This year’s Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday afternoon, and for the ninth time in 95 years, there was no winner selected for best editorial writing, the journalistic category with the most non-wins by far. (Fiction was also left without a winner this year, for the 11th time. But this is, after all, a journalism review, not a literary one.) The lack of a winner doesn’t mean there was no quality editorial writing in the past year; it means the 18 voting members of the Pulitzer Prize board couldn’t agree to pick one. A finalist needs a majority vote to win the prize.
“This is a statement about three nominations,” Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler said, looking deflated at how often he’s been asked the question this week. “It’s not a statement about the condition of editorial writing today.”
Gissler wouldn’t broach any specifics of the board’s decision process—they have a “what happens in Vegas” policy to encourage candid conversation, as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted with frustration. But the three finalists under scrutiny, including teams from the Tampa Bay Times, the Burlington Free Press, and Bloomberg News, were recommended to the board by a jury that screened all 44 of this year’s submissions as best exemplifying Pulitzer-worthy work.
Finalists, according to the Pulitzer website, should have “clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, using any available journalistic tool.” Jury chairman Richard Coe, editorial page editor of The Bulletin of Bend, OR, said he and his four fellow jurors used the Pulitzer criteria as they winnowed the submission list.
“Our job was to submit the three best entries, and we did that,” Coe said. “So, you know, they were all good entries, but I guess the board decided that they didn’t think any of them were worthy of the prize.”
This year’s entries included an ongoing analysis of Florida’s neophyte governor, writing on Vermont’s open government laws that led to legislative reform, and accessible critiques of the European debt crisis. The journalists behind these efforts say—diplomatically—they are honored for the Pulitzer recognition but that, without a winner, it feels rather like a backhanded compliment.
“It’s a bit like a tie in a sporting event,” said Tim Nickens, the Tampa Bay Times’ editorial page editor. “It’s not as satisfactory as winning but you don’t necessarily feel like you lost, either.”
Aki Soga, editorial page editor at the Free Press, added, “It was very gratifying to be a finalist. It does seem a little odd to be a finalist in a contest without a winner.”
The 20 board members—including Gissler and Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann, who are nonvoting—met for two days last week, around a large table in the school’s World Room, to discuss and vote on this year’s crop of finalists. In the case of editorial writing, Gissler said, “none of the three mustered a majority.”
“We’ve given hundreds and hundreds of awards, and 62 times we have not,” Gissler said. “So it’s unusual but not unheard of.”