Pulitzer Prizes for Online Journalism?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   June 1997

Pulitzer Prizes for Online Journalism?   

By Ernest Sander
Ernest Sander is an editor on the Associated Press' foreign desk.     


When Joseph Pulitzer endowed the awards that bear his name, he offered few hints as to how — or even whether — they should evolve to keep pace with changes in journalism. As a result, the Pulitzer board has, over the years, tried to balance faithfulness to his intent with a desire to stay current and relevant.

The board has expanded the number of journalism prizes from four to 14 in the 80 years since the first Pulitzer was awarded, adding categories such as beat reporting, international reporting, commentary and criticism.

The latest request for inclusion comes from the electronic journalism arena. For the first time, two papers, the New York Times and the Charlotte, Florida, Sun Herald, submitted online entries this year, both in the public service category.

While neither won, the Pulitzer board has formed a committee to explore whether this new medium has a place at the table of the most coveted honors in journalism. Seymour Topping, administrator of the prizes, says there has been "quite a lot of interest expressed" in finding a way to recognize online work.

For the Pulitzer board, accustomed to judging hard copies of stories and photo-graphs, online journalism presents something of a conundrum. Neither purely text-based nor exclusively pictorial, neither print nor broadcast — it's a mosaic.

Yet, for reporters and consumers alike, the Internet is a growing force in the delivery of news and information. The Dallas Morning News, for example, created a buzz this year when it published a controversial story in its electronic edition alleging that Timothy McVeigh had confessed to the Oklahoma City bombing (see "From the Editor," April). The exclusive was posted online before it ran in the paper's print version.

The Pulitzer board, says Bruce Henderson, head of the new media center at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, has an opportunity to set standards for reliability and utility in a vital but nascent and inconsistent medium. Editor & Publisher already has an online newspaper award, and the Society of Professional Journalists will soon offer one. More and more J-schools offer courses, if not entire majors, in new media.

"The Internet needs something like this. Then the public can decide where the good news sources are versus the information put out by the 13-year-old down the block," says Henderson. "What a public service that would be."

What is clear from looking at the two online submissions to the Pulitzer board this year is that they offer a depth, scope and interactivity not possible in any other single medium. In the Times' "Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace" ( www.nytimes.com/bosnia ) users can scroll through dozens of evocative pictures commissioned solely for the project and accompanied by the photo-journalist's narratives. Or they can take numerous side trips that open onto maps, histories, chronologies, audio accounts, online discussions and the Times' comprehensive archive on Bosnia. While no one piece of the package is truly unique, the compilation is quite innovative.

"It sends a signal that whatever else it is, online journalism can be and should be a place for substance and serious, original work, not just [a place for] recycling or adding value to something that has already occurred in print," says Kevin McKenna, editorial director of the New York Times' electronic media company.

The Sun Herald, one paper in a chain of dailies and weeklies in southwest Florida, submitted something quite different. "Our Town Charlotte" ( www.charlotte-florida.com ) is a project that essentially has put an entire community online free of charge. It includes everything from the Web pages of hundreds of people and organizations to sites with theater listings and regular Internet classes. The project has had an especially powerful effect on the community's sizable elderly contingent.

"We've introduced a brand-new technology, a whole new way of living, to a segment of the population that might never have embraced it," says Ronald Dupont Jr., coordinator of the project.

But Joseph Pulitzer published newspapers — first the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later the New York World — and that's where his mind was when he established the prizes. A "Plan of Award," derived from his will and recently revised, outlines his rules for carrying on his legacy: "Entries for journalism awards may be made by any individual from material appearing in a United States newspaper published daily, Sunday or at least once a week during the calendar year."

To the original four Pulitzer prizes — for public service, reporting, editorial writing and newspaper history — the board has added, dropped and modified categories. Newspaper photography was added in 1942, while "telegraphic reporting" was replaced by national reporting in 1948. The board has turned down appeals for inclusion from magazines and broadcast media. But nowhere, Topping concedes, does Pulitzer's mandate explicitly bar electronic journalism.

The Pulitzer committee charged with researching the online issue — it includes a publisher, a wire service president, an editorial page editor, a columnist and a law professor — must answer a raft of questions before reporting back to the larger board in November.

Would there be one prize or multiple prizes? Would only news stories be eligible or entire Web sites as well? What about stories that have already appeared in print? Would the entrants be limited to media companies? To print media companies?

What would the founder of the prizes, were he alive, say about online journalism? J. Douglas Bates, author of "The Pulitzer Prize," argues that Pulitzer was above all a pioneer. He was among the first to put a comic strip in a newspaper and was a noted proponent of "muckraking," the forerunner of modern investigative journalism.

"It's easy to imagine that he would have wanted to be in the forefront of so-called electronic journalism," says Bates. "He was the kind of swashbuckling publisher who would have tried to get a corner on the market."

###