If calling the Pulitzer Prize winners were like picking a Sweet 16 bracket for March Madness, CJR didn’t exactly win the office pool this year. Let’s just say we picked Kansas over Northern Iowa. Not that we bet on these sorts of things. (My money’s on the new kids at the Wall Street Journal’s soon-to-debut New York metro section for the prize in Breaking News next year. I hear they scouted some good talent.). But throughout 2009, we did highlight many of the eventual winners and finalists announced at Monday’s 94th annual Pulitzers in journalism, providing some insight, along with some shortsight as well.
In October, our business news critics at The Audit singled out Explanatory Reporting winner, Michael Moss’s investigation of tainted hamburger meat in the food supply as a “good,” “painstaking” and “stomach turning” public safety story. Moss’s account for the New York Times of a young woman, who was paralyzed after eating e. coli-tainted burger meat that had gone unregulated by lax food safety standards, was a veritable 21st century update to Upton Sinclair’s landmark work of journalistic muckraking and cattle-slaughterhouse horror story, “The Jungle.” Our Dean Starkman called it “an old-fashioned, time-consuming newspaper investigation, of, it must be said, a distinctly American pedigree. This kind of reporting is a main reason why we need big news organizations to survive and thrive.” Foreshadowing the Wall Street Journal’s third straight Pulitzer shutout under Rupert Murdoch’s management, Starkman also said Moss’s piece was “a reminder of why we here at The Audit are concerned about the creeping Anglo-Australian influence on U.S. business journalism. The Brits may do many things well; business investigations are not among them. That’s too bad, because the Times offers a compelling read with excellent mini-gets and scooplets throughout.”
Yesterday, Starkman, a former WSJ staffer, wrote that “the Journal being shut out for the third straight year isn’t good for anyone—not the Pulitzers, not the Journal, not readers, and certainly not for problem of news gathering and investigative reporting in the age of financial crisis,” noting that though some may argue that the Pulitzer Prizes are irrelevant and self-congratulatory, the kinds of stories that win them “don’t just pop up out of a toaster”; they take work. And disparaging the work they require - like the joke back in 2008 from the Journal’s then-newly installed top editor, Robert Thomson, who said that the Journal’s once-trademark, now long-gone long-form stories appeared to have “the gestation period of a llama,” isn’t really funny anymore.
The Investigative Reporting category had two winners this year, though you wouldn’t know it if from the huge discussion surrounding the unprecedented win for ProPublica, the first time an online-only journalism outlet has won since they were made eligible to enter for the first time last year. The piece - about euthanasia practiced at New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina and the lack of clear ethical guidelines in disaster medicine - reported by ProPublica’s Sheri Fink and published in collaboration with the New York Times Magazine is also unprecedented for its collaborative nature, a phenomenon that we are likely to see much more of in the future as nonprofit investigative journalism continues to proliferate on the web, according to Pulitzer Prize administrator, Sig Gissler, at Monday’s announcements.
At CJR, we first noted the landmark story for the enormous amount it cost to produce: $400,000.
and later mentioned it in a magazine piece written by Jeff Horwitz for our March/April 2010 issue profiling ProPublica’s founders, Herb and Marion Sandler, and the ethical questions posed to the nonprofit outlet after the Sandlers, themselves, became the subjects a New York Times story, negatively portraying the role their mortgage company, Golden West, and its lending practices, played in inflating the housing bubble. This put the Sandlers in the uncomfortable and unprecedented situation of footing the bill for the $400k story later published by the same company that they had felt wronged by, the sort of quandary that Horwitz noted will crop up more and more in this new age of collaborative efforts between nonprofit journalism and legacy news organizations.