America's Pernicious Pulitzers

America's newsrooms are in a state of excitement: the Pulitzer prizes for excellence in journalism have been awarded. Washington Post, winner in six categories, is said to be particularly febrile. "It's a pretty amazing atmosphere over here right now," one reporter told Media Mob. "The big editors are roaming around with big smiles." (Update: this is what counts as jubilation.) Too bad the payout is only $10,000 per prize: the Pulitzers aren't going to finance American journalism; in fact, one can make the argument that these self-congratulating awards, and the attention devoted to them, are symptomatic of the decline of the newspaper industry.

Slate's ever-griping press critic, Jack Shafer, has already made the point that the Pulitzer judging process is arbitrary. "There's no real science or even fairness behind the picking of winners and losers, with the prizes handed out according to a formula composed of one part log-rolling, two parts merit, three parts 'we owe him one,' and four parts random distribution."

And the former journalist who created HBO's Baltimore drama, The Wire, made one of the last season's villains an editor who boasted of his understanding of Pulitzer judges, because he had once been one. The Wire's semi-fictional Baltimore Sun pretended that its reporting had influenced Maryland's policies with regard to the homeless, because that would prove the impact of its reporting.

But the newspapers' Pulitzer-chasing is most damaging because it distracts newspapers from their real challenge. Rather than impress colleagues with the seriousness of their reporting, US newspapers need to engage a readership that is drifting off to television and the internet. Pulitzer-winning journalism will win Pulitzers; it won't save an industry which is experiencing double-digit annual declines in advertising revenue.

Take a look across the Atlantic. The British Press Awards are so lacking in respectability that, after a particularly rowdy show in 2005, several newspaper editors decided to boycott the awards. A shocked New York Times reporter wrote: "last night's ceremony - a mind-numbing parade of awards in 28 categories - was not a mutually respectful celebration of the British newspaper industry fuelled by camaraderie and bonhomie. It was more like a soccer match attended by a club of misanthropic inebriates."

And yet the British newspaper industry is in much more robust health. To be sure, circulations are in gradual decline. And standards of journalism are as sloppy as ever. But newspapers such as The Guardian have a much greater share of the online audience than their American counterparts. And the papers, while lacking much of the worthy reporting that wins Pulitzers, are way livelier.

The connection? The respect of peers is a luxury that US newspapers have enjoyed because, for much of the second half of the 20th century, they were local monopolies. They could afford to be respectable, because they didn't need to pander to readers. In the UK, by contrast, 12 national dailies are in vicious competition. Editors fear the loss of their jobs, not their honor.

It is not as if the New York Times and Washington Post can magically invigorate themselves by eschewing the Pulitzers. America's vastness, which mitigates against national newspapers and produces smaller local markets which can only support one title, is an unalterable fact. But, while the Washington Post and other winners may celebrate today, they should recognize a harsh truth: the same monopolies which have allowed a public-service mentality to flourish have also left newspapers unprepared for new competition. These Pulitzers are the totem poles of the newspaper industry; beloved relics of former glory.