Archie Tse, more than 100 people from across the company contributed to the tracker. The newsroom also hired 50 freelancers and students to help compile the data.
“The project is a testament to how we have transformed ourselves into a newsroom ready to tackle an unimaginable story with new tools and new ways of working,” Tse said at the gathering.
The Tampa Bay Times’ deputy editor of investigations Kathleen McGrory and former investigative reporter Neil Bedi (now a ProPublica reporter) won a Pulitzer Prize in the Local Reporting category for “Targeted,” an investigation into a sheriff’s initiative that used computer modeling to identify people believed to be future crime suspects. The work prompted several key developments including the proposal of two bills to curb the policing tactics used by the Sheriff’s Office. This is the 13th Pulitzer Prize the Times has won, and the third award in this category.
“Winning in the local category is just a huge honor because local reporting is at the heart of what we do,” McGrory said. “We are a newspaper that reports on what’s going on in our Tampa Bay region and to be recognized for that is very special. It also speaks to the importance of investigative reporting.”
Because the Times’ newsroom is still closed, a small group gathered in McGrory’s home to watch the announcement. They included Bedi, executive editor Mark Katches, former deputy editor of investigations Adam Playford, and Times Publishing Co. chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Additionally, McGrory’s investigations team, photographer Douglas Clifford and lead video producer Jennifer Glenfield, who worked on the project, were present.
Later in the day after the win was announced, there was an in-person celebration at the Poynter Institute, owner of the Times. The entire newsroom gathered in the outdoor courtyard, and for many of them, it was the first time they had been together since the pandemic closed the newsroom last year.
“Winning a Pulitzer Prize is a special moment, not only for the reporters, but for everybody in the newsroom,” McGrory said. “We’ve all been remote for many months like many journalists across the country, chronicling several of the most important stories of our lives, and it’s been challenging to say the least, so it was nice for everybody to have that opportunity to come together and celebrate a year’s worth of really outstanding journalism.”
In Minnepolis, Minn., the staff of the Star Tribune, which won in the Breaking News Reporting category for its coverage of the death of George Floyd and the aftershocks, had a congratulatory video call with the staff following the announcement.
But a few days later, the staff were able to gather together in person to celebrate the win. Editor Rene Sanchez told E&P that most of the staff—now fully vaccinated—made it to the gathering. After working remotely for more than a year, “it felt like a reunion,” he said.
When asked what the win means for the Star Tribune, Sanchez said, “The staff was deeply grateful to be honored for this coverage, but we all know we cannot lose sight of how it’s rooted in a horror that has led to lasting pain. So, while we’re proud of our work, we’re also subdued about awards. We need to stay focused on the fact that it’s a tough time in our community.”
At The Boston Globe, data project editor Brendan McCarthy, reporters Laura Crimaldi and Evan Allen, and former reporters Matt Rocheleau (now data editor for Hearst Connecticut Media) and Vernal Coleman (now investigative reporter for ProPublica) were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. The team produced a series called “Blind Spot,” which exposed a systematic failure by state governments to share information about dangerous truck drivers that could have kept them off the road. The work prompted immediate reforms and license suspensions, which very likely has saved lives. This was the Globe’s 27th Pulitzer Prize.
On the morning of the announcement, a group of about 20, including McCarthy, Crimaldi, Allen, Rochelaeu, editor Brian McGrory, CEO Linda Henry, and owner and publisher John Henry gathered in the newsroom. Coleman joined them via video.
When the Globe was named a winner, there were yelps, clapping, handshakes and hugs all around, McCarthy said. Shortly after the announcement, the group met in a newsroom-wide video call.
“It was an emotional moment,” McCarthy described. “It’s been a long, challenging year for so many of us—covering the pandemic, working remotely, pushing to put out an extraordinary newspaper each and every day. To be back in the newsroom and alongside each other, and to have our work honored with journalism’s top prize, prompted a surge of joy and other emotions.”
Although, many of the winners this year focused on either the pandemic or racial inequity, Engelberg pointed to the work produced by The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute. The four organizations won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their series titled “Mauled,” an investigation of K-9 units and the damage that police dogs inflict on Americans.
Susan Chira, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, said their win is a “welcome and important recognition, both of the irreplaceable nature of local news outlets—who are well sourced and knowledgeable about their own communities in ways national outlets cannot match—and the urgency of collaboration between national and local news outlets.”
For the first time, BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer Prize. Megha Rajagopalan, Alison Killing and Christo Buschek were recognized in the International Reporting category for “Built to Last,” a series of innovative articles that utilized satellite images and 3D architectural models to expose China’s vast infrastructure built by the Chinese government for mass detention of Muslims.”
“I think as a newsroom we’ve published lots of work that rises to the highest standards of journalism,” Rajagopalan told E&P. “We don’t do the work for awards, but at the same time, it’s great to have our stories recognized, particularly because a series of this scope and ambition takes many people across the newsroom to pull off, as well as support from newsroom management.”
Killing was the only one out of the three journalists watching the Pulitzer Prize announcement live. When she saw they had won, she texted Buschek to tell him the news, and Rajagopalan received a text from editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs. Because Rajagopalan, Killing, and Buschek all live in different counties, they have not been able to gather due to varying COVID-19 restrictions, but hope to meet in-person soon.
Rajagopalan, Killing, and Buschek said they were shocked to learn they had won, especially since there was “so much amazing coverage of the pandemic and other subjects published last year,” Rajagopalan said.
BuzzFeed’s win may have come as a surprise to the news industry as well since the company, which was founded in 2006, made a name for itself with videos, quizzes, and listicles. Since launching BuzzFeed News in 2011, the company has expanded into news and entertainment content.
“Joseph Pulitzer’s vision was to reward the best journalism in the country period,” Marqués said of BuzzFeed’s win. “He could not have envisioned the changes, but I think he left the plan flexible enough so that the Pulitzers can evolve and modernize as the industry shifts and changes.”
Engelberg added, “Journalism has always mixed the serious and the fun. BuzzFeed is just following a model that Joseph Pulitzer would absolutely understand, which is to do the news well, but also to have a little bit of fun with your readers to give them something that’s kind of entrancing and intriguing.”
Michael Paul Williams was another journalist that was surprised with his win. A columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Williams won the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for historically insightful columns that guided the city—a former capital of the Confederacy—through the process of dismantling the city’s monuments. He is the third Pulitzer winner in the company’s history.
“I was writing my Sunday column and my mobile phone rang. I saw my managing editor’s name come up and my first thought was that can’t be good because he’s not one to call me,” Williams said. “He said, ‘Mike, you won the Pulitzer!’ and my response was, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’”
That evening, staff gathered at their newsroom in downtown Richmond to celebrate. Williams said when he arrived, there was applause and “more champagne than (he had) ever seen.”
Williams actually began writing columns advocating for the removal of Richmond’s Confederate statues in 2015 after a white supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.
When asked why his words resonate so much more today than six years ago, he said, “Sometimes an opinion has to catch up to a moment, and sometimes a moment has to catch up to an opinion.”
Even though Williams is adamant that the prize is something to celebrate, it is not something to rest their laurels on. It is a stern message that they now must work hard to “walk the walk.”
No Winner, but Still a Victory
There was one category that did not have a winner this year. Ken Fisher (drawing as Ruben Bolling), Lalo Alcaraz, and Marty Two Bulls Sr. were all named finalists in the Editorial Cartooning category. However, no prize was awarded.
To explain why, the Pulitzer Board referred to a statement by Pulitzer Board interim administrator Bud Kliment: “Despite considerable discussion by the Board, none of the three finalists achieved a majority vote in the Editorial Cartooning category.”
Alcaraz is among those who find it hard to believe there was an “impasse,” noting the incredible work that was produced in a challenging year.
“All of the entries from my gifted colleagues would also have been more than acceptable,” he said. “I feel we were devalued as a profession. Editorial cartooning was dissed, even as we struggle to keep this necessary and hard-hitting profession afloat.”
Bolling thinks that no award was given because either the Board couldn’t come to a decision or because they “were making an affirmative statement that no cartoonist produced work this year worthy of a Pulitzer Prize,” which he believes would’ve been an “objectively wrong” decision.
Two Bulls believes the Pulitzer Board may have been caught up in its own rules and thus failed to get the majority needed to select a winner. He suggests the category might be better served if it were judged by former editorial cartoonist winners instead.
There have also been comments that a winner wasn’t selected because the finalists had alternative or non-traditional news backgrounds. When asked about this, Marqués and Engelberg reiterated that the Pulitzer Prize competition rewards the best work regardless of where it is published.
And according to the co-chairs, this is not the first time a winner wasn’t picked in this category. They told E&P no award was given in 1973, 1965, 1960, 1936, and 1923. There have been years where awards were not given in other categories as well.
Engelberg added that it was important to note that some people were recused from the deliberation in every category, leaving only a certain number of people to vote for the winner.
“The giving of no award doesn’t mean that everybody was standing up saying give no award. It means that none of the things commanded a majority,” he explained.
Although they didn’t take home a Pulitzer Prize this time, the three cartoonists acknowledged that it was still an honor to be named a finalist.
“The prize is considered to be one of the top recognitions a journalist or an artist can get, and to have it two years in a row, I feel acknowledged as an editorial cartoonist,” Alcaraz said.
Bolling, also a finalist for the second time, said, “I greatly appreciate the Pulitzer Prize jury’s appraisal of my work, and I only hope it’s something that helps justify the faith that my syndicate Andrews McMeel, my print and web clients, and my readers and subscribers have shown to me over the years.”
First time finalist, Two Bulls said, “It is a validation of my work and inspires me to do even more.”
Complete list of 2021 Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism:
The New York Times
Breaking News Reporting
Staff of the Star Tribune
Matt Rocheleau, Vernal Coleman, Laura Crimaldi, Evan Allen, and Brendan McCarthy of The Boston Globe
Andrew Chung, Lawrence Hurley, Andrea Januta, Jaimi Dowdell and Jackie Botts of Reuters.
Ed Yong of The Atlantic
Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi of the Tampa Bay Times
Staffs of The Marshall Project; AL.com, Birmingham; IndyStar, Indianapolis; and the Invisible Institute, Chicago
Megha Rajagopalan, Alison Killing and Christo Buschek of BuzzFeed News
Mitchell S. Jackson, freelance contributor, Runner’s World
Nadja Drost, freelance contributor, The California Sunday Magazine
Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
Wesley Morris of The New York Times
Robert Greene of the Los Angeles Times
No award given
Breaking News Photography
Photography staff of Associated Press
Emilio Morenatti of Associated Press
Lisa Hagen of WABE, Atlanta, Chris Haxel of KCUR, Kansas City, Graham Smith, and Robert Little of National Public Radio