Should the Pulitzer Rules Be Changed? (Big - Paper Domination)

By Brown, Doug | American Journalism Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview
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Should the Pulitzer Rules Be Changed? (Big - Paper Domination)

Brown, Doug, American Journalism Review

When the New York Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes this year, leaving the previous record of three in the dust, and only five other papers--including three powerhouses--took home the rest of the awards, some media minds began to wonder if the Pulitzer system is weighted too heavily toward the big guys.

They ask whether it's time for Columbia University, which oversees the prizes, and the Pulitzer Board, which picks the winners, to model the program after the National Magazine Awards. There, awards in each category are given for different circulation levels.

"When four of the biggest, richest papers win 12 of the 14 prizes, it's apparent that awfully good work being done by smaller and midsize newspapers is being totally overshadowed," says Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. "Nobody expects the Sacramento Bee or the Kansas City Star to cover 9/11 the way the New York Times does, but lots of papers do awfully good and important work in their backyards, and they got almost totally overlooked."

Though last year was an unusual news year with the terrorist attacks and the ensuing war, Kurtz says there "seems to be an unofficial quota for the occasional Vermont editorial writer or North Dakota paper covering a flood. We don't want the Pulitzers to turn into a version of Major League Baseball, where only the big-city clubs have payrolls to fully compete."

The idea is worth considering, says Aly Colon, director of diversity programs at the Poynter Institute and a member of its ethics faculty. Smaller papers winning Pulitzers, he says, "is rarer than it should be."

"It is challenging even in times when there is not an event like September 11 for midsize and smaller papers to compete with behemoths like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wail Street Journal," Colon says. "It pits them against size, resources, experience, opportunity and access that smaller papers find hard to compete with."

However, he points out, the little guys do sometimes win journalism's highest honor, and their achievements could be diminished if they were to win only within a circulation category. He says the Pulitzer Board should consider creating categories that would put newspapers on more equal footing.

"There may be ways to pick up on areas of coverage that are common to newspapers everywhere, regardless of size, that might make it more competitive for regional and smaller papers," he says, explaining that categories for law enforcement, education and neighborhood reporting could help spread the Pulitzer wealth.

Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet, who was a Pulitzer judge this year, says it would be "a huge mistake" to change the architecture of the Pulitzers. Nothing is better for a small or medium-size paper, he says, than to win a Pulitzer and show journalists around the country that they can compete with--and beat--the big ones.

"I'm nervous about turning the whole thing on its head because of one year that may turn out to be an anomaly," says Baquet, whose paper won two Pulitzers this year. However, he worries that as papers slash staffs and shrink newsholes, a big-paper Pulitzer juggernaut may develop not because the large papers are getting better, but because the rest of the heap is getting worse.

"I like to believe that what created the imbalance is that the biggest story in a generation broke in the largest city in the country" he says.

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