Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Old man goes to shul, prays: “Dear God, just once, let me win the lottery.”
Flies to Jerusalem, goes to Wall: “Dear God, just once, let me win the lottery.”
Takes bus to Sinai, scrambles to top: “Dear God, ….”
Sky darkens, thunder, voice booms out: “Nu? Meet me half-way. Buy a ticket.”
The idea being that my old paper is an important American institution—still, I will go out on a limb and say, the global financial news leader, the most important monitor of markets, corporate behavior, and the economy.
Likewise, the Pulitzers are important, even taking into account the naysayers’ arguments that they are a “self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them.”
The Pulitzers have played a proactive, standard-setting role since press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer first devised them in the early 1900s.
That’s just it. Journalism prizes have no value for the public—zero—in and of themselves. Prizes do, however, offer bureaucratic and career incentives to the big, time-consuming, expensive, risky, agenda-setting work—especially investigations—that news organizations could very easily skip, and often do. The Pulitzers, being the most prestigious prize, by definition provide the greatest incentive.
(Here’s where I say, the Columbia Journalism Review, which is published under the auspices of the Columbia Journalism School, has nothing to do with the Pulitzer Prizes, which are awarded by Columbia University and administered by the school. Having moved to Times Square, we’re not even in the same zip code anymore.)
No one should do a story for a prize. I hope that’s obvious. In fact, if you set out to win a prize, you shouldn’t win one, and odds are very good that you won’t.
But the fact is, there are precious few—none, actually—metrics for journalism quality, while quantity can be measured to the last key stroke. And in a bureaucracy, that which can be measured wins. That’s why quantity will always have an advantage over quality.
As I’ve said, prizes are a juried, peer-reviewed, qualitative judgment; they’re not perfect, but they’re what we have.
On Monday, the Journal found itself shut out of the Pulitzers, this being now the sixth year running. What’s more, they weren’t among the finalists. That means none of the entries got beyond the juries, which are drawn from news organizations around the country, and didn’t even make it to the board.
The last time it actually won one on the news side was in 2007, which, not coincidentally, was the year Murdoch made his bid for the paper.
Obviously, it’s hard to win, and no one should be faulted for not winning.
And let’s be clear: to say that there is not a certain amount of subjectivity to the prize would be like saying there aren’t a lot of cats on Buzzfeed. For instance, Bloomberg did a very fine series on elite corruption in China that recently won the Asia Society’s top journalism prize and a shared a Polk Award with a different series on the same general topic by The New York Times. And it’s very, very good.
And yet the Times won the Pulitzer for International Reporting, and Bloomberg was nowhere to be found, even as a finalist. Bloomberg, by the way, has never won a Pulitzer. Ever. For anything. They didn’t even get a how-do-you-do for suing the Federal Reserve—and winning—while the rest of the news business was basically holding Bloomberg’s coat.
So nobody’s saying the Pulitzers are always going to be fair.
Neither is anyone saying The Wall Street Journal didn’t do good things last year. I’m going to give a sneak preview here and say two of its stories made into The Best Business Writing 2013, which I co-edit. Find out which ones here.