for the first time this afternoon, just upstairs in the World Room—and,
well, it’s a bit of anti-climax, as a matter of fact.
read the announcements in the lowest-key manner possible to an unpacked
room, stepped out for about 20 minutes while people read the packets and did
their Tweets, then came back and answered some questions. And there weren’t
that many of them, mostly dealing with why there wasn’t a prize for fiction
(the answer is, just ‘cause).
don’t know what I was expecting, trumpets maybe. A choir. Something.
The 2012 prizes have been dubbed a
breakthrough for online
media, and I agree with that. As I
told Matthew Flamm
over at Crain’s, what I think is special about the Huffington Post’s
“Beyond the Battlefield”
series on wounded veterans, was that it did its great work using a
I loved that Pro Publica’s Magnetar series won the first
digital-only Pulitzer last year, but that operation is philanthropically
funded. Commercial, all in all, is better. (Read Michael Shapiro’s
hot-off-the-press takeout on HuffPo—”Six degrees of aggregation”—in CJR
I’m sad The Wall Street Journal, my old paper, didn’t win (UPDATE:
on the news side)
now for the fifth straight year, because the WSJ’s Pulitzer shutout
is bad for the country.
But I’m glad that good work it did was recognized with finalist mentions:
for its Internet privacy work in the
category and for its work on debt-collection predations in the
category. I’m more concerned the Washington Post’s news department
(where I also worked) wasn’t in the Pulitzer conversation. Finally I’m a bit
surprised that Bloomberg’s news side, too, was out of the running,
particularly for its
Federal Reserve work. Go figure.
This is where I need to say that CJR has nothing to do with the
Pulitzers, even though we’re in the same building. I was going to say that
their space is a lot nicer than ours, but the fact is I’ve never seen their
space. It’s a safe assumption, though, if you catch my drift.
The whole journalism prize thing has long been, rightly, viewed with
jaundiced eye. Jack Shafer a few years ago
quoted to excellent
effect a 1984 Alexander Cockburn column that pegged the Pulitzers
as a “self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and
then boast to the public about them.” Cockburn wrote:
If bankers gave themselves prizes (“the most reckless Third-World loan
of the year”) with the same abandon as journalists, you may be sure
that the public ridicule would soon force them to conduct the
proceedings in secret.
The fact is, though, we need contests more than ever. It’s not that The
Huffington Post needs validation (thought it does) but that big, ambitious,
risky public-service journalism needs it more. What you have to like about
this year’s prizes—even if you quibble with this choice or that omission—is
not that it rewards a certain kind of organization, but that it rewards a
certain kind of story, and thus provides a powerful incentive to do them.
It’s easy to forget that there is no shortage of incentives not to do
them—they’re expensive, time-consuming, stressful, etc. And most of the time
news organizations get no credit at all for them—not so much as a hearty
handshake. Instead, they get a load of grief. General Electric, for
instance, pushed back ferociously against The New York Times and
reporter David Kocieniewski for
their series on corporate tax avoidance (pushback that, as The
Audit’s Ryan Chittum showed,
There are plenty of people working in news organizations who’d rather not do
them at all. You’ll have to trust me on that one.
And think about this. One thing the digital era has given us is ability to
measure news quantity, down to the keystroke per second. There are good
sides to this, and also
very bad ones.
But there is no metric for journalism quality, and there probably never will
be one. And if you can’t measure it, it’s hard to make an argument for it.
That’s just life in a bureaucracy.
Now, I’m not saying prizes are ideal. It is a bit unseemly, all this
journalism glad-handing, especially when the world is going to hell in a
handbasket. The whole process is subjective as hell.
Matt Wuerker’s cartoons
are great, but are they so much better than
Beats me. And, um, are politics involved in prize-giving, including the
Pulitzers? Let’s just say I would not be surprised.
Prizes may not be the noblest incentive to do the hard stuff (“Hey, ma. Look
at me! I won!”).
But what can you do? They’re what we’ve got.
© Copyright 2012 Columbia Journalism Review.