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100 Years In, Pulitzers Still Highlighting Remarkable Journalism

Apr 14, 2017

This week, the annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced.

And while critics like President Trump may call it a celebration of the “failing” media, the announcement really was what it’s always been: a recognition of remarkable journalism.

This year marks the 100th year since Joseph Pulitzer, famous owner of the New York World and St. Louis Post Dispatch at the turn of the 19th Century, placed the idea into his will.

There were two categories he wanted to honor: journalism and letters and drama, said Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. And as of today, the prize is restricted to work that was published in a US newspaper, magazine or "a news site that publishes regularly."

That means no TV or radio, and no news organizations from outside the US, like the Guardian of London are eligible for recognition, she said.

Joseph Pulitzer couldn’t have imagined today’s media, which offers journalism in formats from broadcast TV and radio to Snapchat and Yahoo News. But McBride said he did leave instructions that allow the Board of Trustees to change the rules to accommodate changes in media and culture.

“For instance, in the 1940s, music was added as a category on the arts side,” she said.

The categories on the journalism side have changed over time, but it’s been only recently that more radical changes came as the board added non-newspapers. McBride said magazines were only added in 2015, just six years after the board added online-only publications, such as ProPublica – which already has won four Pulitzers.

The 2017 winners, McBride said, include the “traditionally good” organizations.  The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post won a combined seven of the 14 journalism Pulitzers this year.

“These three newsrooms a prize almost every year, often they win more than one,” she said.

Four of the awards involved the contentious 2016 election and President Trump - who has called the media "the enemy of the people." But McBride adds there was an abundance of really important work unrelated to the election.

That includes The Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune, which won for a series that exposed how victims of sexual assault are punished for reporting the crime at Brigham Young University. And The Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail, which documented how pharmaceutical companies are shipping vast quantities of prescription opioids to the state that ended up on the black market and were causing a lot of deaths.

In Florida, the Miami Herald picked up two: one for editorial cartoons and one for its work on the Panama Papers. And Laura Reilly of the Tampa Bay Times got a citation, a runner-up recognition for her work including the “Farm to Fable” series that took on local restaurants and farmers markets claiming to be farm-to-table operations.

And then, McBride said, there’s the small-town family paper with a circulation of just 3,000.

“A tiny, tiny newspaper in Iowa, called the Storm Lake Times, won a prize for editorials that called out big agriculture. This paper was started in 1990 by John Cullen,” she said. “His brother, Art, won the award. In addition to writing editorials, he's the city editor, a reporter and page layout guy.  His 24-year-old son is also on the staff. That’s really inspiring.”

As for future winners, McBride is optimistic that non-newspapers will continue to be recognized, regardless of whether the Pulitzer Board changes its eligibility rules.

For example, BuzzFeed, best known for its silly stories and lists, got its first citation for the work of Chris Hamby, an investigative reporter who already has one Pulitzer to his name for previous work at another news organization. She said BuzzFeed will get a Pulitzer eventually, as they have invested in a big investigative unit with at least six journalists like Hamby, who've won past Pulitzers.

“It's just a matter of time,” she said.