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Needed: Awards that Belatedly Recognize Great Journalism

Looking through the finalists for the 2008 Gerald Loeb Award, several things stand out. Despite the excellence of the work being cited, the list of finalists should raise a note of caution about at least one key metric for the ability of American business journalists to look at major problems before negative trends turn to economic calamity.

Several of the finalists, for work done in 2007, were honored for covering the American credit meltdown, in particular the deflation of the housing bubble. The work of these journalists is indeed excellent. But it’s grossly late. The time this coverage should have appeared was several years ago, when the occasional uh-oh story about the blatantly obvious bubble disappeared in the mass of cheerleading that passed for journalism.

Another conspicuous — and related — issue is the shutout of serious online-only journalists, even in the commentary category where in the finalist list is in the new online category, dominated by Big Media online operations. Again, the work cited is for the most part superb. But some of the best economic journalism, especially in commentary, is being done by new-media folks. Perhaps they didn’t know they were eligible for the Loeb awards, but the total absence of their work is noteworthy nonetheless.

If the Loeb team really wanted to spur on great economic reporting, it could add a category: a foresight award for people who were way ahead of their peers in spotting issues that only later — usually too late — are understood by the herd. The Pulitzers could use something like this, too.

In the case of the credit bubble, there would be ample reason to look at some online work, especially among bloggers who saw the bubble early and talked about it incessantly, backing up their work with detailed analysis and data-based evidence. They were too early, however, for a journalistic establishment that rarely acknowledges a crisis until it’s causing or about to cause massive pain. Consider, just in recent history, the savings-and-loan sleaze in the 1980s and the tech/stock bubble of the ’90s, among other missed stories. In each case, there were lonely warnings, generally ignored.

Of course, as Jack Shafer has noted in Slate, journalism awards are generally noteworthy only to journalists themselves. But as long as we do have them, why not honor people who got it right when it wasn’t too late to do something about it.

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