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American Journalism Review
The Pulitzer Jinx  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1992

The Pulitzer Jinx   

Tim Larimer, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, is a former staff writer for West, the San Jose Mercury News' Sunday magazine. He has never won a Pulitzer Prize.

By Tim Larimer
Tim Larimer, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, is a former staff writer for West, the San Jose Mercury News' Sunday magazine. He has never won a Pulitzer Prize.      


After winning the premier prize, many journalists' lives are irrevocably changed and not always for the better.

Deborah Blum, a science reporter at the Sacramento Bee, had the dream of virtually every American newspaper journalist come true for her last spring. At last, she had made it. At last, someone noticed. At last, the Pulitzer.
Life after a Pulitzer, most assume, must be life in the fast lane. The New York Times and the Washington Post will be begging for your services. Salary raises, bonuses, promotions, book contracts, movie deals, a guest spot on Oprah – all these goodies lie in wait.
Blum, a 38-year-old newspaper veteran who, like many reporters, had toiled in relative obscurity, was quickly brought back to earth by one of her editors. "I've known people who have won a Pulitzer," he told her, "and never wrote a decent word again."
Those words would likely send a chill through many a Pulitzer winner. Recipients acknowledge that they fear the award was a fluke, that they'll never do it again (most won't), that colleagues, editors, readers and even in-laws expect Pulitzer-caliber material under every byline, and that the much-anticipated career boost will, in fact, never materialize.
This is the down side of winning the Pulitzer, the phenomenon recipients hesitate to talk about with anyone except each other. Life in the newsroom, they learn, is never quite the same. Some talk of journalistic paralysis setting in, rendering them incapable of finishing their next project or even moving on to another story. Some fall into deep funks, slumps that can last for months, or in
some cases, until they make a radical career change.
One reporter stalled for four months and admits she didn't really produce again until she became a city editor. A feature winner left the newspaper business and now teaches journalism. An editorial writer escaped his newsroom to travel in Europe.
Worrying about the negative aspects of a Pulitzer probably sounds like intolerable whining to most newspaper people. And more than one winner has said, "Of course I'd never give it back." Even so, Post-Pulitzer Syndrome does exist, and for some it can be debilitating.

Set Up to Fall
Contrary to popular belief, Pulitzer winners are not flooded with job offers. This is perhaps the most shattering realization for recipients, since they are quasi-celebrities for the first few weeks after the awards are announced each spring.
"The sheer volume of mail and phone calls is unbelievable," says Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, this year's winner for editorial cartooning. "There are so many distractions that it's been hard to find time to work."
Some winners find themselves on display. "The P.R. people would bring classes of students in the newsroom, and I was apparently stop No. 17. I couldn't tell what was being said, but they were all looking at me," says Jon Franklin, a University of Oregon professor who belongs to the elite club of two-time Pulitzer recipients. He won at the Evening Sun in Baltimore in 1979 and 1985.
Despite the initial fanfare, few get the warm reception they anticipated from potential new employers.
David Hanners (explanatory journalism, '89) of the Dallas Morning News, says he was reluctant to send out ršsumšs too soon after winning because it seemed crass, "like I would be trying to cash in." Still, the temptation is great, and a reporter's stock is at its highest after winning. So Hanners, now 37, wrote to the Chicago Tribune, a paper he had longed to work for since his childhood in central Illinois.
"It was weeks and weeks before I heard anything back. Basically, it was kind of a personalized form letter. To heck with the fact I won a Pulitzer," says Hanners, still smarting from the snub. "It was kind of a shock it took so long for them to get back to me." He stayed in Dallas, where he was promoted to special projects reporter, a common step for Pulitzer winners.
Jacqui Banaszynski (feature writing, '88) of the St. Paul Pioneer Press also didn't find the Pulitzer to be a stepping stone. "Everyone thinks you win a Pulitzer and you can write your own ticket," she says. "That may be true if you're Bob Woodward at the Washington Post and you wrote about Watergate. But it's not the case when you're in St. Paul and wrote about a gay love story."
Elliot Jaspin (local investigative reporting, '79), now systems editor for Cox Newspapers in Washington, D.C., won while at the Pottsville Republican in Pennsylvania. Like many reporters at smaller newspapers, he says he "lusted" for a shot at the majors.
"I thought, finally, I'll play in the big leagues," says Jaspin, 46. "What did I get? Zero... The most it does for you is give you a certain amount of entrše. You probably would get an interview, and get turned down, more readily than the next guy." Ultimately Jaspin did land a job with the Philadelphia Daily News, where he moved within a year.
Some Pulitzer winners who do make it to the big leagues find it isn't always what they dreamed it would be.
Bill Dedman, who won in 1989 for his reporting at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has stopped working for newspapers, at least temporarily. Just before winning the prize he had left the Atlanta papers to go to the Washington Post. When that job didn't work out, he moved to Philadelphia, where he did some freelancing. Now he has a Freedom Forum Media Studies Center fellowship at Columbia University working with Jaspin on a book about computer assisted reporting.
"I don't think the Pulitzer had anything to do with any of this," Dedman says. "I wrote stories after winning; that wasn't a problem. I don't think it affected me in that way." He left the Post, he says, after he was denied a transfer following a dispute over a controversial story he was researching.
Tom Turcol had a similar experience at the Post. Within six months after winning a 1985 Pulitzer for stories exposing corruption of a development official in Norfolk, Virginia, Turcol fielded calls from the Washington Post, New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. He left the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and took a job with the Post covering Fairfax County government for the paper's Virginia desk.
But life at the Post wasn't satisfying; within a year he was gone.
"When I got there, I was thinking I had just been rewarded for doing a certain kind of work – investigative work. I thought I'd continue [to pursue] the same kind of stories," says Turcol, now 39, "but my editor was more interested in general kind of coverage... Maybe I was a little too gung-ho, thinking I'd go in and start producing hard-hitting stories right away."
The Inquirer came knocking again, so he left the Post to cover Trenton and Camden County in New Jersey, and then spent four years at Philadelphia City Hall. Now he's back in New Jersey.
"The Pulitzer has gotten me to where I wanted to be," he says. "But it's a two-edged sword. Once you get to a major paper, it's tougher to get the job you want...
"But don't get me wrong. It's not as if I thought the Post should have hired me and assigned me to the White House beat. I looked at [the Pulitzer] as an opportunity to get in the door."

High Anxiety
One of the foremost complaints Pulitzer winners have is that their editors' expectations suddenly shoot through the roof. Each story is expected to be a brilliant investigation or studded with sparkling prose. And chances are good that editors will count on Mr. or Ms. Pulitzer to produce another. But as Eugene Roberts, whose Philadelphia Inquirer won 17 Pulitzers while he was editor, points out, "To expect someone to win a second would be a completely unreasonable expectation." (Excluding cartoonists, only 15 have repeated in 76 years.)
Banaszynski, 40, like many other winners, suggests that expectations for her were already higher than the average reporter because of her reputation at the newspaper. "I'm always aware that I am expected to write to a certain standard," she says. "That was true before, though. Now there is just not as much room for forgiveness. I'm always aware that I'm being watched."
This game of expectations has both positive and negative effects. The good side is that editors treat story proposals kindly. Pulitzer winners often end up doing what they want, at least for a while. As the Pittsburgh Press' Mary Pat Flaherty, 37, (specialized reporting, '86) says, "When I raise an idea, I get a warmer reception than someone else might. I have an amazing amount of freedom to do things I want to do, the freedom to manage my own time and work life."
"You are inclined to get more time to do stories, no questions asked," says Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee, who won his second Pulitzer this year. "You get a little more leeway from editors. I'm less likely to be sent out on a Saturday to a ski resort to get a couple of quotes for the Sunday paper about how the snow is."
The negative side of the expectations game is that editors not only treat proposals gingerly, they treat stories the same way. "My advice to editors is to be just as critical [of Pulitzer winners' work] as you were before," says Pete Carey (international reporting, '86) of the San Jose Mercury News. "Remember, you wouldn't have won the prize without that element of criticism."
High expectations also mean that articles produced by a Pulitzer winner are often overplayed.
"All of a sudden, everything I wrote went on the front page," says Franklin. "Frankly, it was a long time before I produced anything worthy of being [there]. I knew why it was on the front page, everyone else knew why. They wanted that Pulitzer byline out there. And that makes you feel real peculiar."
Sometimes winners pressure themselves, creating what might be called Pulitzer Paralysis. This seems especially true among feature writers. Somehow, an investigative reporter will be forgiven for wooden construction and dull leads, and besides, investigations can take months. People don't expect something overnight. But a feature winner? The writers themselves, at least, often feel they must spin gold.
"I thought there was a new standard to meet every time I wrote," says Dave Curtin (feature writing, '90), of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph. "I felt a great deal of pressure. I still do."
Curtin talks of working "in a fishbowl," imagining that his colleagues, even his readers, were analyzing his stories more critically. He admits he has never actually talked to anyone about this, not his fellow reporters and certainly not his editors. (This, too, is a common characteristic. Pulitzer winners often feel colleagues won't sympathize, so they keep these insecurities to themselves.)
The Inquirer's Turcol also feels self-imposed pressure. "You put a different standard on yourself," he says. "Despite the fact that my editors said there is no greater pressure, just do what you do best, subconsciously you're always thinking you can either match or top what you did. So it's a little bit of a curse."
He doesn't think he has written a story as good as the one that won him a Pulitzer seven years ago, but chalks it up to luck: "I happened to be in a place where something scandalous was going on for years and years, and I had a good source who tipped me off."
Curtin, who turns 37 this month, further suffers from what some winners, especially at smaller newspapers, experience: the need to prove the award wasn't a fluke. "That first year, I felt like I had to go out and write some great stuff, you know, to live up to it. Then I thought I could relax. I've never gotten to the point where I feel I can relax."
In fact, he admits to having a hard time writing at all. "I feel kind of frozen, like I'm paralyzed." The Pulitzer, he says, is a great honor he's thrilled to have received, "but life seemed a lot simpler before."
Marjie Lundstrom (national reporting, '91) never did get back into a reporting routine. She won for stories she wrote with Rochelle Sharpe at the Gannett News Service, but when the award was announced she was working for the Sacramento Bee.
"I always thought that winning the Pulitzer would be kind of the great liberator," says Lundstrom. "It didn't work that way for me. Within a matter of weeks, I felt this great responsibility to do it again. The trepidation I was feeling – I was being very hesitant – that was very unlike me."
For months, she would start a project and fail to finish it. Within six months she was asked to return to editing and is now the city editor. Looking back, she says it might have helped to have an editor push her more.
When asked if, given her experience, she was doing anything to help her paper's two winners from this year, Deborah Blum and Tom Knudson, she paused and then said, "This is terrible to admit, but I hadn't thought about it. I guess I do have a responsibility to make sure what happened to me doesn't happen to them, to make sure they are clearly on a path to a new story."

The Ego Factor
This element of Post-Pulitzer Syndrome is perhaps unavoidable. Yes, winning invariably inflates the ego. Some winners are more open about discussing this than others, but most of them do agree on one thing: No matter how modest they try to act, newsroom peers are likely to perceive the most innocent of comments as proof of a swelled head. Still, refusing to do weather stories, demanding a column or spending the better part of a year writing about a dog sledding expedition across Antarctica (as Jacqui Banaszynski did) probably doesn't engender good will.
"We went through a real tough time figuring out what was the best thing for me to do," Banaszynski says. "I had reached the age where I no longer wanted to chase school board meetings and brush fires."
This particular affliction, a reluctance to cover the humdrum of daily journalism, probably happens to everyone at some point. Pulitzer winners, however, suddenly have the credentials to act on it. Or, as is sometimes the case, normally pushy editors suddenly get the jitters about asking a Pulitzer winner to do anything.
"For a long time, I didn't get any stories at all," says Banaszynksi. "I just didn't write. Then, the newsroom is seeing you as not producing, and all the perceptions they have are realized. They don't want to throw me on daily general assignment or a beat. And I don't want that. Yet this newspaper has certain needs. So at times I feel like a very expensive luxury."
And no wonder. Since winning the Pulitzer, Banaszynski moved to the sports department for six months to cover the Summer Olympics in Seoul, spent about six months off and on covering the Antarctica expedition, directed local Persian Gulf War coverage (and traveled to Turkey and Iraq to cover the post-war Kurdish revolt) and went to Rome to cover the Pope's decision on whether to visit the Twin Cities during his 1993 U.S. tour. Now she is a special projects editor and reporter.
"The standard for what excites me about a story kind of jumped exponentially," says the Dallas Morning News' Hanners. "Soon after winning, I thought, 'If the story's not going on page one above the fold on Sunday, what's the use?' But when all is said and done, I'm just another run-of-the-mill reporter at the News."
Jonathan Freedman (editorial writing, '87) says he "no longer felt grounded. My ego became inflated. It was confusing to me. Did people value me or like me for myself or because I won the Pulitzer Prize?"
A writer at the now-defunct San Diego Tribune, he won another award the same year that paid $10,000; he used the money to travel in Europe to write about terrorism. "When I came back, relationships were strained," he says. He stayed at the paper for two more years, partly because he was given a syndicated column, but finally felt so adrift he left to freelance.
"The prima donna thing is complicated because the ego gets inflated at the same time colleagues become jealous. That's natural," Freedman says. "No one really knows how to act. In that sense, a Pulitzer can be very destructive."

The Beat Goes On
With two awards under his belt, Tom Knudson is as close as one can get to an expert on how to best handle life after a Pulitzer. After his first, while a reporter at the Des Moines Register, Knudson did get the coveted call from on high – the New York Times hired him. After a couple of years, though, he decided the Times was not the place for him. "It's not as project-oriented as I would have liked," he says. So he went to Sacramento.
His advice is simple: Don't get caught up in the hoopla following the announcement. Enjoy it, drink the champagne and then get on with the next story.
"Being a celebrity didn't get you here," Knudson says. "Going out, driving the lonely miles and eating at McDonald's and staying up late at some crummy hotel and reading government documents, that's what got you here. The Pulitzer is like frosting on the cake. But you have to get back to baking the next cake."
Those who do survive Post-Pulitzer Syndrome use the credential not just to avoid writing weather stories, but to tackle something more ambitious. Freedman, for example, left the San Diego Tribune to freelance for the Los Angeles Times and other publications. After a year he landed a $100,000 advance to write a book about poverty in America. In a sense, the Pulitzer was the impetus that pushed him out of San Diego.
Karen Rothmyer, who profiled 20 prize winners for her 1991 book "Winning Pulitzers," discounts the notion that the prize carries a jinx. "It often does seem to be the case that people go off and do something different," she says. It is as if the Pulitzer gives its recipients a journalistic stamp of approval to write a book – and the confidence to do so.
"When you win any kind of a prize..[there] must be something that makes you think, 'Do I want to keep doing what I'm doing?' " she says. "I mean, after winning, what's the point?"
Every winner seems comforted by the fact that the Pulitzer validates what they do every day. The nature of the job is such that most journalists from time to time feel that they are plugging away with little recognition. The Pulitzer changes that. Forever. Even 13 years later, Jaspin still gets an occasional thrill, such as when his daughters came home from school brimming with joy because they happened across their father's name in an almanac.
"I always felt like I was a really good, underappreciated science writer," says Blum. "People would say, 'Oh, Deborah, you're so good, you ought to be at the New York Times.' Well, I'm not. I'm at the Sacramento Bee. But with the Pulitzer, it's like I overcame that curse."
What was Blum's first assignment after the Pulitzer? She laughs, and admits it was an assignment that tested how she would deal with her new status. "They wanted me to write about how scientists find the presence of God," she says. "I just groaned. It sounded horrible to me. I didn't want to do it. But then I stopped myself and just did it. And it actually turned into what I thought was an interesting story."
She no longer had to worry about the gloomy warning from her editor on the day she won. "I'd love to win again. Who wouldn't?" she asks. "But I'm not going to consider myself a failure if I don't." l

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