Thursday, April 10, 2008

Congrats, with an asterisk

Like the baseball Barry Bonds swatted into the stands to break the all-time homerun record, there ought to be an asterisk on the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to journalists this year and for the foreseeable future.

Unlike Bonds, who has been accused of using illegal steroids to enhance his performance, the writers and photographers who earned the industry’s highest honor did nothing inappropriate to devalue their achievements.

But nearly all of them were competing with an unfair advantage, because they were lucky enough to work for the relatively few remaining news organizations still in good enough economic condition to afford the staffing and other resources necessary to produce distinguished coverage.

It’s no happenstance that the Washington Post collected half a dozen Pulitzers, given that its well-staffed newsroom (now in the process of being reduced by early-retirement incentives) has been largely immune from the cost cutting that has thinned the ranks at most other newspapers. And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which shared top investigative honors, still has a dedicated, 10-person investigative unit after undergoing its own bout of layoffs.

Staff cuts that have hit the indusry in the last few years require fewer people to do more work to fill the paper and feed the website, reducing the opportunities to produce ground-breaking investigations, riveting photos, sparkling features and exceptional coverage of big, breaking stories.

Although the Washington Post has suffered sales and profit declines like the rest of the industry, the newspaper represents only a fifth of the revenues of a closely-held, family-controlled company that recorded nearly $4.2 billion in sales in 2007. The sales and profits from broadcasting, cable television and the Kaplan testing and education business -- plus, the Graham family's unswerving commitment to sustaining the quality of the paper -- helped insulate the Post’s talented newsroom from the economic calamity buffeting the rest of the industry.

The Post has a far more moderate debt load than those burdening such once-formidable Pulitzer contenders as the papers owned by McClatchy and Tribune Co. (the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer was earned for work completed prior to the sale of the company in December, 2007). Even the New York Times Co. is being forced to do more with less, owing to pressures from restive shareholders and the weak performance of such major divisions as the Boston Globe.

Regardless of how extreme the divide grows between the journalistic “haves” and “have-nots,” it always will be an honor to earn a Pulitzer, even with an asterisk. Sadly, only a shrinking handful of fortunate newspapers have a realistic hope of capturing the prize in the future.


Blogger Howard Owens said...

When's the last time the New York Daily News, or the New York Post ... or any other newspaper that is actually growing circulation won a Pulitzer?

How many Pulitzer's has the LA Times won in the past 10 years, while watching more than 200K subscribers slip away?

6:52 PM  

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