Monday, May 08, 2006

I found this very interesting column on Romensko a few days. It was written by Ed Wasserman, a fellow I used to work with years ago. It's an interesting perspective on Pulitzers, especially from the point of view of small newspapers. FITZ McADEN

Prizes are trophies for rich papers
I spent nearly 30 years in newsrooms, never won a Pulitzer Prize, wish I
had, never will. I have worked with a number of reporters and photographers
who won -- none thanks to my help -- and they deserved their prizes. I know
people who served on Pulitzer juries, and they're conscientious and
incorruptible. And I've never seen a Pulitzer awarded for work I didn't
think was outstanding.

So call this sour grapes, but I've come to believe that the Pulitzers -- for
all the celebrity, the champagne, the career-capping glory they bring -- are
bad for the profession. They purport to stand for excellence in journalism,
but if they do it's in the same way that Rolls Royce stands for excellence
in car-making.

And that's the problem. The Pulitzers are big, clunky trophies for the rich.
They honor lavish work that has no bearing on the reasonable strivings of
most journalists, dazzling achievements that are a galaxy apart from the
nimble municipal reporting that energizes a robust civic culture. They
amplify a structure of dominance within the profession that sneers at the
work of most newsrooms, and every year they send out the same, deeply
wrong-headed message: that great journalism is primarily national and
international in scope, and is practiced mainly by the country's wealthiest
news organizations.

Big boys sweep

The Pulitzers should be reimagined and restructured. At present, they are
much less a prod than they are a reproach to the vast majority of working

Unlike lesser contests, the Pulitzers have no circulation categories. They
make 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. They're the ones that pay good salaries and attract
great talents, provide research support, travel money and above all, time --
two months, six months, whatever it takes to produce breathlessly detailed,
hard-hitting narratives to be hammered into shape and finally packaged into
winning entries by in-house promotional staffs.

Accordingly, every year, most Pulitzers are divvied up by the giants, and
the only real question is whether this year the Washington Post, Wall Street
Journal or Los Angeles Times noses out the perennial front runner, the New
York Times.

True, every year, one or two smaller papers are recognized, some grizzled
newsroom veteran is finally honored. And in a traditional gesture of
noblesse oblige, one big prize -- often the public-service award -- goes to
the daily whose community has been flooded, burned, hurricaned, buried,
earthquaked or somersaulted by riots. Unlike FEMA, the Pulitzer board can be
relied on for guaranteed compensation to towns whose papers keep publishing
despite natural calamity and the consequent disappearance of automotive,
help-wanted and real-estate advertising.

But if the winning entries are good, even great -- and they invariably are
-- where's the harm?

It's that the Pulitzers honor what most journalists get to do only after
they die and go to heaven, if then.

For starters, here on this Earth most don't get near stories of historic
moment. They're trying to keep your communities honest. The best stories
they get to pursue 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. The Pulitzers have no category for local news, let alone sports or
business. And the most recent awards suggest that jurors took pains to
ensure that even the categories that might go for local efforts -- beat
reporting, columns and feature writing -- did not.

Underdogs and top dogs

The question I'm raising is not whether the most prestigious prizes in the
profession are being awarded justly, but what they're being awarded for --
and what message do they thereby send to journalists. Right now, the message
to young reporters is that if they're serious about winning a Pulitzer, they
should get hired by The Times.

The Pulitzers should reward choice, sacrifice, perseverance and service, not
just marquee impact, and they should honor the accomplishments of those who
struggle not just with sources and critics but with the limitations, the
scarcity and the clamor of their own under-funded newsrooms.

It's ironic that a profession that is supposed to care about society's
underdogs saves its most coveted honors for its own top dogs.

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and
Lee University.

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