Pulitzer’s Digerate Media Relevance

American media supremo Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence in writing and publishing.  He was an uncompromising and committed journalist who sought to redefine journalism and turn it into a discipline, complete with its public goals, professional ambitions, value systems ethical considerations and criticism of itself, as well as of other. He bought and developed the New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch– two well known newspapers of his time.  Pulitzer is credited with coining the term “Yellow Journalism.”Pulitzer lobbied tirelessly for the training of journalists and motivated for the creation of a school of journalism within Columbia University, one of the most prestigious North American institutions of learning. This – and another dream of Pulitzer’s, namely the creation of awards for outstanding writers, authors, journalists and publicists, came true after his death in 1911. 

Describing the journalists of the future, Pulitzer said: “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.” 

The Pulitzer Prizes were stipulated in his will, creating awards for American journalism, letters and drama, education, and travelling scholarships. Over the years (1917 – 2017), winners included US President John F. Kennedy, Gone with the Wind‘s Margaret Mitchell and To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Harper Lee. Toni Morrison won it for her book Beloved, while ‘kings of musical’ Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II won it for South Pacific – an  adaptation of another Pulitzer winner – James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Rodgers and Hammerstein won another Pulitzer for Oklahoma! Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, received a Pulitzer for their investigative work on the Watergate scandal – resulting in the near impeachment and, eventually, resignation of US President Richard Nixon.  Current journalism prizes are awarded for Public Service, Breaking News Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, Local Reporting, National Reporting, International Reporting, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing, Editorial Cartooning, Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography.  

For some of the newspapers just announced as this year’s Pulitzer winners, the news helped to sweeten a desperately tough year. The New York Times, who’s just won five Pulitzer Prizes (breaking news and international reporting, investigative reporting, criticism and feature photography), took the worst financial beating in 22 years, announcing a 27 percent drop in first-quarter advertising revenue. Mesa, Arizona’s East Valley Tribune received a Pulitzer in local reporting on behalf of his reporter Paul Giblin three months after having retrenched him. The Detroit Free Press, fighting for its very existence, received a Pulitzer for breaking and covering a story about a sex scandal that, eventually, brought down Detroit’s mayor. 

Traditionally, Pulitzers-for-Journalism categories have been umbilically connected to the world of print. Late in 2016, a Pulitzer press release announced that “[t]he Pulitzer Prizes in journalism, which honor the work of American newspapers appearing in print, have been expanded to include many text-based newspapers and news organizations that publish only on the Internet, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced today. The Board also has decided to allow entries made up entirely of online content to be submitted in all 14 Pulitzer journalism categories.” Yet, not a single online publication got the nod this year. 

Addressing this issue during a Washington Post interactive session online, journalist and Pulitzer fundi Roy Harris said: “The Pulitzer Prizes have a decades-long history of having blocked out magazine and broadcast entries, and I think that slowed the organizations acceptance of online entries.” 

Harris admits that “the exclusion of Web sites that are part of magazine or broadcast enterprises is going to be tough for the Pulitzers to continue doing in the future. I’m guessing that a complete overhaul of the journalism awards is in the cards for the next couple of years.” Finally, he voices surprise that “an online-only winner wasn’t picked in some category, again, perhaps to send a signal. But the Pulitzers only have 14 categories now, and board members are loath to relax the standards. So I’d say they simply didn’t find anything to edge out what did win.” Translation – the judges did not find online anything worth a Pulitzer. 

In a way, the judges mirror the gut feeling of many offline editors and publishers, and it is clear that online publishers suffer from lack of recognition. The Houston Chronicle online were listed as finalists this year. As reported in the The Nieman Journalism Lab blog, the Pulitzer Prize Administrator “noted that the Chronicle’s entry was all-online – not a print clip in the lot.” According to the blog ‘[e]ditor Jeff Cohen credited the Chronicle’s “fully integrated” newsroom. “We cover news any way people need news. We cover it online, analog, digital, straight media – any way you can serve it up our staff is serving it up.”  When the Pulitzer administrator is amazed that one can achieve such great journalistic feat without using a single printed word, and your own editor lists that old schlock about 360 degrees media (‘We cover it online, analog, digital, straight media’) you know that your work is being assessed by media Neanderthals. 

Naturally, the future of the Pulitzers-for-journalism is tightly linked to the way journalism will brave – and survive – the migration from literate to digerate culture. Cohen’s “integrated pack” is eyebrows-raising stuff. What on earth does he mean by ‘online, analog, digital, straight media’? The digerate palette of future media is already defined – it is digital, social, mobile and streamed. There cannot be an integrated newsroom per se – only dynamic, integrated content writers who can produce content that can be delivered seamlessly through a myriad of channels to an assortment of content seekers – “tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, copper, cowboy, Indian chief..” I have a strong feeling that in five years’ time the Pulitzer will be almost entirely digerate, covering relevant areas of excellence within the digital culture, its judges Googling furiously or scouring RSS links in search for the next winner/s of Joe Pulitzer’s dream award. 

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