The Pulitzer Cartel  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2006

The Pulitzer Cartel   

Four large papers, long dominant in the Pulitzer sweepstakes, have tightened their stranglehold on the competition in the current decade. Why is that the case, and is there a better way?

By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.     

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When it comes to competing for Pulitzer Prizes, Earl Maucker likes to compare his team to baseball's Florida Marlins in 2003 as they took on the powerful New York Yankees in the World Series.

The Marlins had less money, less prestige and fewer marquee players. If they were going to win, they would have to play smarter and work harder.

"I think anybody can compete if they have the passion and the energy and the desire," says Maucker, editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which has been a Pulitzer finalist a dozen times since 1987. "You know that the Florida Marlins pulled out the World Series against the Yankees."

Still although he thinks the judging is fair Maucker, who has served as a Pulitzer juror, says he can't help but marvel at the way some of the nation's biggest newspapers win so many prizes. "Believe me, I've wondered... To always be a finalist but never get a leg over the bar," he says. "I don't have a problem with competing with the biggest and the best, because to do anything less would water down the awards. I am troubled that we haven't won.., and I do think that sometimes a newspaper's reputation does carry it over. But those are the breaks."

Maucker is far from the only journalist to speculate about the current state of the Pulitzer Prizes and what it might say about how the craft is practiced and judged in the 21st century. The largest, most prestigious newspapers just seem to keep on winning. Indeed, the list of all-time top Pulitzer-winning newspapers no surprises here starts with the New York Times (93 or 94 prizes, depending on who's counting); the Washington Post (44, including three awarded to members of the Washington Post Writers Group and not counting the one that was awarded to Janet Cooke and then withdrawn); the Los Angeles Times (39, including two for the L.A. Times Syndicate); and the Wall Street Journal (31).

But an AJR analysis of the decades starting with 1960 also shows that those four papers combined have dramatically increased their share of Pulitzer largesse over the years. Consider: In the 1960s, the Big Four won 15 percent of the journalism Pulitzers. Over the next three decades they gradually increased their share, winning 22 percent of the prizes in the 1970s, 24 percent in the 1980s and 32 percent in the 1990s. And now, so far in this decade, they have won an astounding 52 percent of the prizes. In 2002, the New York Times alone amassed seven Pulitzers. This year the Washington Post garnered four and the New York Times collected three.

Why the disparity? The bigger papers have bigger staffs, so they can more easily free up reporters to concentrate on ambitious, time-consuming enterprise and investigative projects. They have more money, prestige and opportunity, so they can hire away star journalists from smaller papers.

Some journalists, though, mutter darkly that politicking and conscious or unconscious favoritism toward the big boys play a role.

But why the recent upsurge? There is little doubt that September 11 is a major factor. A brutally challenging, far-flung megastory like the War on Terror plays to the strengths of the top national papers. But many also fear that years of staff reductions and relentless cost-cutting have taken their toll at regional papers across the country, handcuffing efforts to do world-class journalism and handing an even greater edge to the giants.

At one time, the Big Four "had serious competition from several other large newspapers or medium newspapers..but over the years, the competition has faded away," says Gene Roberts, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. Roberts is a former managing editor of the New York Times and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was a Pulitzer factory during his 18 years there, winning 17. The paper has won only once since he departed amid corporate budget cutting in 1990.

Roberts points in particular to once-competitive mid-level newspapers. "They've been taken over by chains that are lopping costs," he says. "Corporate publishers aren't motivated to spend money to win Pulitzers. They just don't think that way."

Well before September 11, the demise of the so-called "local" Pulitzers, awarded from 1948 to 1984, also altered the equation. (They were local only in that the word appeared in some category titles, and then was dropped starting in 1985.) AJR's analysis shows that, after the terminology change, larger newspapers began winning a higher percentage of those prizes.

Sig Gissler, the Columbia University associate professor who has served as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes since 2002, says the increasing dominance of the titans is an issue that "comes up from time to time. My sense is that size and resources don't necessarily mean great journalism. They certainly can contribute heavily to it... But it strikes me that there is a substantial diversity among the nominated finalists and the winners."

Quality reporting, says Gissler, a former editor of the Milwaukee Journal, "can be found across the board. We have 77 jurors from across the country, and they invariably say they are struck and inspired by the excellence they see."

Seymour Topping, a former New York Times managing editor and Gissler's predecessor as Pulitzer administrator, acknowledges that he and the Pulitzer jurors and board "are disappointed that more awards don't go to smaller newspapers, and when a small newspaper does win an award, the reaction is universal delight. But given the commitment of the Pulitzer process to excellence as the only standard, really, the awards tend to go to these larger newspapers who have the means of developing the best stories, or the best written and best backgrounded."

Butch Ward, a distinguished fellow at the Poynter Institute and a former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the now-defunct Baltimore News-American, says that the big-paper hegemony is due in part to a change in the way some newspapers view their mandate, with fewer doing ambitious enterprise reporting.

"It gets hard when they aren't doing this sort of work anymore," he says. "Is every paper in the country capable of hiring people who can do the work? The answer is yes, but it depends on whether you're willing to devote the resources necessary to do that work."

As an example, Ward points to the 1986 Pulitzers, when several of the top winners were regional papers that did national and international reporting. Many of those stories involving missing children, the nation's organ-transplant system, racial discrimination in public housing, problems in the Internal Revenue Service, the crisis in American farming started as local pieces, but the papers took the initiative to expand them into something of broader scope.

"Newspapers were willing to take a great story and run with it," Ward says. "They were willing to look beyond what was happening in their own backyards and see if it had significance on a larger scale."

Ward says the problem stems in part from today's "local, local, local" mantra. "I believe with every ounce of me that the local newspaper should absolutely own the franchise on local coverage," he says. "However, it seems to me that again, if you live in the year 2006 and you're constantly being reminded of how global our community is becoming, it's more important than ever to understand the connection between what's happening locally and what's happening elsewhere." So smart national and international coverage "discovering a story in your backyard and then following it" makes essential connections between a local community and the broader world, Ward says.

To Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Daily News senior writer and author of the blog Attytood, which frequently deals with media issues, "It's just boring when the same papers win over and over again."

Bunch created a stir in April, shortly after this year's prizes were announced, when he observed that while some "darned good" stories had won, there seemed to be no "old-school local enterprise reporting." He wrote: "If you look closer at the Pulitzers, you'll see the sad toll that economics and job cuts have already taken on American journalism. The two big newspapers that survive by covering national and global affairs for a small elite gobbled up a whopping seven prizes between them."

He sparked more controversy, particularly in his own newsroom, when he went on to suggest that newspapers with their shrinking staffs would be better off with less duplication of routine beat coverage in favor of more enterprise reporting. He cited an occasion when he was "urgently dispatched" to cover a trial verdict, and arrived to find several other reporters from other local media outlets. "What a colossal waste of Philadelphia's journalism talent!" he wrote. "Three of us should have been out in the neighborhoods or sifting through documents at City Hall, trying to scoop the other two while keeping Philly informed."

Bunch said in an interview that he doesn't think papers should stop covering government, crime, courts and other staples. Instead, he said, they should consider running more briefs instead of full-blown stories, freeing reporters for enterprise work. "How about more coverage of business corruption and public health problems that are being overlooked and who covers the environment anymore?"

Ward agrees. "If you are the largest paper in your community, readers will look to you [for that trial verdict], but they also look to you...to explain larger stories," Ward says. "I would never denigrate the work of the person covering the daily story, but I think the chances of having more readers for that story improve if you have some enterprise."

David Shribman, executive editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says that shrinking newsroom budgets don't excuse a lack of enterprise reporting. "You can't put out a newspaper by merely being an in-box for your community. You have to have investigative instinct and investigative edge," says Shribman, a Pulitzer winner who formerly worked at the now-defunct Washington Star, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. "Whether that translates into a team or an attitude, it's indispensable, or else basically you're a slave to what other people do and most of us in journalism didn't get into the business so we could be purely reactive and have our day set by what somebody else did or thought."

That approach may be a hard sell at some papers with shrinking staffs, budgets and newsholes. Between 1970 and 2004, the total number of U.S. newspaper employees peaked at 455,700 in 1990 and has gone steadily downward since, to 374,800 in 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

Paul E. Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, alluded to the financial difficulties facing newspapers in his remarks at this year's awards ceremony in May. The current environment for journalism, he said, "is as challenging as I have ever seen it," in part because "the economic model for mid-sized and large-but-not-national papers is in trouble."

Roberts ticks off a partial list of prizewinning newspapers that have been hard hit by budget cuts and staff reductions: Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Des Moines Register "and on and on." And if the Tribune Co. continues its cuts, "then at some point the Los Angeles Times will be out of the regular running," he predicts.

"My sense is that when you look at it story by story, the individual quality of stories is still quite good the ones that make their way to the final 10 in all the categories but papers that could be counted on to have two, three, four, five finalists, many are lucky if they get one, because they just don't have the muscle."

While no smoking gun has surfaced to prove the case, some Pulitzer-watchers believe that favoritism and politics play a role in the dominance of the big papers.

"I think there's no doubt that in the last decade, the big five or six papers have just taken over... My sense is that the process is so political and the bigger papers exert a lot of influence," says Bunch, a member of the New York Newsday team that won a spot-news Pulitzer in 1992 for its coverage of a subway derailment. That said, he quickly adds, "what's also happening is that with all the cutbacks in journalism, the heavyweights have a clearer field."

Gissler and Topping insist that politics and favoritism absolutely do not influence who wins. But the perception that they do has long been out there. A number of newspaper editors and other journalists who were contacted for this story declined to be interviewed, with some indicating they were concerned their comments might hurt their Pulitzer prospects. None of the current voting members of the Pulitzer board who were contacted agreed to be interviewed for this story, saying they could not talk because they were on the board.

Poynter's Ward says he saw no signs of favoritism when he served twice in the feature-writing category. "I can tell you from my experience that the jurors who sat in those groups were in no way looking to give the awards to big papers," he says. "You kind of go to the table looking for a hidden gem that will surprise everybody."

Roberts, who spent nine years on the Pulitzer board, says there is no favoritism toward the heavyweights in fact, the opposite is true. The board "bends over backward to reward small papers," he says, often at the expense of papers like the New York Times.

"In people's heart of hearts, they wanted to see other papers come through and be rewarded when they deserved it," he says. "I don't think anybody thinks it's to anyone's interest to have the same newspapers dominate."

But some journalists argue that there's excellent journalism going on at small and medium-size papers that isn't being recognized. "I can't help but think that there is a basic assumption when someone is a judge that you're predisposed to see some great work at the New York Times," says Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

While it's certainly legitimate that a number of prizes went to the large papers covering September 11 and its aftermath, "you also can't become myopic about some of the issues that are really facing us," Houston adds, ticking off a list including health care, poverty and immigration topics that are being well covered by many papers besides the most prestigious.

Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, thinks the Pulitzer board has turned the prizes into a brand comparable to Rolls-Royce, "very high quality but unaffordable and not economical, and in no way do [the winners] serve as a role model for the rest of the industry, because they praise, they extol, they hold up as exemplars a kind of journalism that is completely out of reach for the vast majority of journalists and, by implication, denigrate the type of journalism that the vast majority do."

Similarly, Bunch points to this year's Pulitzer for explanatory journalism, won by David Finkel of the Washington Post for a series on how the U.S. government was trying to bring democracy to Yemen. "No offense to what I'm sure was an awesome series," Bunch says, "but there's a lot of stuff here at home that needs to be explained, don't you think?"

For 37 years, from 1948 through 1984, some of the Pulitzer Prizes specifically included the word "local" in their titles. Although the precise wording changed three times during those years, in general the prizes recognized local reporting, on and off deadline. In their last incarnation, from 1964 to 1984, there were two "local" categories: "Local general or spot news reporting" and "Local investigative specialized reporting." In 1985, those two categories were replaced by four new ones: general news reporting, investigative reporting, explanatory journalism and specialized reporting. (General news became spot news from 1991 to 1997, and then breaking news from 1998 to today; specialized morphed into beat reporting from 1991 to today.)

So the number of categories grew, from 12 to 14. But as part of that shift, the word "local" was removed from the titles; today it appears only once in the 14 Pulitzer categories, in the description of the award for breaking news ("For a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news"). Are the Big Four bringing home a larger percentage of the prizes in the four categories that replaced the "local" ones? Yes, AJR's data analysis shows.

In the 21-year period from 1964 through 1984, for example, only four of the 42 "local" prizes, or 9.5 percent, went to the Big Four newspapers. In the four categories that replaced them, the Big Four took 31 of 91 prizes, or 34 percent, from 1985 through 2006.

While the labels have evolved over time, reflecting changes in journalism and technology, "there's no clear-cut line between local and non-local, but more than half of our finalists have some significant local dimension," Gissler says. "The local themes and topics have remained."

Some journalists think the Pulitzer jurors and board members don't give local news enough love. In a May column in the Miami Herald, Wasserman noted there were no categories specifically for local news, sports or business. The best stories written in those veins, he wrote, "wouldn't catch the eye of a Pulitzer juror for a nanosecond, even though they matter intensely to their communities land-use scams, petty thieving, the lies of municipal officials and hometown fat cats."

While no one would argue against excellence as the primary criterion for a Pulitzer, should excellence be relative to size of the paper, its staff and its budget? Many other journalism contests, including IRE, break down their prizes by circulation. In his column, Wasserman called for the Pulitzers to be "reimagined and restructured," saying they made "no allowance for the grotesque disparities in size and resources among the 1,400-plus daily newspapers that are the principal contenders. Plus they have no categories at all for what most of those papers actually do. So the big boys sweep."

Gissler says the Pulitzer board has considered breaking down categories by circulation but "has not been inclined to move in that direction, and I've found that most editors are dubious about it too, because they're concerned about diluting the competition."

Ron Royhab, executive editor of the Blade in Toledo, Ohio, agrees: "If you did it by circulation, some people think the award wouldn't mean as much... There's something delicious about winning a Pulitzer when one of the bigger papers did not."

Ward has a similar opinion: "I don't want to win a Pulitzer with an asterisk next to it. I want a Pulitzer that says I wrote the best feature story in the country."

Bunch says adding more journalists from small papers to the Pulitzer Board might improve the odds for regional and local dailies. "Then you'd have a voice in the room saying.., 'Back in Montana, this thing on corrupt judges really carries a lot more weight in a small community like the one I live in.' It may help people rethink what's important."

Despite the obstacles, some small- and medium-size papers do manage to outmuscle the national powers and bring home Pulitzers.

Toledo's Blade has been a Pulitzer finalist three times in the last six years, and won in 2004 for its investigative series on Tiger Force, an elite U.S. Army platoon accused of atrocities during the Vietnam War. With about 150 people on his news staff, Royhab says the Blade, which has a Sunday circulation of 167,686, has to pick its shots carefully.

"The size and the location of your newspaper should have nothing to do with the quality of your journalism," he says. "That doesn't mean we can do eight stories per year of that magnitude, but if we focus and build a staff of really good people, and we're all on the same page as to what our goals are, we can practice good journalism."

Royhab cited as an example the Blade's 2005 "Coingate" series, which probed illegal and questionable actions by state officials involved in Ohio's investment in a rare coin fund. The series was a Pulitzer finalist this year in the public service category, and the way the paper approached it offers a blueprint for investigative reporting in smaller newsrooms.

The project started, Royhab says, as a profile of local GOP fundraiser Tom Noe. In the process of gathering information, a Blade reporter learned that Noe was buying rare coins. Initially two reporters were on the story, but as they gathered more information about Noe's business dealings, a third reporter was taken off his community development beat and added to the team. As the piles of documents grew Royhab says that after a court fight, the paper extracted 500,000 pages from the state alone the Coingate team expanded to six members, plus an editor and an outside forensic auditor. Other reporters had to double up to cover some beats.

"I have to admit there may have been stories we didn't cover as well as we normally would," Royhab says, "but I don't think we let the public down... Basically, what we do is we have only one major, major story going on at one time, but we put a lot of resources into it."

Roberts praises the Blade and says its philosophy works well for a paper of its size, but worries that "papers two or three times bigger than Toledo seem to be also in this pattern of just sort of resigning themselves to one big heave a year."

Founded in 1835, the Blade was purchased by the Block family in 1926. The Blocks may not be at the mercy of Wall Street as publicly held papers are, but they are hardly immune to the financial pressures that rattle journalism: Earlier this year, four family members voted 3-1 to close the 79-year-old Washington bureau of the Blade and its sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and lay off four of the five employees there (see Drop Cap, April/May).

The Blade has an enormous newsroom compared to Willamette Week, with its 14 full-time staffers. But the papers have something in common: winning Pulitzers.

Mark Zusman, editor of the Portland, Oregon, weekly, has just four news reporters (others cover the arts and culture). His paper won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2005 for a story that exposed a former Oregon governor's sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl (see "The Story Behind the Story," August/September 2004).

Zusman, who once interned for the late columnist (and Pulitzer-winner) Jack Anderson, long ago accepted the fact that he can't do it all: a small alternative publication like the Week cannot do prizewinning investigations and still cover all the ins and outs of local news. He cedes the latter role to the Oregonian (itself no stranger to winning Pulitzers) but still prides himself on breaking news.

"We're more of a guerrilla paper," he says. "We're not the paper of record."

Zusman says his reporters are taken seriously by the people and institutions they cover because "we have for 30 years now been publishing stories that have resulted in people getting put behind bars, or getting laws changed, or good people getting recognized, or justice prevailing." He owns the paper with a partner.

Like the Blade, Willamette Week chooses its investigative targets carefully and doesn't believe in halfway measures. "We do a story that another newspaper might do, but we take it all the way home... We're somewhat less polite to the institutions that we write about."

Zusman doesn't begrudge the larger newspapers their Pulitzers: "The New York Times does extraordinarily good journalism and that's why they win... That's why the Washington Post wins."

He adds: "I would hate to be in the position of the Pulitzer jury. They have to make all these decisions and comparisons... But I do think the Pulitzers have demonstrated that if you do great work, you can break through and they'll give you your due."

Officially, there are no set criteria for choosing Pulitzer winners. The definitions of each category are the only guidelines. "It is left up to the nominating juries and the Pulitzer Prize Board to determine exactly what makes a work 'distinguished,'" the Pulitzer Web site (www.pulitzer.org) states.

While the quest for the Pulitzer is hardly the only reason papers embark on major projects, if the prizes appear increasingly unattainable to the vast majority of reporters and papers, will some of them just give up? No way, says Topping. He cites what he saw and heard at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Seattle in April. "The mood was, we will survive and be rewarded if we continue to impress our readers that we are essential," he says.

Indeed, the number of Pulitzer entries in the last five years has remained pretty consistent, ranging from 1,339 in 2002 to 1,324 this year, according to Gissler. Overall, he says, "the judges feel there is a hell of a lot of good journalism going on."

While IRE's Houston says "there's no question in my mind that [for projects], there are less resources in some newsrooms than there used to be," he quickly adds, "that doesn't mean you won't see great work." He says the Web, with its ability to put quality journalism in front of judges long before contest time, "will help make people more aware of some of the great work that's out there." IRE keeps an updated list of new investigative stories at www.ire.org/extraextra.

And it's important to remember that prizes, while valuable tools for encouraging good journalism and great fun to win are hardly the primary reason for doing outstanding work.

"We don't want to focus too much on prizes," says onetime Pulitzermeister Gene Roberts. "The game is to serve your readership and your city and your state."

Andrew Grant contributed research to this report.

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