All the Pulitzers' men: US reporters have kept their edge

Last week UK papers celebrated their insular British Press Awards while in America, journalists were honoured with prestigious Pulitzer Prizes. Roy Harris reports on how they recognise their best
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The Independent Online

Anyone following the recent awarding of the Pulitzer Prizes, America's premier honour for journalism and the arts, might believe The Washington Post has become the country's dominant newspaper. Post staffers claimed prizes in six of the 14 journalism categories, including the prestigious gold medal for public service. The New York Times, which owns the most prizes since the Pulitzers began in 1917, won two this year. And The Wall Street Journal – named last year's gold medalist before being acquired by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp – got none.

The spotlight on the Post, however, doesn't suggest the emergence of a solitary national powerhouse in the US capital. Rather, it says that the Pulitzer judging system occasionally allows extraordinary reporting to override the 19-member Pulitzer board's preference for apportioning awards widely.

In the prior year, for example, the Pulitzer board members – a diverse group of editors and publishers from large and small papers around the country, augmented by some academics – gave awards to 13 separate news organisations, the Post not among them.

Another argument that is debunked by the Post's prizes, and the 2008 awards in general, is the common accusation in America that journalists are busy writing for prizes, rather than to serve their readers. While there has been a proliferation of various honours handed out in recent years, the Pulitzer Prizes remain relatively pure. There are so few of them, and they are so intensively judged, that the system culls most of the more superficial efforts, and in the end identifies only a handful of the very best efforts. With the competition so hot among great work, it is nearly impossible to "game" a Pulitzer Prize.

Pulitzer history, especially over the past dozen years, does indeed suggest a seismic shift in the American press. But it is a shift towards 30 or so regional oases of exceptional journalism – the Post certainly one of the most fertile – and each oasis is facing varying degrees of pressure to keep up the good work with fewer resources.

Ask editors of those 30 and they'd say they expect to have a chance at a Pulitzer a year from now, and that the concentration of Post prizes is a one-time phenomenon. (Small papers have hope, too, because the prizes have no size-based categories, and often have recognised big stories broken by tiny members of the press.) Larger newspapers doing particularly well at Pulitzer time in recent years have included the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and The Oregonian of Portland, and a number of the papers operated by the Sacramento, California-based McClatchy chain.

For six years now, I've scrutinised the award process for my book Pulitzer's Gold, which tells the often-thrilling newsroom "stories behind the stories" of Pulitzer public-service winners in particular.

Let's consider for a moment the eclectic work that won the prizes for the Post this year, starting with its greatest achievement: the public service of exposing horrific conditions at the Walter Reed medical centre, which serves as the main facility for treating wounded soldiers returning from Iraq.

After a reporter on the paper's "intelligence beat", Dana Priest, was tipped off to the decaying physical conditions and worse problems with treatment at Walter Reed, she teamed up with feature writer Anne Hull to report and write the story compellingly. Citizens were shocked at the betrayal, and the Bush administration was embarrassed to admit the failures.

The international reporting prize went for its reporters' revelations about the disturbing role of private US militias operating in Iraq, while the national reporting prize honoured Post reporters who detailed Vice-President Dick Cheney's control over White House decision-making, and a Post business columnist also won the prize for commentary. Its winning "breaking news" coverage catalogued a terrifying shooting spree at the Virginia Tech college campus. In breaking news and commentary, however, runners-up included writers from the small Idaho Statesman, The Chicago Tribune, and Ohio's Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Finally, a winning Post feature story grabbed both the hearts and minds of the Pulitzer board, despite being rooted in a newsroom gimmick. Columnist Gene Weingarten had arranged for famed violinist Joshua Bell to "dress down" as a street musician and play his Stradivarius in a subway station – just to see if anyone would notice. Few did, even with breathtaking renditions of Bach's "Chaconne" and Schubert's "Ave Maria" replacing the normal grating accompaniment to the morning commute. The ploy was brilliantly carried off, as the Post filmed Bell's incognito virtuosity and followed up by questioning passers-by under the pretext of writing a subway story. Both funny and philosophical, the piece exposed lives with far too few pauses to smell the world's roses. (One mother admitted with embarrassment that she had tugged her enthralled three-year-old quickly past Bell so she could get to work on time.)

Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler, who manages things from New York's Columbia University – home to the prizes designed in the will of American press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer, who died in 1911 – declared the feature-writing choice particularly difficult. A finalist from the Los Angeles Times offered a vivid, visceral description of a near-fatal grizzly bear attack on a father and daughter in a national park, while a reporter from Denver's Rocky Mountain News captured how citizens were still haunted by a 1961 collision between a train and a school bus that killed 20 children.

In short, at the very highest levels of newspaper work, Pulitzer judges faced typically tough competitions. And the multiple wins by the Post seem something of a quirk, rather than a bid for dominance. Papers big and small demonstrated commitment to the kinds of stories that have long won Pulitzer glory. Editors may best remember historic coverage like The New York Times's analysis of the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971, revealing government deception about the Vietnam War, and the Post's Watergate coverage a year later. But there's no shortage of small newspapers which have broken through to win Pulitzers.

Just a few years after Watergate, for instance, a tiny northern California weekly, The Point Reyes Light, won a gold medal for disclosing the evolution of a drug-rehabilitation community into an armed cult, whose members attacked an opposition lawyer by stuffing a rattlesnake in his mailbox. The Pulitzer board cited the paper's courage in taking on the cult, even though its compound was miles from the editor's house.

In these latest Pulitzers, some did lament that one great newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, seemed to fade in Pulitzer rivalry where recently it was in the Post's prolific place – winning four in 2004, and being a finalist for another four.

While the paper had two finalists this year, morale has plummeted since the second ownership change of the new century. Sam Zell, a real estate investor who has said little about maintaining quality, has said much about cutting news-gathering costs while revenue falls, and a profitable internet-and-print operating model has yet to be found. Zell's other papers include Chicago's Tribune and Newsday, the title for Long Island and New York, both also with rich Pulitzer traditions.

With US papers in general facing the same pressures as the Los Angeles Times, the commitment of quality-minded managements, including at The New York Times and Washington Post, will face tough decisions that could hurt future Pulitzer prospects – and perhaps hurt the American public even more.