On Monday afternoon, the Pulitzer board awarded the local news reporting prize to an impressive, powerfully written series of stories about the homeless. Each article, each photograph, in this series brought home the incompetence and neglect with which we treat those at the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.
But, for many of us, the surprise in the prize was this: The Pulitzer went to the Tampa Bay Times, which chronicled systematic incompetence and abuse in a Hillsborough County, Florida, homeless-shelter program. The Pulitzer did not go to the New York Times, which spent five days in December meticulously detailing the tribulations of a homeless Brooklyn girl named, simply, Dasani.
I don’t know why Dasani was shut out of not just a Pulitzer, but a nomination from jurors. It did, after all, win a coveted Polk award earlier this year. And though I work just down the hall from the office of Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler, I know less about the internal machinations of jurors and board members now than I did when I was a city editor at the Miami Herald in the 1990s. But I do know that many readers found the Dasani story, for all its soaring prose and worthy ambitions, a difficult piece of work.
To understand more about why the piece elicited such strong reactions on both sides, I reached out to about 50 people shortly after the series ended last December. I blind copied them on an email in which I invited them to take part in a private, online discussion about the series. They emailed their thoughts, and I compiled and shared them. We abided by “Chatham House Rules,” which allow quotes to be used—but not the names or affiliations of the people who said them.
The group included journalists, scientists, lawyers, faculty members and a few former and current Columbia students. It also included alumni of the Times, but not current staff, nor any Pulitzer board members.
Why did I pick this story to examine? In part because the Times thought it to be so significant. Its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, called the series “the largest investigation The Times has published all at once in its history.” Moreover, it was stirring up a tremendous reaction, not just among journalists but all around New York City. Indeed, two of Michael Bloomberg’s deputy mayors took to the edit page of the Wall Street Journal to defend their boss’ record on homelessness.
The response to my email was instantaneous and, at times, overwhelming. Some people wrote more than 1,000 words to detail their approval or dismay. A few wrote several times, coming up with new reactions as they read and reread the series, or each other’s comments.
Over two weeks, I shared among our group five long documents filled with comments. At the end, I wrote a compilation of their reactions, along with some of my own thoughts.
Here is an edited version of that final correspondence:
Dear Dasani group,
Your reactions tended to focus on several issues, which I’ll list in what I’d consider ascending order of importance:
1. The omission of Dasani’s last name. Some found it to be like a pebble in your boot on a very long hike. It was mildly irritating at the beginning, and became more and more aggravating as the story went on. Did the Times really believe it could preserve Dasani’s anonymity after photographing her and her family, identifying her homes and school, and spending months in her company? That seems either clueless or disingenuous. And, of course, Dasani’s last name eventually came out—as it almost always does.
2. The length. Even some of the most vigorous proponents found it too long. When I sent the first email, many responded that they hadn’t yet read it, or had stopped reading midway through, because of the daunting word count. And when they did read it to fulfill this assignment they were alternately gratified, annoyed or bored. A good story should leave you wanting more. But much of our group sounded like an Italian family after a long Sunday repast, when they groan, “Basta cosi!”