The Pulitzer Prizes Are WorthlessS

The nomination deadline for the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes is five days away. Newspaper editors around the county are busy crafting nomination letters, putting together elaborate packages showcasing their best work, and forking over $50 entry fees for a shot at winning journalism's most prestigious prize later this Spring. No one will care.

When I started as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune—my first real newspaper job—almost a decade ago, I sat at a cubicle next to a lovely old hack by the name of Jeff. He was sweet and helpful to me as the new guy, and had been at the paper for decades before landing at the Sunday magazine section as a mid-level editor. He was good at his job, but he wasn't exactly treated as a star at the paper, and struck me as a loyal foot soldier who had long ago given up on the lure of the front page or climbing the masthead. When I found out that he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his science reporting—one of only 25 the Tribune has won in its 165-year history—I was shocked.

Here was the first real live Pulitzer winner I'd ever laid eyes on, and he was indistinguishable from the hundreds of other reporters and editors at the paper whose work had never been judged as representing the best American journalism has to offer. In fact, he was treated like just another working stiff on the features desk. Jeff took a buyout three years ago amid one of the Tribune's periodic bloodlettings. The lesson I took was: Never think you're special just because someone likes what you do. An auxiliary lesson, confirmed by the cases of East Valley Tribune reporter Paul Giblin, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Andrew Schneider, the Tribune's John Crewdson, and the Los Angeles Times' Sharon Bernstein—all Pulitzer winners who have lost their jobs in recent years as newspapers continue their death struggle—is this: Pulitzer Prizes don't matter anymore.

If a Pulitzer isn't a guarantee that, at the very least, you won't get canned tomorrow, then what good is it as a mark of journalistic excellence?

The prizes have always been, as Jack Shafer aptly put it, little more than "industry peacockery"—journalists showering praise on other journalists. While the name serves as a handy mark of quality or importance for the lay reader, no normal human has ever really cared who won, or who made the list of finalists. The fanfare that has traditionally attended the announcement of winners, including front-page treatment on winning newspapers and fever-pitch rumor-mongering among reporters, always stood in hilarious contrast to the prizes' utter irrelevance to the real world newspapers purport to cover. The most bizarre indication of that distance is the Pulitzer board of directors' smug announcement on its web site that it has "declined offers to transform the occasion into a television extravaganza." An extravaganza? Would there be a red carpet? Maybe Ryan Seacrest could host.

But the Pulitzers don't seem to be an extravaganza even in the mind of its target audience anymore. "I think it was a bigger deal then than it is today," says Buzz Bissinger of his 1987 prize for investigative reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It seemed to have a bigger splash. I used to follow the Pulitzers religiously, but I didn't even look last year. As print journalism fades, so do the Pulitzers."

Indeed, the whole notion of an award aimed at newspapers seems bizarrely constricted and artificial in the age of digital publishing. The prizes were opened to "news sites" in addition to print outlets in 2009, but the whole enterprise is still suffused with print culture and the attendant weird stodginess about who's in the club and who isn't. Two years ago there was much debate about whether the National Enquirer merited consideration for its reporting on John Edwards' infidelity and love-child. The Pulitzer board's initial reaction was to claim (falsely) that the Enquirer is actually a magazine, and so ineligible under Pulitzer rules. The no-magazines rule is plainly nonsensical when "news sites" are eligible—is the Daily Beast a news site, and so eligible, or the web site of Newsweek, a verboten magazine? (Sig Gissler, a Pulitzer board member and spokesman, declined to tell me: "We don't speculate about the eligibility of entries from various media"). Why would Time magazine's web-only political coverage be barred when precisely the same stories would be eligible if it stopped publishing a print edition? Likewise, all the print work that the broadcast and cable networks produce on their web sites would be worthy of consideration but for the fact that they also produce television.

The Pulitzer board is a rogue's gallery of print hacks, from retired editors (Ann Marie Lipinski, former editor of the Tribune) to cable news preeners (the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson) to catastrophically talentless metaphor manglers (the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, whose three Pulitzers ought to tell you all you need to know about the board's judgment). Its sole sop to digital publishing is the inclusion of Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei, the power-mad proprietor of a digital sweatshop.

These people (and their forebears on the board) used to be the most powerful journalists on the planet, and they presided over, essentially, the entire universe of quality daily journalism. But that realm has receded dramatically in relation to the wild overgrowth of digital reporting that now surrounds it. Rather than simply acknowledge the extent to which the publishing world has changed, and altering the prize to reflect the best journalism produced anywhere, in any format, the people who bestow Pulitzers have chosen to batten down the hatches. Yes, online-only outlets are now eligible. The only one to have won so far is ProPublica, a fine and laudable outfit that is led by a former Wall Street Journal editor and devotes much of its energy to partnering with newspapers. So far, only one prize has gone to a work that never appeared in print.

That reluctance to become relevant to the way most people get their news is why no one bothered to leak the list of finalists last April in anticipation of the announcement of winners, a time-honored tradition. I doubt such a list will leak this year, or the next. It would be of interest only to the people whose names are on it.

[Photo-illustration by Jim Cooke; image via Shutterstock]