Pulitzers Tell a New Story for Journalism
The Pulitzer Prize winners for 2012 were announced Monday, and a bolder commentary about the state of news and publishing could not have been made.
Once past usual winners like The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Associated Press, you see some uncommon selections:
- The staff of The Tuscaloosa News, for its coverage of the deadly tornadoes last year, especially the work done online via Twitter and social media.
- Matt Wuerker, for editorial cartooning on the politics-themed website Politico.
- David Wood, a writer for The Huffington Post, for his coverage of injured veterans returning home to deal with their post-service lives.
Wow. The website best known for inundating the Internet with clickable collections of cute cats now has a Pulitzer in its trophy case.
Monday's announcement says a great deal about the nature of media and the digital disruption well under way in this industry.
Take Tuscaloosa's victory. The Pulitzer committee wrote that the paper's staff won, in part, for its use of social media tools such as Twitter "to provide real-time updates, help locate missing people and produce in-depth print accounts even after power disruption forced the paper to publish at another plant 50 miles away."
The paper's Twitter feed that accompanied the nomination is a series of short posts and photos of wreckage around the community. One such post: "Sheriff's Office is organizing search and rescue effort at Holt High School now." Another: "Tuscaloosa City Hall has closed."
Yes, the newspaper printed riveting stories and compelling photographs, but it was supplemented by other tools, like an online people finder, which was then printed in the paper.
And then there was David Wood's work for The Huffington Post. The Pulitzer board called it a "riveting exploration of the physical and emotional challenges facing American soldiers severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan during a decade of war."
These winning entries are as strong an indicator as any that quality journalism is no longer the domain of the printed newspaper. To be sure, this is still a very sensitive subject within the industry and at Columbia University, which awards the Pulitzers every year. There is tremendous pressure to broaden the content available for consideration.
The prize board hasn't gotten any closer to settling this issue, but its awards Monday go a long way toward confirming that new media ways of telling stories are legitimate means for conveying information.
Newspapers have weathered a tremendous amount of disruption to their industry over the past six years or so. Once slow to change, papers are now moving with deliberate speed to change not only how they tell stories, but also how they make money doing them. In some cases, papers are starting to do things that don't even look like old-school journalism, like designing entertainment apps for smartphones and tablets.
In an interview with the Poynter Institute, Pulitzer judge Kathy Best said her jury weighed these new tools seriously.
"Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on."
"Waited too long." People no longer wait for the evening news or the next day's paper to get their information. The on-demand mobile society in which we now live has us pushing news out to consumers as soon as we become aware of it.
Sometimes, that can lead to Pulitzer success. Other times, though, it can be an epic fail. Earlier this month, major news media, including The New York Times, CBS and The Washington Post, joined The Huffington Post in publishing a false rumor - found first on Twitter - that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was to be indicted on tax fraud charges.
An Achilles' heel in the Age of Instant? Remember, The Washington Post 30 years ago had to return a Pulitzer after discovering that reporter Janet Cooke had made up her award-winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.
So with all due caution but cognizant of the times in which we live, newspapers are forging ahead with new forms of storytelling. That includes us here at The Pilot, as you'll see in the weeks to come. We are still the paper you see three days a week, but we will be much more than that. We can tell your stories and keep you informed in so many more ways.
John Nagy is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 693-2507.
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