Updating the Pulitzer Prizes for the Internet Age

    by Dan Gillmor
    December 11, 2008

    The people who run the Pulitzer Prizes, undoubtedly America’s premier journalism awards, have taken some useful steps into the 21st Century with new rules that welcome online-only entries. From the official rules (PDF):

    Entries for journalism awards must be based
    on material coming from a text-based United
    States newspaper or news organization that
    publishes—in print or online—at least
    weekly during the calendar year; that is
    primarily dedicated to original news
    reporting and coverage of ongoing stories;
    and that adheres to the highest journalistic
    principles. Printed magazines and
    broadcast media, and their respective Web
    sites, are not eligible.

    This will open the prizes to such brilliant journalists as Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, among many others who’d been excluded in the past due to the anachronistic system that had ruled. Let’s celebrate that much progress.

    But let’s also recognize that these new rules don’t begin to address the more fundamental issues about how journalism is changing. Excluding text-based journalism by magazines and broadcast media, for example, is illogical.


    The release of the new rules — which are bound to evolve — frees me from an agreement of confidentiality I made earlier this year when asked by the Pulitzer Prize Board to answer some questions and offer my own suggestions about how the prizes should recognize changes in technology and journalistic practices. Here is what I (presumably among many others the board consulted) suggested:

    You asked me to think broadly about the prizes, and asked five questions. Before I respond to each of them directly, let me offer a few general thoughts. None of these will surprise you, but they add up to a challenge unlike any the Pulitzer board has faced in the past.

    First, is the central issue: convergence. Media of all kinds are becoming digital. Moreover, media availability and distribution are moving onto networks where the data is broken up into little packets at the source and reassembled at the other end.

    Second, the blurring of media forms is accelerating. It will be impossible in the relatively near future to distinguish among them.

    Third, the business model for newspapers is failing. It’s not just about the movement of advertising to better online ad operations. It’s also the surging price of doing business as a manufacturing operation, including energy costs.

    Under the current rules, these facts are a recipe for making the Pulitzers irrelevant, or at best quaint. I would hate to see that happen, because the Pulitzer Prizes matter. They are a touchstone of excellence. Like many others in the field, I believe they’re flawed in their current incarnation, but I would hate to see them become an artifact.

    My bullet-point advice (assumes the board’s ability to interpret the bylaws in the broadest possible way):

    1. Embrace reality. This will only seem radical to newspaper people.

    2. Celebrate great journalism wherever it comes from. This includes digital-only, and probably should include English-language reporting that didn’t originate in the United States.

    3. Create new categories that reflect the way we create and consume media over the long term.

    Now to your questions:

    Q: In creating the Prizes, Joseph Pulitzer wanted to “elevate” the profession of journalism. In his era, better journalism meant better newspapers. How could we further his goal today, given the makeup of news media and their challenges?

    A: Become the top prizes for journalism of any kind. Do away entirely with the distinction between newspapers and other media. There’s no real alternative.

    Q: Should the nature of the “newspaper” be redefined as multimedia journalism grows and practices change? If so, how? For example, should we include entirely online newspapers? And what should we do with things like videography and its impact on visual journalism?

    A: You can’t define your way out of this dilemma, except in one sense. You can define what you mean by great journalism, and what you mean by elevating the craft. Beyond that, everything should be fair game.

    Q: Should we re-examine and possibly revise the Prizes’ journalism categories? If so, how? For example, should we have a separate category for large multimedia packages? Should we reconsider the idea of circulation size as a basis for category definition – at least in some cases?

    A: I’d revise the categories in some fairly dramatic ways, but I would not make separate categories for media formats for the reasons I mentioned above.

    I would, however, add several areas where the Pulitzers could elevate journalism in a big way. Here are just three:

    1. The digital space has many characteristics, but one is that the journalism we create doesn’t disappear into birdcages or pay-per-view databases. Stories and projects can accrete influence, and be timely long beyond the traditional periods. This is especially important when we recognize that the manufacturing process of journalism — create something and send it out, period — becomes obsolete in due course. Some ideas that take this into account:
    a. We’d all benefit from a prize celebrating relentless journalism over time that led to long-term solutions of big problems; this would require a rule change to look back more than 12 months.
    b. Along those lines, why not recognize reporting that was ahead of its time? Whenever a major national or international crisis becomes obvious, such as the current credit and housing meltdowns, we can always look back and find examples of prescient journalism that was essentially ignored at the time. If you made that single addition to the prizes, you’d be making a huge advance.
    c. And what about journalism that has evolved. I’m working on a book that will live and evolve mostly online, and I guarantee it’ll be vastly better in five years than it will be the day it’s officially published for the first time. I can show you things that have been updated over time, and which now are as good as journalism can be, even though they were, early on, shadows of what they’ve become.

    2. I’d also find ways to recognize more of the finest work by small entities that do brilliant coverage of small communities of geography or interest. Beat reporting doesn’t fully cover what I’m talking about here, but it’s the closest you have now. (I’m not talking about separate prizes for big and little organizations, however.)

    3. I’d create a prize for innovation in journalism, recognizing an advance by someone who used the collision of media and technology to create something new and valuable to the craft.

    Put all of this out for public comment, by the way. You’ll be amazed at the great ideas others will have.

    Q: Should we re-evaluate the kind of journalism we honor and the entries we encourage? For example, do we sometimes foster journalism projects and packages that lack relevance to everyday lives?

    A: Of course you do, but that’s the nature of giving prizes. I don’t have a great antidote for the bigness impulse. I would try to tweak the rules and judging to favor things that genuinely lead to a better world. I don’t have any obvious ways to achieve this, of course…

    Q: Should the Board itself be changed? Should we alter the mix of journalists and academics? Should we expand the Board’s total size? (The Board now has 17 voting members, four of whom can be non-journalists. The dean of the journalism school and the Pulitzer administrator are non-voting members of the Board.)

    A: Yes change the board, in significant ways if you adopt any of the ideas I’ve suggested. (It seems large enough now.) The current board members are superb representatives of the 20th Century, manufactured-newspaper model of journalism, and people of that stature and accomplishment should remain part of the mix. But I’d include some very different kinds of folks, who may have a wider vision of the craft.

    (Cross posted from citmedia.org)

    Tagged: innovation online entries prizes pulitzer

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