A hole in the heart of American journalism

Toward the end of his life, the great and not altogether high-minded press baron Joseph Pulitzer sought to advance the idea that journalism should become a profession, akin to law or accounting, but devoted to the public interest. He lived in an age of concentrated wealth and technological disruption. He feared for the health of American democracy. He thought well-trained reporters could help protect the voting public from lies and corruption. And so he endowed Columbia Journalism School to secure his plan for education, and he endowed the Pulitzer Prizes to recognize excellence in journalistic practice.

Very few visions of philanthropic influence work out as well as Pulitzer’s did. At their centennial the Pulitzer Prizes have remarkable cultural purchase. Among other things, they assure winners that the first sentence of their obituary will contain a ring of nobility, whatever else may follow. In journalism, Pulitzer winners continue to offer annual peer-reviewed models of excellence and innovation that inspire reporters and editors to dig deeper and think bigger. Yet in this latest age of concentrated wealth and technological disruption, there are reasons to be worried about the durability of Pulitzer’s vision in the area where his journalism career originated: local reporting on public integrity.

Pulitzer was a self-invented immigrant from Hungary. Although The New York World became his flagship paper, his newspapering career began in Mark Twain country, in political mud-slinging, frontier St. Louis, soon after the Civil War. Once, when a subject of his reporting on corruption came to his office to object, Pulitzer shot him. (The victim survived.) His vision of journalism was popular and locally rooted.

American newspaper companies have shed tens of thousands of newsroom jobs since 2007, undermined by digital innovation, the rise of social media, a severe recession, and shortsighted management. In a stunningly brief period, the number of salaried reporters turning up regularly at statehouses, zoning boards, school boards, and courthouses has collapsed. As David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who created The Wire, told a Senate committee inquiring into the future of news in 2009: “The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician.” Seven years later, almost half of states have no newspaper with even one dedicated reporter in Washington to cover their congressional delegation or their state’s stake in federal budgeting. Between 2003 and 2014, the number of newspaper statehouse reporters fell from just under 500 to about 300, according to the Pew Research Center.

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In many important respects, journalism is recovering from the shocks of 2009 and 2010. Nonprofits and digital startups are hiring, collaborating, and producing deep, groundbreaking work. Reporters are coding, deploying sensors, and crunching data—adapting to public purpose the very technologies that blew up newspaper business models. National papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are investing heavily in growth and change.

This renewal has been reflected in recent years in who wins Pulitzers and in the kind of work that is honored. In 2015, remarkable video reporting was a big part of the Times’s winning Ebola entry. That year, The Wall Street Journal’s winning entry in the investigative category turned on computer-driven analysis of one of the largest data sets ever obtained by a news organization, concerning Medicare costs. International and national reporting in the public interest is changing, but it is robust and influential.

In many cities and towns between the coasts, the strains caused by economic disruption have been more persistent. Too many small and mid-sized communities have not replaced the lost jobs involving day-to-day professional watchdog reporting. Given the amount of shrinkage, it is remarkable that Pulitzer juries and the Pulitzer Board still honor so much great local work. In 2007, Brett Blackledge of The Birmingham News won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for a jaw-dropping series about cronyism and corruption in Alabama’s two-year college system. In 2008, David Umhoefer of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel worked for six months and hired outside financial experts to show how cronies had abused public pension rules to award themselves large unearned retirement incomes. The Florida Sun Sentinel’s ingenious investigation of deadly speeding by off-duty police, which won the gold medal for public service in 2013, was one of the most impressive examples of local work in years. If the Pulitzers are a proxy for journalism’s health, these examples certainly signal resilience.

Yet the Prizes also show signs of strain. Last year, the wonderfully titled Daily Breeze, a tiny paper in Torrance, California, won for local reporting about corruption on the school board. When the Prize was announced, however, it emerged that one of the reporters on the project had left the newsroom for a university communications job because he found he couldn’t make ends meet. Whether it is off a beat or assigned to a dedicated project team, work of this depth and impact takes time and money and requires editors to be patient at a time when digital traffic metrics and the hyper-speed of social media are calling all newsroom hands to pitch in. How many shrunken newsrooms from Bakersfield, California, to Portland, Maine, are in a position to invest in and champion such work today?

The New York Times has won just over a fifth of all Pulitzer Prizes awarded to newspapers between 2009 and 2015; in the preceding seven years, it won less than 15 percent. The Times is a great, well-resourced paper. Yet a winner-take-all ecology of excellence in journalism would be anathema to Joseph Pulitzer. So would a Prize that became a private trophy for bicoastal professionals.

The Pulitzer Prizes cannot fix the recent losses in local journalism, but as they evolve into the next century, their stewards will have to think about how to help address the hole in the heart of American journalism, to lift up, as Pulitzer wrote, “the idea of work for the community, not for commerce, not for one’s self, but primarily for the public.”

 

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It was 3am and Steve Coll was lying on the marble floor of his bedroom in New Delhi, battling a debilitating stomach bug, when the phone rang. Coll picked up, dreading an urgent assignment. Instead, it was an editor at The Washington Post calling to tell him that he and a co-writer had won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting. Coll had begun his career at the Post five years earlier in the Style section. He wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so his editors sent him to New York to cover Wall Street. He and David A. Vise shared the beat, reporting on insider trading and publishing a series on the Securities and Exchange Commission. By summer, Coll was on his way to South Asia, where he immersed himself in his new beat. The SEC series didn’t make the Post’s cut for Pulitzer submissions, so Coll’s editor decided to enter it himself. In February, Vise reached Coll in Pakistan to tell him they were finalists. Coll was thrilled, but soon turned his attention to a raucous democratic revolution in Nepal. The Prize vanished from his mind until the night he learned he’d won. “I realized that if I interpreted this the right way, as a beginning, not an ending, I could let it help me continue in all the ways I really wanted to continue,” Coll says. “I would still have to earn it every day, but it just created some forgiving space.”

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Steve Coll has been Dean of Columbia Journalism School since 2013. A former president of the New America Foundation, he is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes on politics, national security, and the media. He is the author of seven nonfiction books, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter, foreign correspondent, and senior editor at The Washington Post.