The Washington Post

2011 Pulitzer Prize winners discussion with Roy Harris

Apr 19, 2011

The 2011 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced Monday, April 18 at 3 p.m. ET. Pulitzer expert Roy Harris discussed the winners and their work with Washington Post readers for the fourth consecutive year.

First, congratulations to the Post and its photographers for their 2011 Pulitzer Prize, and to Post readers, for having this news organization to serve them. And thanks to the Post for having me step in again from up here in Hingham, Mass., to manage this chat on the journalism Pulitzers. Post readers always create a stimulating discussion.

Each year, the Pulitzer organization gives prize-watchers plenty to puzzle about. Just like jurors serving on jury duty, the Pulitzer Board members operate behind closed doors, and don’t talk very often about why they rule the way they rule – at least beyond the terse public statements they issue on each award. But in the eight years since I began researching the Pulitzers, I’ve been impressed with their devotion to public service, and their passion for keeping journalistic standards high -- sometimes using their choices a way of subtly guiding the profession.

Perhaps this morning’s chat can clarify some of the choices the Pulitzer Board made in selecting winners in 13 of it 14 categories – all but Breaking New Reporting – and in naming some extraordinary finalists. Being a Pulitzer finalist is a huge honor, with more than 1,000 nominations coming in, and only three works selected in each category, for a total of 42. Among those 13 winners, there were 11 news organizations named, with only the Los Angeles Times and New York Times scoring more than one prize.

One was ProPublica’s National Reporting award, for “The Wall Street Money Machine,” its coverage of the financial crisis and the role of hedge funds like Magnetar in creating it. This was the first Pulitzer for news coverage that appeared online, without a print outlet. (In fact, it was done in collaboration with NPR and Chicago Public Radio.) It’s the first classic example of a Pulitzer-winner not having a connection to print, although PolitiFact, last year’s National Reporting winner, could make that argument. It’s online-only, but affiliated with the St. Petersburg Times.

The other benchmark was the Los Angeles Times becoming the first news organization to win the most prestigious Pulitzer, the one for Public Service, for the sixth time. Two other papers have five Public Service gold medals: my hometown St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the New York Times. After all the financial troubles the L.A. Times has faced in recent years, it should be proud to stand alone as a six-time gold medal-winner.

Let's get to your questions, though.


Do small, unknown and/or independent media enterprises have a chance? How much does corporate reputation have to do with being a finalist? Is there growing recognition of not-for-profit journalism as a serious resource for independent news coverage (besides Pro Publica)?

Small papers and other outlets certainly do have a chance. In fact, I've found that the Pulitzer Board often likes to reach down to small publications, with few resources -- precisely to show the courage it takes to challenge authorities in a small town.

Last year's Public Service winner was a paper from Bristol, Va.: The Herald Courier. This year, a finalist in Local Reporting was the Concordia Sentinel in Louisiana, for trying to unravel a KKK murder during the Civil Rights era. The Board described this as "courageous and determined.

One of my favorite historic Pulitzers was the 1979 Public Service prize to the Point Reyes Light in California, for exposing the vicious Synanon cult in the town. That weekly paper had 7,000 subscribers -- but the editors were in grave danger because of the enemies that made there.

Vietnam's My Lai massacre was exposed by Sy Hersh, at the time a lone-wolf reporter for a tiny news service.

And I suspect there will be more small and nonprofit winners in the future -- especially the self-proclaimed watchdog nonprofits. I note that more and more jurors are being selected from such organizations, like California Watch.

I submit that copyediting mistakes are the broken windows of journalism: sloppy editing leads to sloppy reporting. WaPo's copyediting gaffes are numerous and legend.  Do you see a link between those errors and WaPo's failure to win any Pulitzers for writing or reporting?

Personally, I'm glad readers are sensitive to sloppy editing and reporting. I don't read the Post frequently enough to be able to comment on whether there's been slippage. 

But I know jurors would be most distressed to have an otherwise terrific story marred by errors. Although not with the Pulitzers, I've been in that position with other awards programs.

I believe the LA Times should win for local reporting for their coverage of the city of Bell salary scandal, but I'm not at all certain they should win for distinguished public service. Here's why: Rizzo and his payouts are gone but Bell is sliding toward bankruptcy, namely because of unsustainable salaries and out of control benefits for the police department, who continue to fight for working poor/working class bell to pay them. The LA Times has known this and has failed to ask; "Is the Bell PD Worth 3/4 of the Budget" like they asked "Is A City Manager Worth $800,000?" Failing to tell the other side if the story is not distinguished public service.

The big thing that often sets the Public Service category apart is the impact that the stories had on the community. In this case, not only were Bell Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo (the $800,000 man) and others charged with crimes, but reforms were proposed. Also, the story resonated all around the country. Lots of other jurisdictions are rooting out the same kind of corruption.

I don't know about the shortcomings you describe; but I'll bring it up with the reporters -- Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb -- when I talk with them. By then they may be off their champagne high.



Any word on how Gene Weingarten is taking the fact he didn't win a third Pulitzer?

I’m sure he’s dealing with it with great humor. Actually, winning in 2008 and 2010 was a remarkable honor. There's some terrific competition out there. The Joshua-Bell-in-the-subway piece is one I'll remember forever.

What does it mean when no winner is selected in a category? There were a number of breaking news stories this year but no winner was selected in this category.

A couple of questions are coming in on this no-winner issue. It's certainly distressing to reporters and editors to see that the Pulitzers aren't recognizing a winner for Breaking New Reporting. Imagine being a reporter for one of the finalists.

But the last couple of times there's been a category without a winner -- 2008 for Editorial Writing and 2004 for Feature Writing -- the Pulitzer Board's argument has been that the 16-or-so Board members couldn't come to enough of an agreement to get the needed majority vote for a winner.

I figure that has to disturb a lot of Pulitzer Board members, who really don't want categories to be unfilled.

It's also possible that the Board simply feels there was no entrant with the quality to be considered a Pulitzer Prize winner. Hard to imagine that in Breaking News. But that may have been the thinking.


Is there any explanation for why no Breaking News medal was awarded this year? It's certainly within the jury's prerogative, but it seems a little odd, especially since the finalists were named. (And on another note, I was quite pleased by Chernow's win; his Hamilton biography was a magnificent piece of work and his Washington just as good.)

To this other question about there being no Breaking News Reporting Pulitzer, let me add a point. The five-person jury for that category met in March, and went through dozens of entries. It picked three that it believed were Pulitzer-caliber: the Haiti earthquake coverage of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald; the Chicago Tribune's coverage of firefighters killed searching for squatters in an abandoned burning building; and the Nashville Tennessean's coverage of a devastating flood.

I the past, jurors have been puzzled about why the Pulitzer Board didn't pick from the selection given them. But I know from talking to Board members that they feel the ultimate responsibility for saying, "Yes, this is Pulitzer-quality work." 

Good to get another review of Ron Chernow's Washington book. I suspect this will give it a boost in sales -- I know that will be the case in our house. 

Sorry, I missed the list of winners, could we get a link?

Absolutely. You'll find it at

How often does the Pulitzer Prize committee have no award for a specific category?

I believe Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler said yesterday that this has happened 25 times. But a number of times in the early years of the prizes, which began in 1917, there simply weren't many entries, and that governed the Board members' decision.

The Pulitzers really were the first major national prizes to be awarded. It's hard to imagine that, until about the '30s, they didn't have much of a following. But that's the case.

For what it's worth, Joseph Pulitzer designed awards for journalism AND arts-and-letters as a way of elevating journalism. It was still in great disrepute because of the damage done during the Yellow Journalism period -- in part because of his New York World's participation. I believe he established the Pulitzer Prizes (in his will) as a way of reestablishing his reputation. 

Should we take his failure to win a Pulitzer this year as a sign that his career is in serious decline?

The winner in that category, the Newark Star-Ledger's Amy Ellis Nutt, worked seven months on her story about a fishing boat that sank off Cape May, killing six men. She might deserve a little credit for "unseating" the distinguished Post two-time Pulitzer winner.

Peter Arnett, a 1966 winner of the Pultizer, is an excellent example of the value employer's place on the Pulitzer Prize.

Peter Arnett of the Associated Press was certainly a legend in our business. He won for International Reporting in 1966.

And, yes, employers DO value Pulitzer winners, more and more, I'd say. In fact, often winners from small papers will find themselves snapped up by the biggies.

The last two individuals responsible for the Public Service Pulitzer -- Daniel Gilbert, then of the Bristol, Va., Herald Courier, and Alexandra Berzon, then of the Las Vegas Sun -- both were hired the next year by the Wall Street Journal. You'll see their bylines there now.

In the categories for literature, how would you compare the Pulitzer Prize with the National Book Award? Are various criteria weighted differently for both? How often has a book won both awards?

Sorry, but I'm not versed in the mysteries of book-prize judging -- the Pulitzers or the National Book Awards. 

Should be pretty easy to find out about dual winners, though.

Isn't it actually worse to be a finalist in a category without an award than not to be a finalist at all? I mean, if you take the view that none of them had high enough quality to win - that seems pretty humiliating

I see the point of your question. But having never been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 40 years of reporting -- like 99% of my journalism colleagues - I can only say that I'd have been thrilled to have been a finalist.

Plus, many of the finalists this year won major awards -- and lots of money. The Pulitzers pay $10,000 (except for Public Service, which is "just" a gold medal to the news organization.) Two Las Vegas Sun reporters who weren't Pulitzer finalists, Marshall Allen and Alex Richards, split a $25,000 Goldsmith Investigative Prize from Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center. And the Seattle Times' Michael Berens won $20,000 with his Worth Bingham Prize, presented by Harvard's Nieman Foundation. Plus, of course, they got to contribute significantly to their communities.

Not bad, I'd say. Plus, for the Pulitzers there's always "next year."

I read that a Dr. Mukherjee has won the Pulitzer this year for a book he wrote on Cancer. Can you provide more details re this?

Fascinating book title -- "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" -- and it's described as having started as a journal by this oncologist at Columbia University. Along with the Chernow, it will probably find a place in our home.

Hey Roy, your old colleague Kevin Salwen here. I'm wondering about some of the categories still around in the Pulitzers. For instance, editorial cartooning seems to have a talent pool of about 50 or fewer. Ditto for criticism, which is limited to arts. Should the Pulitzer folks think about altering the categories?

Hey, Kevin. The Pulitzers haven't change categories in a long time, since the elimination of Beat Reporting and the addition of Local Reporting in 2007 -- a change that could be described as minor, I think.

My personal view is that the Pulitzers are due for a major category overhaul. They don't want to break things down by "media type" -- such as online-specific, or small- , medium- and large-circulation, the way some other contests do.

My thinking is that the Pro Publica Pulitzer this year -- for its work with NPR -- could open the door to Pulitzer Prizes that recognize ALL journalism, including magazine and broadcast. But then, nobody's asked me (except you!) 

I don't know much about Editorial Cartooning -- although I know online cartoons are often video-based now -- but Criticism remains open beyond the arts. Dan Neil (then of the L.A. Times, now of our old employer, the Wall Street Journal) won for auto writing a in 2004.

Under the Journalism category, I expected to see an award for investigating the relationships between Fusion Centers and local communities. Public safety officials are being required to use directed energy weapons against people (TIs) whose names appear on watchlists. A small group of TIs asked for participation in the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. 

If a reporter could prove that the US has created a network of so-called gangstalkers whose function is to torture TIs, would such a discovery position the journalist for an award?

The Pulitzer journalism categories that might apply for this story are Public Service, Investigative Reporting, National Reporting and, maybe, Explanatory.

I'm afraid I'm not up on Fusion Centers. But public safety officials being forced to use weapons against people on government watchlists sounds like a story to me. You might drop a note to Dana Priest at the Post. 

Not a question, but I simply ADORE Carol Guzy's photography! Kudos to her and the WaPost team for their win.

I think it's wonderful to end with a celebration -- especially to the folks that bring you this chat. I saw yesterday's chat with Carol, Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti, and it was impressive.

Once again, Post readers have proved themselves most knowledgable, and full of interesting questions and suggestions. 

Now, if you'd only talk to a few of the folks who supply the comments at the end of online stories. (For example, check out the comments on Dan Zak's story today.)

Join in again next year. With Japan, the Middle East, health care, the political scene, and other as-yet-unimagined challenges that journalists will have to accept on the community's behalf, it should offer more amazing material that's Pulitzer-worthy.

Maybe even a Breaking News story or two.


In This Chat
Roy Harris
Roy J. Harris Jr. is the author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism," which the University of Missouri Press released in paperback in 2010. A veteran of 23 years as a Wall Street Journal reporter, and 13 years in the Economist Group organization, he now lives in the Boston area, and is editorial director of CFOworld, a website for corporate finance executives published by IDG Enterprise. He also teaches a course at Emerson College called "Impact Journalism." This is his fourth year hosting a Washington Post chat on the Pulitzer Prizes.
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