Marimow felt he was covering not only the symptoms, but the roots of urban problems. A story about students assaulting teachers was followed by a story about the failure of a special-education program. That article suggested that the assaulted teachers had been at risk because many of the attackers had previously been mishandled by special-education programs and then sent into regular classrooms. “This has nothing to do with Pulitzer Prizes,” Marimow said. “It has everything to do with: my wife’s a teacher, I’m hypersensitive to this, and I wanted to transcend symptoms to causes and solutions.”

Carroll felt he had addressed the complexity as well. A Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times story about problems at a hospital serving a black neighborhood addressed the subtle racial dynamics that held the city’s leadership back from demanding improvements. According to the article, the hospital was literally killing patients. But because it was staffed with many black doctors and had been the pride of black Los Angeles since just after the Watts riots, it could not be criticized; it had become a third rail to both white and black leaders. The Los Angeles Times stepped on that rail, and Carroll believes it saved lives. Carroll also handed me “Enrique’s Journey,” a gripping narrative of a Honduran boy who endured countless bitter hardships to rejoin his mother in America. Here, Carroll argued, was a disproportionate amount of a newspaper’s resources spent to penetrate the story of an impoverished part of America that few of us understand.

You might argue—especially if you’re David Simon—that there are broader economic and social forces at work in all these stories, that black hospitals in many cities will continue to have problems, that poor children will continue to die needlessly, that immigrant families will continue to be fractured. And this is where the difference emerges between Simon’s broad sociological approach and the rifle-shot approach taken by Carroll and Marimow, and rewarded all over the country by the Pulitzer board: the latter approach demonstrably affects—possibly even saves—individual lives.

“I don’t think a paper can necessarily take on all the complex issues that go into blighted neighborhoods and blighted lives,” Carroll says. “To try to do every factor, you’ll dissipate your energy and not really give attention to any one factor.” Carroll offered the school system as an example. There could be fifty topics worth writing about, he says, such as unions protecting bad teachers, wasteful bureaucracy at the board of education, and unsafe schools. “If you do all fifty,” he says, “you won’t do anything well enough to have an impact.”

At the Sun, Carroll and Marimow took on education, asking themselves what the real vital sign of a school system is. When they read that children rarely catch up if they don’t learn to read by third grade, they started a series called “Reading by 9.” “We’ll continue to try and cover everything,” Carroll said. “But let’s pick one thing and hammer the living hell out of it.” The spotlight was unrelenting: the paper regularly posted reading scores for every school in the city, and there were dozens of articles over several years.

This isn’t to say Carroll doesn’t support Simon’s vision of journalism. “I admire that kind of reporting,” he says, “telling what’s going on in these areas by going there and dealing with the full complexity of it….But you’ve got to be really good at telling it.” Without the talent, he argues, you can’t tackle that kind of reporting, and that kind of talent “doesn’t grow on trees.

“I know it’s a monumental economic and moral issue,” he says of the underclass and increasing inequality. “But what is the solution? I don’t know. I myself would be very happy to pay more in taxes even though I pay a lot. To do my share to make it a country in which everyone has insurance, an opportunity for a job, everyone has the right to a living wage….I agree with his cause, basically. I think he’s a bit of a head case, but he’s smart, creative, and on the subject of race and class in America, he’s on the side of the angels.”

But Carroll insists that it’s worth it to push harder on more discrete issues. “I don’t doubt that thousands of children learned to read because of that unwavering spotlight,” Carroll says. “Did it solve the problem of inadequate schools, poverty, racism, or other issues that are so intractable in the city? No. But it did some good for some people.”

How Wide an Angle?

Lawrence Lanahan is formerly an analyst with American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. He lived in Baltimore for five years and is now a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. The fifth season of The Wire premiered January 6, 2008 on HBO.