Long Live the Pulitzer

I’d like to offer a rejoinder to Jeff Jarvis, who called the Pulitzer Prizes a “circle-jerk of mutual self-love” among journalists and a “relic of past glory” that fail to reward innovation and fresh thinking, and to Nick Denton’s Gawker, which similarly describes them as “pernicious” because they distract newspapers from the real challenge, which is massive declines in revenue.

Seeing as how the whole purpose of this blog is to talk about the intense urgency of the need for change in newsrooms and how to manage it, I’m obviously in favor of innovation as much as these guys.  However, I believe that the Pulitzers reward the very things that make the survival of newspapers so important in the first place:  the hard work and incredible commitment to original, investigative reporting that monitors the powerful institutions in our society on behalf of citizens.  If it wasn’t for the enduring values these prizes celebrate, I’m not sure why most thinking people would care more about newspapers’ possible demise than they would about the passing of the cassette deck.

This year’s Pulitzers rewarded some stunning examples of high quality journalism that is so vital to the functioning of a democratic society.  As an journalism educator, I frequently use Dana Priest’s and Anne Hull’s Walter Reed story as an example not only of dogged investigative work, but also of the power of narrative writing and multimedia to make this important story so compelling it can bring you to tears.  At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dave Umhoefer’s local reporting prize represents a bold commitment on the part of the paper’s leadership to invest very limited resources in forming a ten-person investigative team to do this kind of important work at the very time when most papers are retreating from such pricey investments.

Yes, newspapers need to change.  They need to offer their readers more opportunities to connect with them. They need to creatively embrace the interactive media of the Web. They need to move beyond the monopoly mentality and shed the elitism it made possible.   But that said, I think that the time is now for spending MORE time, not less, celebrating, in public, what journalists do that is so vitally important.

Call me a starry-eyed idealist if you will — you certainly won’t be the first one.

Finally,  one more thing — if you are a blogger who thinks that somehow a Pulitzer “distracts” newspapers from the enormous challenges they face, then to be frank, I’d urge you to take off the pajamas and spend some time in a newsroom.   Newspaper newsrooms today are places where there is an considerable amount of gloom and fear — everyone can read the writing on the wall — or on Romenesko, if you will.  They are full of people who can offer you an intelligent and introspective criticism of their own or their employer’s ability to transition effectively to the Web, as well as some new ideas on how they could do their jobs better in the online world. They are full of people who are working incredibly long hours trying to feed the twin beasts of the print edition and the Web product, often with little guidance as to how to prioritize their time.  Perhaps most importantly, they are full of people who truly care about what they do.

And so I say, at least once a year, it’s perfectly okay for journalists to pat each other on the back for what is still, despite all the bad news, going right.  And I hope citizens pat them on the back too.  They deserve it.

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