Spreading the Wealth
Denting the big-paper domination of the Pulitzers.
Posted: Tue, April 19, 2011
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (email@example.com) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
In recent years, the Pulitzer Prize sweepstakes has often been dominated by a handful of large newspapers winning huge clusters of prizes. Not this time around.
This year the largest tallies were racked up by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, which each snagged two.
The results are good news for everyone who a) roots for the underdog; b) likes to see the wealth spread around; and c) hopes that massive financial pressures have not precluded smaller news outlets from doing stellar work.
In a chart accompanying AJR's assessment of the state of investigative reporting in its Fall 2010 issue, Charles Layton showed how three big papers – the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post – had established a stranglehold on investigative reporting. Layton tallied up winners and finalists in the Pulitzer investigative reporting category as well as winners and finalists in other categories that were investigative in nature.
In 1997, the Big Three accounted for 18 percent. But as money troubles forced newspapers nationwide to slash their staffs, including their investigative teams, the larger paper domination increased. They accounted for 63 percent of the winners and finalists in 2005 and 67 percent in 2006. Last year the figure was 45 percent.
But this year the winner in the investigative category was Paige St. John of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for a series of articles on the Florida insurance industry. The paper's circulation: 77,000. Not exactly a behemoth.
Also heartening was another victory by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which seems to be becoming a budding Pulitzer factory. Its win this year in the explanatory journalism category, for a series on an effort to use genetic technology to save a four-year-old boy, was its third in four years.
I was glad to see this one because the paper's editor, Martin Kaiser, has continued to emphasize the importance of enterprise and accountability reporting even as the paper, like so many others, has been forced to reduce staff. Kaiser sees such journalism as an essential part of the Journal Sentinel's franchise.
Particularly exciting was the victory by upstart investigative powerhouse ProPublica for national reporting for its exposure of Wall Street shenanigans. This was the first Pulitzer ever for material that never appeared in print. It's a sure sign of the maturation of the new-media players that have sprung up as legacy media have declined.
Sarasota and Milwaukee weren't the only smaller and midsize local and regional papers to win the gold. The long-embattled Chicago Sun-Times won for local reporting with a project on local violence, and Newark's Star-Ledger took the honors for feature writing with a piece on the sinking of a fishing boat that killed six people.
Amy Ellis Nutt wrote the Star-Ledger's award-winning feature. In an AJR piece two years ago, Nutt talked about her determination to stick with the newspaper business while so many colleagues were fleeing, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Her paper had just lost 46 percent of its staff.
"We're the ones left in the lifeboat," she told writer Beth Macy. "We made it off the ship, and we're out in the big ocean. But we're alive, and we're together, and one way or another, we are going to get to shore."
Nice paddling, Amy!
Correction: The original version of this article misstated the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's circulation. It is 77,000, not 110,000.