How e-Pulitzers can elevate journalism

Granting the prizes to more online work would raise standards.

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.

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?

Some people suggest that one way to break the ice is to create special categories for online entries. But Pulitzer purists blanch at the idea, noting that over the years categories have been drawn to consider the quality of the work, rather than its source. A more sensible approach – one that points the way to the Pulitzers' 21st-century standard of excellence for all text-based journalism – is to broaden eligibility further, to all US online news operations, regardless of affiliation. That would allow magazine and broadcast-based online reporters to compete, too, while still letting the Pulitzers hold the line (for now) at barring citizen journalism, such as blogs and photos taken by individuals on a cellphone.

"Good journalism these days increasingly uses many tools, and there is a convergence of sorts that occurs if you're taking full advantage of what you can do online," says Margaret Wolf Freivogel, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday editor who now edits the online-only St. Louis Beacon. A Pulitzer juror this year, she served on the five-person panel for national reporting, alongside an editor from the online Politico operation – one other sign of the Pulitzers' desire to diversify.

Meanwhile, the board quietly has been seeking the views of outside experts. And one, Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, caused a stir last year when he made his own recommendations public – among them a strategic expansion of Pulitzer categories to reflect today's converging media. "Become the top prizes for journalism of any kind. Do away entirely with the distinction between newspapers and other media," he suggested. "There's no real alternative."

Given the Pulitzer Board's historic conservatism, that's not likely to happen soon. But, come November, the Pulitzer organization should reinvent itself at least to welcome all professional online journalism – even if its affiliated media, like magazines, give their own awards.

As it was at the start of Pulitzer's 20th century, its prizes should be the standard of excellence for all American text-based journalism.

That would once more elevate journalism – and elevate the Pulitzers, too. And it just might make old Joseph Pulitzer smile.

Roy J. Harris Jr. is the author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism." A 23-year veteran of the Wall Street Journal, he now lives in Hingham, Mass.

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