Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Leveling the Pulitzer playing field

In an age of increasingly asymmetrical journalism, it’s time to create a two-tier system for awarding Pulitzer Prizes.

The first tier would include only papers headquartered in New York and Washington, the select fraternity that this year collected seven of the 15 awards for excellence in journalism. The second tier would include all the rest of the newspapers, whose best work, while definitely not second rate, seldom makes the cut when the medals are dished out.

The big boys and girls tend to get about half the prizes year after year, because they take good advantage of their inherent unfair advantage. They not only have bigger and better funded staffs than the provincial press, but they also get to cover the stories of the biggest national and international significance.

When the Pulitzer jury had to decide this year which paper merited the prize for investigative reporting, the advantage went to the Washington Post for exposing the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, a story with evident and far-reaching significance. Left behind were the Los Angeles Times investigation of irregularities in the management of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the world’s richest art museum, and the stories about bungled hurricane aid in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that led to indictments and promised reforms.

While not taking anything away from the value of the work generated in NY and DC, I would argue that it is just as hard – and maybe even a little harder – to break a big story at a smaller metro or local paper, where the staffs are leaner, where the daily production pressures are greater and where, consequently, it is harder for reporters and editors to allocate the time required to pry stories out of obscure documents and reluctant sources.

Indeed, it may be easier to be an investigative reporter in a leak-rich environment like Washington than anywhere else in the world.

While many commentators are moaning that the economic and emotional difficulties surrounding the newspaper industry are endangering the future quality of journalism, it is clear that the great papers in NY and DC will continue to aspire to greatness and that the rest of the press likely will rise to the challenge when greatness is thrust upon them.

A year ago, nobody would have ranked the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Biloxi (MI) Sun Herald as among our most hallowed journalistic institutions. But the staffs of both papers more than earned their Pulitzers by responding with passion, compassion and perseverance when Hurricane Katrina devastated their communities.

The heroic response of the Gulf Coast journalists proves that most news folks have it in them to do exceptional work. It shouldn’t have to take an act of God to inspire ordinary journalists to greatness – or for them to win a Pulitzer.