Center for Citizen Media Rotating Header Image

Pulitzer Prizes in the 21st Century

The people who run the Pulitzer Prizes, undoubtedly America’s premier journalism awards, have taken some useful steps into the 21st Century with new rules that welcome online-only entries. From the official rules (PDF):

Entries for journalism awards must be based
on material coming from a text-based United
States newspaper or news organization that
publishes—in print or online—at least
weekly during the calendar year; that is
primarily dedicated to original news
reporting and coverage of ongoing stories;
and that adheres to the highest journalistic
principles. Printed magazines and
broadcast media, and their respective Web
sites, are not eligible.

This will open the prizes to such brilliant journalists as Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, among many others who’d been excluded in the past due to the anachronistic system that had ruled. Let’s celebrate that much progress.

But let’s also recognize that these new rules don’t begin to address the more fundamental issues about how journalism is changing. Excluding text-based journalism by magazines and broadcast media, for example, is illogical.

The release of the new rules — which are bound to evolve — frees me from an agreement of confidentiality I made earlier this year when asked by the Pulitzer Prize Board to answer some questions and offer my own suggestions about how the prizes should recognize changes in technology and journalistic practices.

Here is what I (presumably among many others the board consulted) suggested:

You asked me to think broadly about the prizes, and asked five questions. Before I respond to each of them directly, let me offer a few general thoughts. None of these will surprise you, but they add up to a challenge unlike any the Pulitzer board has faced in the past.

First, is the central issue: convergence. Media of all kinds are becoming digital. Moreover, media availability and distribution are moving onto networks where the data is broken up into little packets at the source and reassembled at the other end.

Second, the blurring of media forms is accelerating. It will be impossible in the relatively near future to distinguish among them.

Third, the business model for newspapers is failing. It’s not just about the movement of advertising to better online ad operations. It’s also the surging price of doing business as a manufacturing operation, including energy costs.

Under the current rules, these facts are a recipe for making the Pulitzers irrelevant, or at best quaint. I would hate to see that happen, because the Pulitzer Prizes matter. They are a touchstone of excellence. Like many others in the field, I believe they’re flawed in their current incarnation, but I would hate to see them become an artifact.

My bullet-point advice (assumes the board’s ability to interpret the bylaws in the broadest possible way):

1. Embrace reality. This will only seem radical to newspaper people.

2. Celebrate great journalism wherever it comes from. This includes digital-only, and probably should include English-language reporting that didn’t originate in the United States.

3. Create new categories that reflect the way we create and consume media over the long term.

Now to your questions:

Q: In creating the Prizes, Joseph Pulitzer wanted to “elevate” the profession of journalism. In his era, better journalism meant better newspapers. How could we further his goal today, given the makeup of news media and their challenges?

A: Become the top prizes for journalism of any kind. Do away entirely with the distinction between newspapers and other media. There’s no real alternative.

Q: Should the nature of the “newspaper” be redefined as multimedia journalism grows and practices change? If so, how? For example, should we include entirely online newspapers? And what should we do with things like videography and its impact on visual journalism?

A: You can’t define your way out of this dilemma, except in one sense. You can define what you mean by great journalism, and what you mean by elevating the craft. Beyond that, everything should be fair game.

Q: Should we re-examine and possibly revise the Prizes’ journalism categories? If so, how? For example, should we have a separate category for large multimedia packages? Should we reconsider the idea of circulation size as a basis for category definition – at least in some cases?

A: I’d revise the categories in some fairly dramatic ways, but I would not make separate categories for media formats for the reasons I mentioned above.

I would, however, add several areas where the Pulitzers could elevate journalism in a big way. Here are just three:

1. The digital space has many characteristics, but one is that the journalism we create doesn’t disappear into birdcages or pay-per-view databases. Stories and projects can accrete influence, and be timely long beyond the traditional periods. This is especially important when we recognize that the manufacturing process of journalism — create something and send it out, period — becomes obsolete in due course. Some ideas that take this into account:
a. We’d all benefit from a prize celebrating relentless journalism over time that led to long-term solutions of big problems; this would require a rule change to look back more than 12 months.
b. Along those lines, why not recognize reporting that was ahead of its time? Whenever a major national or international crisis becomes obvious, such as the current credit and housing meltdowns, we can always look back and find examples of prescient journalism that was essentially ignored at the time. If you made that single addition to the prizes, you’d be making a huge advance.
c. And what about journalism that has evolved. I’m working on a book that will live and evolve mostly online, and I guarantee it’ll be vastly better in five years than it will be the day it’s officially published for the first time. I can show you things that have been updated over time, and which now are as good as journalism can be, even though they were, early on, shadows of what they’ve become.

2. I’d also find ways to recognize more of the finest work by small entities that do brilliant coverage of small communities of geography or interest. Beat reporting doesn’t fully cover what I’m talking about here, but it’s the closest you have now. (I’m not talking about separate prizes for big and little organizations, however.)

3. I’d create a prize for innovation in journalism, recognizing an advance by someone who used the collision of media and technology to create something new and valuable to the craft.

Put all of this out for public comment, by the way. You’ll be amazed at the great ideas others will have.

Q: Should we re-evaluate the kind of journalism we honor and the entries we encourage? For example, do we sometimes foster journalism projects and packages that lack relevance to everyday lives?

A: Of course you do, but that’s the nature of giving prizes. I don’t have a great antidote for the bigness impulse. I would try to tweak the rules and judging to favor things that genuinely lead to a better world. I don’t have any obvious ways to achieve this, of course…

Q: Should the Board itself be changed? Should we alter the mix of journalists and academics? Should we expand the Board’s total size? (The Board now has 17 voting members, four of whom can be non-journalists. The dean of the journalism school and the Pulitzer administrator are non-voting members of the Board.)

A: Yes change the board, in significant ways if you adopt any of the ideas I’ve suggested. (It seems large enough now.) The current board members are superb representatives of the 20th Century, manufactured-newspaper model of journalism, and people of that stature and accomplishment should remain part of the mix. But I’d include some very different kinds of folks, who may have a wider vision of the craft.

0 Comments on “Pulitzer Prizes in the 21st Century”

  1. #1 Tom Stites
    on Dec 9th, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Dan — I love your suggested prizes for “relentless journalism over time that led to long-term solutions of big problems” and “reporting that was ahead of its time.” Both would make it possible for all reporters to think that whatever they’re working on could win a Pulitzer, not just the blockbusters. This could improve journalism across the board by evening out where the effort goes.

    A prize for journalism that evolves over time is an intriguing idea as well, but at this stage at least not quite as compelling as the other two. I hope you keep after the Pulitzer people to make the changes you propose.


  2. #2 Liz Gebhardt
    on Dec 9th, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Dan –

    What an incredibly well-written and thoughtful posts. I am hearing about it from may people.

  3. #3 links for 2008-12-09 (Jarrett House North)
    on Dec 9th, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    […] Pulitzer Prizes in the 21st Century – Center for Citizen Media Dan Gillmor's memo to the Pulitzer committee, one of the things that resulted in opening up the award to online only publications. (tags: journalism) […]

  4. #4 Notes from a Teacher - Tuesday squibs
    on Dec 9th, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    […] Pulitzer Prizes in the 21st Century. Dan Gillmor has it right that the Pulitzer folk have to go further than they did when they opened the door (a crack) to online journalism. […]

  5. #5 Bill Lee
    on Dec 10th, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    I was directed here by a previous reader, but couldn’t see the
    page from the Lynx (BLynx) browser.
    Are you keeping the blind text readers out because of some coding failure.

    And yes we have “international Emmys”, “daytime Emmys” why not second ranked Pulitzers for readers who don’t leave the U.S.

    The prominence of “international pulitzers” would show that there are many writers, and good publishers out in the real world.

    See Deutsche Welle’s BOB awards of last week.

  6. #6 Manuel Maqueda
    on Dec 10th, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Hello Dan

    I wrote about this for PeriodismoCiudadano

    The article praises your advice to the Board profusely. It’s mind-blowing how out-of-date these guys are. However, I couldn’t help it, and have to give you some criticism for not hinting -at least- at the next blurring that needs to be addressed: that between professional and citizen journalism.

    These prices should do away with the format distinctions you talk about, I agree, but the Board should go one step beyond and consider rewarding excellence in journalism regardless of whether it is coming from citizens, or from professional journalists.

    Professional media is moving in the direction of using citizen journalism for its own advantage, which is great because the internet is all about sharing, remixing and co-creating information. However, the idea of giving back, not only attribution, but true journalistic recognition when deserved, is still unthought of.

    My favorite, and the most we-the-media advice you gave is “put all of this out for public comment.(..) You’ll be amazed at the great ideas others will have”. Yes, collective intelligence and conversational information. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it.

    So… what do you think of opening these prizes to journalism created by non-professionals?

  7. #7 Dan Gillmor
    on Dec 10th, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Manuel, nothing I wrote excludes non-professionals.

  8. #8 Manuel Maqueda
    on Dec 10th, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Dan, I noticed that you didn’t exclude them, and that you encouraged them to “become the top prizes for journalism of any kind”.

    However, I don’t think that the possibility of ‘any kind’ including citizen journalism is even going to cross their minds. Wouldn’t you agree?

    l know that you know, Dan. I just wonder about them. We are the choir, they are not; this is why I think that an explicit mention would have been nice, that’s all!

  9. #9 Anna Haynes
    on Dec 10th, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    > “why not recognize reporting that was ahead of its time?”

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
    (sorry to pack the ballot box, but…yes.)

  10. #10 » Blog Archive » links for 2008-12-11
    on Dec 11th, 2008 at 8:00 am

    […] Pulitzer Prizes in the 21st Century – Center for Citizen Media "The people who run the Pulitzer Prizes, undoubtedly America’s premier journalism awards, have taken some useful steps into the 21st Century with new rules that welcome online-only entries. From the official rules." (tags: buildtheecho impact) Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  11. #11 Chris Anderson
    on Dec 12th, 2008 at 6:42 am


    Well said. I shared a similar concern about convergence and the antiquity of format distinctions with members of the board soon after the new rules were announced. An Unnamed Source With Knowledge of the Boards Deliberations (take that as you will, I have a graduate student office at the Columbia J-School) told me that two concerns they had with this were:

    1. Logistical (a limited number of underpaid submission reviewers and a fear that open the gates entirely would inundate the committee on the administrative end).

    and especially

    2. Stepping on the feet of the “other” prizes. The historical sludge from which the Pulitzer’s emerged, with their emphasis only on newspapers, led to the creation of a number of other prizes, like the National Magazine Awards … and so on. There is a fear that throwing open the gates will lead to conflict with, or the elimination of, the other prizes. While this may be the thing to do in theory, the fear is that this would be seen as unilateralism and aggrandizement.

    I don’t agree that these are good enough reasons a not to take the radical steps you call for, but they do throw some light on the complexity of the problem, and show how long old, dying structures live on. Would it be too much to ask for the reps. of the major journalism awards to get together in a room and figure this all out? Probably.

  12. #12 John C Abell
    on Dec 12th, 2008 at 7:15 am
  13. #13 Persephone Miel
    on Dec 14th, 2008 at 7:47 am


    Let me add my adulation, great piece. I’m still chuckling about the fact that only newspaper people will find it radical to embrace reality. That said, I’m still looking for someone to write a thesis on the (mostly positive, IMO) impact of the Pulitzer on U.S. journalism so I really hope that positive impact can continue.


  14. #14 Bill Sutley
    on Dec 15th, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I’m a former editor now working in education, and I join the growing applause for Dan’s ideas. None of the following will be a great fit for the Pulitzers, but this exercise reminds me of the ideas for editing awards I’d like to see:

    — Clarity Award, for the editor breathing precision into a previously muddled account by a very tired, covering-three-beats reporter who had the facts but not the energy or inclination to sort them out clearly.
    — Courage Award, for the editor killing a story at the last minute that just couldn’t be saved by even a team of Clarity Award winners.
    — Outrageous Courage Award, for the same, when the story was planned for Page 1.
    — Lazarus Award, for the editor guiding a reporter who had only part of a story, thus putting it in in line for a quick death, to pull together the reporting, background and whatever else was needed to put the story back on the news budget.

    Probably those still editing daily/nightly can add to this list … not that it’s precisely on-topic. I just couldn’t resist a mention.