Arriving in eastern Ohio in 1925 as the new editor of the Canton Daily News, Don Mellett stumbled onto a civic disgrace – and a great story. Gangsters from as far away as Chicago were using Canton as a "hideout" for thugs on the lam, and paying off officials to look the other way. "It is the opinion of The News that Canton needs cleaning up," he wrote, launching a campaign that named the police chief, among other culprits. "Get busy or get out," wrote Mr. Mellett.
It was Canton's criminal element that got busy, though, shooting him dead outside his own home. Still, the paper's anti-crime campaign didn't fold. "We Carry On," the Daily News proclaimed on the front page.
In 1927, it won the Pulitzer Prize for public service. Eighty years later, amid plummeting newspaper readership, staff cutbacks, and often-superficial coverage, it's easy to think that such courage and civic devotion is in short supply. But when this year's winner of the prestigious prize is announced Monday, it will be just the latest evidence that journalism of the highest order continues to be practiced in newsrooms across America.
The history of this prize – the only Pulitzer award taking the form of a gold medal, and designed to be given to a newspaper, rather than individuals – shows the vital role that newspapers have played in serving the public good, often in the face of determined and powerful opposition.
That service-oriented courage can take many forms. Journalists putting themselves in harm's way have continued to get serious attention from the editors and academics who make up the Pulitzer Prize board, of course.
Dailies exposing Ku Klux Klan hatred, for example, won several early gold medals. Two North Carolina papers, in Whiteville and Tabor City, won in 1953 for campaigns against Klansmen, often revealed, under their sheets, to be government officials. (After winning, Tabor City Tribune editor Horace Carter admitted he had been terrified for his family as cars drove past his home at night, and he recounted how his 4-year-old son asked him, "The Klan gonna come and get you, Daddy?")
The 1979 Pulitzer medal went to the tiny Point Reyes Light in northern California. It reported on the armed cult that had grown within the Synanon anti-drug program, located just up the road from the editor's house. In one story, the Light reported how Synanon members had tried to kill an opposition lawyer by placing a rattlesnake in his mailbox.
But the public-service Pulitzer has grown to recognize fiscal as well as physical fortitude. In 1958, the Arkansas Gazette won for its balanced coverage of the court-ordered integration of Little Rock's Central High School, even though encouraging citizens to obey the law led segregationist readers to switch to the rival paper.
Famously, The New York Times knew it would incur huge legal bills – and the possibility of editors going to jail – when it decided to publish the top-secret, stolen Pentagon Papers in 1971. Americans had a right to their government's own account of official deception underlying Vietnam policy, the Times proclaimed. Likewise, the next year The Washington Post faced serious political risks in pursuing Watergate coverage that the Nixon White House vilified.
Less well-known, though, was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's winning 1984 work identifying a fatal design flaw in products made by Bell Helicopter, the city's biggest employer, which launched a boycott against the paper.
Journalists are eagerly awaiting Monday's Pulitzer announcements. Many readers, though, may puzzle at the congratulations, when they feel that the balanced news diet that papers once took pride in delivering has veered toward the celebrity-centric and the salacious. Others note that great papers such as The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times have been sold to owners whose efforts have yet to earn the public's trust.
Recent Pulitzer history, however, underscores America's many oases of journalistic courage, where dedicated editors still promote the reporter's drive to dig out the truth no matter the cost. Many journalists cite the 2002 work of The Boston Globe, exposing how leaders in the Roman Catholic Church sheltered priests who had abused young parishioners. The stories, written despite legal threats, were handled so brilliantly by the Globe's Spotlight investigative team that they roundly won praise from church members, shocked by what their leaders had done.
Monday's Pulitzer winners – and especially the public-service medalist – will be worth a close look. Whatever problems sap the strength of today's press, the ability and willingness of journalists to "carry on" boldly for their communities are worthy of our appreciation.
• Roy J. Harris Jr. is the author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism." A former Wall Street Journal reporter, he's now a senior editor at CFO magazine.