If someone had suggested six years ago that the time would come when the Huffington Post won a Pulitzer prize and the Washington Post didn't, few in the relatively conservative world of the U.S. press would have believed it.
It is six years since the Pulitzer prizes for journalism dipped a toe in the digital water by suggesting that elements of online material might be admissible for newspapers' entries. In 2009 the requirement for there to be a newspaper attached to the entry was dropped, with “online news sites” allowed to enter. Last week when the winners were announced, the HuffPo did indeed win a coveted Pulitzer for national reporting, for the work of its military correspondent David Wood.
Both the Huffington Post and the online political news site Politico picked up prizes ahead of “legacy” competitors such as the Washington Post. People in the online world quietly celebrated the idea that something as comparatively new and as oft-derided as the HuffPo could beat established news organisations. But they also moaned that false definitions of what counts as a “newspaper” place restrictions on others who might compete. Slate.com, for example, ran a piece entitled, Is the Huffington Post a newspaper?
Pulitzer chair Sig Gissler points out that what is categorised as Pulitzer-eligible has stretched and now reads: “Entries must be based on material coming from a United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles. Magazines and broadcast media, and their respective websites, are not eligible.” However, Gissler says that as the awards were created “very firmly for newspaper journalism,” the redrawing of this definition is inevitable — though clearly a challenging task — as the newspaper disappears.
Digital age brings criticism
The Pulitzers, housed in Columbia University's journalism school in New York, have often been criticised for being too conservative, slow to change and increasingly irrelevant in the rapidly evolving world of online news. However, nothing else places a prism over what is conventionally thought of as “good reporting” in the U.S. on quite the same scale.
Conducted in the rather austere and extremely chilly World Room of the J School, the judging process is painstaking, and gratifyingly earnest. It is a far more thorough and dignified process than many of the equivalent awards in the U.K. The overwhelming sense in the room is of a commitment to fairly rewarding excellence.
Even if one takes the Pulitzers as an indicator of the trailing edge of change in U.S. newsrooms, a closer examination of the 2012 list reveals what a widespread transformation has taken place in a short time. The breaking news category winner, Tuscaloosa News, entered written articles from its paper, but demonstrated its facility in the category largely through Twitter, posting dozens of updates and live reports in covering a devastating tornado which had ripped through the town.
Sara Ganim, the 24-year-old crime reporter who won an award for her reporting on the Penn State football sex scandal, is a highly traditional “shoe leather” journalist in some ways. However she sleeps with a police scanner by her bed and, as well as nailing exclusives for print, live-tweets much of her work. The Denver Post, which won a prize for feature photography, submitted a series of images relating to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, which ran as an online feature. If there is anyone left who thinks the widespread adoption of breaking news techniques, social platforms and web-first reporting is leading to a diminution in quality, this year's list of Pulitzer winners is a hefty counter-argument. But it is likely to be only the beginning of a far faster transformation.
The concept of news as a series of articles published daily or weekly in a paper format is dissolving before our eyes. Beat reporting cannot now be done at the highest level without recourse to using tools and platforms which lay far beyond the reach or expectations of newsrooms even as recently as five years ago. On Friday, at a conference on online news in Austin, Texas, Richard Gingras, the head of Google News, posed a relevant question: why wouldn't any organisation engaged in news be focused on developing tools and techniques that make the reporter's job ever more efficient? The speed and nature of this change take us way beyond wondering “what is a newspaper?” and whether, indeed, the Huffington Post qualifies. The wider question of what is the essence of a news service that recreates elements of what your daily or weekly newspaper had — communities of interest, rapid transfer of information, commentary and context — is complicated by parallel discussions around the continuing lack of funding to support the emerging new structures.
Six years ago it was unthinkable that the bastion of conservatism in handing out prizes for American journalism would be writing citations for the Huffington Post; now it is hard to imagine that in the next six years the line-up of winners will not be dominated by the most deft adopters of new practices and technologies in the pursuit of journalism. (Emily Bell is professor of professional practice at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a Pulitzer juror 2011/2012.) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012