The Value of Prizes

I watched the Pulitzer announcements for the first time this afternoon, just upstairs in the World Room—and, well, it’s a bit of anti-climax, as a matter of fact. Sig Gissler read the announcements in the lowest-key manner possible to an unpacked room, stepped out for about 20 minutes while people read the packets and did their Tweets, then came back and answered some questions. And there weren’t that many of them, mostly dealing with why there wasn’t a prize for fiction (the answer is, just ‘cause).

I don’t know what I was expecting, trumpets maybe. A choir. Something.

The 2012 prizes have been dubbed a breakthrough for online media, and I agree with that. As I told Matthew Flamm over at Crain’s, what I think is special about the Huffington Post’s breakthrough prize for its “Beyond the Battlefield” series on wounded veterans, was that it did its great work using a commercial model. I loved that Pro Publica’s Magnetar series won the first digital-only Pulitzer last year, but that operation is philanthropically funded. Commercial, all in all, is better. (Read Michael Shapiro’s hot-off-the-press takeout on HuffPo—”Six degrees of aggregation”—in CJR here.)

I’m sad The Wall Street Journal, my old paper, didn’t win (UPDATE: on the news side) now for the fifth straight year, because the WSJ’s Pulitzer shutout is bad for the country. But I’m glad that good work it did was recognized with finalist mentions: for its Internet privacy work in the explanatory category and for its work on debt-collection predations in the national category. I’m more concerned the Washington Post’s news department (where I also worked) wasn’t in the Pulitzer conversation. Finally I’m a bit surprised that Bloomberg’s news side, too, was out of the running, particularly for its Federal Reserve work. Go figure.

This is where I need to say that CJR has nothing to do with the Pulitzers, even though we’re in the same building. I was going to say that their space is a lot nicer than ours, but the fact is I’ve never seen their space. It’s a safe assumption, though, if you catch my drift.

The whole journalism prize thing has long been, rightly, viewed with jaundiced eye. Jack Shafer a few years ago quoted to excellent effect a 1984 Alexander Cockburn column that pegged the Pulitzers as a “self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them.” Cockburn wrote:

If bankers gave themselves prizes (“the most reckless Third-World loan of the year”) with the same abandon as journalists, you may be sure that the public ridicule would soon force them to conduct the proceedings in secret.

The fact is, though, we need contests more than ever. It’s not that The Huffington Post needs validation (thought it does) but that big, ambitious, risky public-service journalism needs it more. What you have to like about this year’s prizes—even if you quibble with this choice or that omission—is not that it rewards a certain kind of organization, but that it rewards a certain kind of story, and thus provides a powerful incentive to do them.

It’s easy to forget that there is no shortage of incentives not to do them—they’re expensive, time-consuming, stressful, etc. And most of the time news organizations get no credit at all for them—not so much as a hearty handshake. Instead, they get a load of grief. General Electric, for instance, pushed back ferociously against The New York Times and reporter David Kocieniewski for their series on corporate tax avoidance (pushback that, as The Audit’s Ryan Chittum showed, basically failed). There are plenty of people working in news organizations who’d rather not do them at all. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

And think about this. One thing the digital era has given us is ability to measure news quantity, down to the keystroke per second. There are good sides to this, and also very bad ones. But there is no metric for journalism quality, and there probably never will be one. And if you can’t measure it, it’s hard to make an argument for it. That’s just life in a bureaucracy.

Now, I’m not saying prizes are ideal. It is a bit unseemly, all this journalism glad-handing, especially when the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The whole process is subjective as hell. Matt Wuerker’s cartoons are great, but are they so much better than Matt Bors’s or Jack Ohman’s? Beats me. And, um, are politics involved in prize-giving, including the Pulitzers? Let’s just say I would not be surprised.

Prizes may not be the noblest incentive to do the hard stuff (“Hey, ma. Look at me! I won!”).

But what can you do? They’re what we’ve got.

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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.