The Pulitzers: In With the Old

Now that the fabulous glory of the 2009 Pulitzers—the first ever to include online reporting!— has come and gone, let us reflect on their meaning. Hint: the Pulitzers are just like the newspaper industry!

Which is to say, they're a valuable and worthwhile reflection of the hard work of dedicated public servants, and also behind the times and self-important. [BIG PICTURE ANALYSIS, NUT GRAF]. There's certainly no arguing against the merits of a "richly detailed story of a neglected little girl, found in a roach-infested room," or "the exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip amid lax enforcement of regulations." That's good and important stuff!

But let's see what kind of reporting wasn't much honored by the Pulitzers for the year of 2008. For one, reporting on the economy. Not one damn prize. That was a pretty big story, last year! For two, the presidential campaign and election. That got the national reporting prize — but for a web site the St. Peterburg Times made that before today we had never heard of. There was also a bit of a commentary prize, and the feature photography prize. But, again, you know a pretty big story in the actual "news"!

We're pretty excited that two sex scandals made the list: the New York Times' report of Eliot Spitzer's hooker habit and the sexting that brought down Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. It's a start.

And that doesn't mean that the Pulitzers should just rehash the year's ten biggest (or sexiest) stories. But it does point to the fact that they fully embrace a very niche form of journalism—done by the cream of the crop of reporter-mandarins, and read and absorbed mostly by policymakers. Stories that actually effect some sort of political or social change are Pulitzer favorites. Which is nice! But that type of reporting is 1. disappearing due to economic concerns, and 2. often the least likely to be read and appreciated by the vast majority of a paper's audience.

This negative feedback loop was at work long before the Internet started destroying the economic business model of newspapers (which, by the way, had more to do with selling classified ads and monopolizing department store advertising than it ever did in reader eagerness to read investigative reports). And while lucky newsrooms are quaffing champagne and patting themselves on the back, it's worth remembering that the idea of journalism celebrated at the Pulitzers has little to do with the sort of journalism that people actually read.

The NYT landed five Pulitzers, a good year for them. Bill Keller told the newsroom, "'At a time when so many' can't afford ambitious journalism, 'this paper has decided it can't afford not to.'" Stirring, but false! As the balance sheet stands today, the NYT actually can't afford to carry on the same brand of Pulitzer-bait journalism it's always practiced—long, lengthy, expensive stories aimed at a small, elite slice of readers. We mean they really can't afford to. They don't have the money to do it, long-term. And if they do get the money, it will come from some form of journalism that, you can be sure, is far, far removed from what the Pulitzer judges would ever consider worthwhile.

And what about those groundbreaking awards for online journalism? One went to the NYT's breaking coverage of the Spitzer scandal. Another went to the St. Petersburg Times "for 'PolitiFact,' its fact-checking initiative during the 2008 presidential campaign that used probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine more than 750 political claims." The NYT story has essentially nothing to do with the power of the internet, except that it broke online. The St. Pete thing, we're sure, is a great effort, but was it anywhere as consequential as, say, Nate Silver's website during the election? Or lots of others, that weren't assembled in an incredibly labor-intensive way by newspaper reporters? One day the Pulitzers will learn to love the internet. Just not yet.

Still, congratulations to all the winners! "The first line of your obit is written," as it is mandatory for all the hacks to say.