As Alexander Cockburn theorized in a 1984 Wall Street Journal column, the Pulitzers are a kind of show business, a “self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them.”
Jack Shafer in Slate.
The Pulitzers have played a proactive, standard-setting role since press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer first devised them in the early 1900s.

—Roy J. Harris Jr., author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.

Of course, the Pulitzers aren’t everything. You can argue they aren’t anything, if you like, but it says here that The Wall Street Journal’s 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.

And I should say up front, as I did last year, that the Columbia Journalism Review doesn’t have anything to do with the Pulitzer Prizes, which are given out by Columbia University and administered by the Journalism School, which publishes CJR. I did try to visit up there once, but a guy in a muscle shirt tossed me back out through the swinging doors and down a flight of stairs.

And whatever one’s misgivings about journalists giving prizes to other journalists, who then, as Cockburn says, boast to the public about them, remember that there aren’t any reliable metrics for journalism quality. Sure, circulation is a metric, but it’s only reliable if USA Today is really the country’s second-best paper, and it’s not.

Prizes are a juried, peer-reviewed, qualitative judgment; they’re not perfect, but they’re what we have.

True, just because a paper wins a Pulitzer, or in the case of the Times and Washington Post, three and four, respectively, doesn’t mean they are consistently the better papers. Likewise, just because the Journal won none doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it’s consistently not as good as the others.

And winning doesn’t even mean the stories that won were the “best” in their categories. What’s that mean, anyway? Personally, I liked the Los Angeles Times’s work on Toyota for the national prize, but that’s just me. It’s subjective, to be sure. Again, it’s a qualitative judgment. What can you do?

But winning means, at a minimum, that the stories that won were almost certainly very good—in the sense that they were ambitious, required extensive reporting and careful writing, carried some significance beyond the normal gathering of news and/or had some kind of impact on the real world—they spurred some kind of change, like, for instance, fixing Walter Reed.

All of yesterday’s winners had some of these qualities, and some had all of them.

And many readers would intuit, fairly, that these kinds of stories don’t just pop up out of a toaster—that the prize reflects at least somewhat favorably on a news organization’s culture. The papers certainly like to think so.

So, back to my old paper.

As Aaron Elstein of Crain’s New York, another ex-WSJer, puts it:

How strange it is to see this. Starting in 1995, the Journal won Pulitzers every year with two exceptions - 1998 and 2006, according to the Pulitzer Prize Web site. And even in 1998, the paper was a finalist.

During its amazing run, the paper won in most every category, including national, international, beat and explanatory reporting. It won in criticism and commentary. The backdating story won the prestigious public service award. In 1995, 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2007 it took home two Pulitzers. Say what you want about the Journal when it was owned by the Bancroft family - it sounds like an upcoming book by Sarah Ellison will say it all - but this paper used to be a prize-winning machine.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.