The Pulitzer Jinx

By Larimer, Tim | Washington Journalism Review, December 1992 | Go to article overview
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The Pulitzer Jinx

Larimer, Tim, Washington Journalism Review

After winning the premier prize, many journalists' lives are irrevocably changed--and not always for the better.

Deborah Blum, a science reporter at the Sacramento Bee, had the dream of virtually every American newspaper journalist come true for her last spring. At last, she had made it. At last, someone noticed. At last, the Pulitzer.

Life after a Pulitzer, most assume, must be life in the fast lane. The New York Times and the Washington Post will be begging for your services. Salary raises, bonuses, promotions, book contracts, movie deals, a guest spot on Oprah--all these goodies lie in wait.

Blum, a 38-year-old newspaper veteran who, like many reporters, had toiled in relative obscurity, was quickly brought back to earth by one of her editors. "I've known people who have won a Pulitzer," he told her, "and never wrote a decent word again."

Those words would likely send a chill through many a Pulitzer winner. Recipients acknowledge that they fear the award was a fluke, that they'll never do it again (most won't), that colleagues, editors, readers and even in-laws expect Pulitzer-caliber material under every by-line, and that the much-anticipated career boost will, in fact, never materialize.

This is the down side of winning the Pulitzer, the phenomenon recipients hesitate to talk about with anyone except each other. Life in the newsroom, they learn, is never quite the same. Some talk of journalistic paralysis setting in, rendering them incapable of finishing their next project or even moving on to another story. Some fall into deep funks, slumps that can last for months, or in some cases, until they make a radical career change.

One reporter stalled for four months and admits she didn't really produce again until she became a city editor. A feature winner left the newspaper business and now teaches journalism. An editorial writer escaped his newsroom to travel in Europe.

Worrying about the negative aspects of a Pulitzer probably sounds like intolerable whining to most newspaper people. And more than one winner has said, "Of course I'd never give it back." Even so, Post-Pulitzer Syndrome does exist, and for some it can be debilitating.

Set Up to Fall

Contrary to popular belief, Pulitzer winners are not flooded with job offers. This is perhaps the most shattering realization for recipients, since they are quasi-celebrities for the first few weeks after the awards are announced each spring.

"The sheer volume of mail and phone calls is unbelievable," says Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, this year's winner for editorial cartooning. "There are so many distractions that it's been hard to find time to work."

Some winners find themselves on display. "The P.R. people would bring classes of students in the newsroom, and I was apparently stop No. 17. I couldn't tell what was being said, but they were all looking at me," says Jon Franklin, a University of Oregon professor who belongs to the elite club of two-time Pulitzer recipients. He won at the Evening Sun in Baltimore in 1979 and 1985.

Despite the initial fanfare, few get the warm reception they anticipated from potential new employers.

David Hanners (explanatory journalism, '89) of the Dallas Morning News says he was reluctant to send out resumes too soon after winning because it seemed crass, "like I would be trying to cash in." Still, the temptation is great, and a reporter's stock is at its highest after winning. So Hanners, now 37, wrote to the Chicago Tribune, a paper he had longed to work for since his childhood in central Illinois.

"It was weeks and weeks before I heard anything back. Basically, it was kind of a personalized form letter. To heck with the fact I won a Pulitzer," says Hanners, still smarting from the snub. "It was kind of a shock it took so long for them to get back to me." He stayed in Dallas, where he was promoted to special projects reporter, a common step for Pulitzer winners.

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