Our June issue usually features the winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, along with the photos of smiling newsrooms around the country popping champagne, embracing their colleagues in warm hugs, and even shedding some happy tears.
But like much of the world during this global pandemic, the event was pushed back. Typically revealed in April during a livestream video from Columbia University’s School of Journalism, the 104th class of Pulitzer Prize winners were instead announced on May 4 in the living room of Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy.
This year’s list featured 15 journalism categories, and winners included familiar names like the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as a win for a tiny Texas newspaper called the Palestine Herald-Press. This American Life was also the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize award in Audio Reporting, and Ida B. Wells was honored with a Special Citation for “her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Since the winners were announced just as we were going to press, we’re putting our Pulitzer Prize celebration on hold until next month’s issue. I’m sure the winning newsrooms are doing the same thing until they can all meet once again because toasting to each other over a Zoom call doesn’t quite have the same effect, does it?
Still, I’m glad the Pulitzers were still presented without a hitch.
In Candey’s opening remarks, she said, “Throughout America’s greatest challenges — two World Wars, the Depression, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy, as well as 9/11, the Pulitzer Prizes have continued to celebrate excellence in journalism and arts and letters because in difficult times, the Pulitzers may be more important than ever.”
I think the awards were also important to the spirit of journalism. For about 15 minutes on May 4, journalists around the country focused on joy, hope and most importantly, on celebrating. Considering our current situation where more newsrooms today are understaffed and losing revenue due to the pandemic, we needed those 15 minutes of good news.
“It’s easy these days to read stories about the decline of local journalism and grow discouraged. Projects like this are a good reminder of why strong local news organizations are needed now and why they need our support,” said ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein after its win in the Public Service category with the Anchorage Daily News.
After their win in Local Reporting, Baltimore Sun Media editor-in-chief and publisher Trif Alatzas recognized the teamwork of the paper’s reporters, editors, audience and visuals staff.
“It was just an all-out effort—really, really great work by everybody, and I’m just glad to be a part of it,” Alatzas said during their video chat.
According to the Sun, the 10 stories in their entry carried eight bylines, “representing a newsroom in which nearly everyone pitched in at some point.”
And moments after his newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting, Courier-Journal reporter Joe Sonka tweeted: “I won a Pulitzer Prize today, and I’m on my second week of unpaid furlough starting next Monday….” followed with a plea that people should subscribe to their local newspaper because “news ain’t free.”
Sonza’s tweet reminded me that this year’s list of winners comes at a bittersweet cost. We want to celebrate and recognize the award-winning work done by journalists, but it’s hard not to acknowledge that newsrooms everywhere are hurting.
Although our issue this month may be missing the photos of ecstatic newsrooms celebrating their Pulitzer Prizes, there is still a message of hope found on the pages. The fight for freedom of press still prevails; there are solutions for advertising and marketing that are working; and there is life for newsrooms after COVID-19.