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How e-Pulitzers can elevate journalism

Granting the prizes to more online work would raise standards.

By Roy J. Harris Jr. / April 23, 2009

Hingham, Mass.

This week's announcement of the journalism Pulitzer Prizes – usually a welcome jolt for the ailing American newspaper business – fell short of delivering the transfusion that is needed to bring the awards into the 21st century. In fact, the Pulitzers spoke hardly at all to the generations that now tap their news from a computer keyboard, or thumb it out of a cellphone.

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It's time to reinvent the Pulitzers. Yes, daily papers suffer from waves of newsroom cutbacks, budget constriction, and coverage issues. But the business has been down before – at least journalistically. And at that time, the early 1900s, it was the advent of the Pulitzer Prizes that rescued papers from the riptide of sensational "yellow journalism." With the first Pulitzers in 1917, reporters and editors suddenly found themselves mentioned alongside celebrated novelists and playwrights. Founder Joseph Pulitzer's idea to elevate the best US newspapers helped usher in an era of excellent journalism.

Today, if the Pulitzers recognized excellence across a wider range of print and electronic content, they could help lift journalism once more.

Last December, the Pulitzer organization sought a desperately needed boost – in part, perhaps, to spare the awards from becoming an anachronism amid the growth of Twitter, the blogosphere, and other channels for news unknown just a few years ago. It decided to allow entries in all 14 journalism categories from web-only news organizations. (The ruling exempted the work of websites operated by print magazines and broadcasters, even though that work competes with newspaper sites for readers.)

Of the 1,028 total journalism submissions from around the country, there were 65 entries from online enterprises. Thirty-seven online-only news organizations entered. But only one was mentioned by name in the Pulitzer results: Politico (and it has a limited print version), whose editorial cartoonist was a finalist.

Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers, won't speculate what further changes the Pulitzer Board might make at its next meeting. The board "will continue to monitor online development," he says, and is likely to consider some changes in future rules and guidelines. But for now, "I think the board regards this as a successful step forward," he adds.

With not a single primarily web-based Pulitzer winner, and only one finalist – from a cartoonist?