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Pulitzer Prize: Oscars for journalists

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Last week the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winners were named. Along with many other newsrooms across the country, I watched via a live stream on the Pulitzer website the announcements of this year’s recipients. It’s sort of like Oscars week for journalists. Even for community journalists like us, who rarely see Pulitzer limelight, it’s hard not to get excited seeing our peers in the industry recognized for their work. 

The prizewinners were composed of 21 different categories of journalism, literature, music and drama. All time, The New York Times is the record holder with 109 wins (they won three more last week), followed by The Washington Post with 57. 


A lot of the run up to this year’s announcements centered around how much “Trump coverage” would be displayed on the winners’ list. In the end, there were a few - including the coveted ‘Commentary’ Pulitzer, won this year by The Wall Street Journal columnist Pat Noonan, and David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post for “National Reporting.” 

For the most part though, the results displayed a wide range of topics from regions across the country and globe that made 2016 truly a remarkable year for the news.

Every year it’s a reminder for me how lucky I am to work in the news, and how important it is to do what we do to the best of our abilities.

This year, these were two of my favorites:

1. ‘Public Service’, ProPublica and The New York Daily News

ProPublica is an inspirational organization for me. They describe themselves as “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” They are funded through several large charitable foundations, in addition to receiving some advertising dollars and donations from the community.

They are very selective with where they spend their resources, and they focus on stories with “moral force” that usually expose some type of corruption or abuse of power. 

While employing about 50 journalists, many of their larger stories are done through partnerships with traditional media and offered free of charge to repurpose for newspapers and broadcasters across the country.

So, when Sarah Ryley of The New York Daily News, a data projects editor and investigative reporter, noticed a trend of the NYPD using a little-known practice of using lawsuits that authorized police to kick people out of their homes without due process on claims that they were being used for illegal purposes – she began to document what she could find.

What she found was that this happened about 1,000 times a year in New York City and overwhelmingly affected people of color. This was however, essentially a project she was working on in her “spare time” in addition to her regular responsibilities. Enter ProPublica.

ProPublica dedicated three full-time staffers to assist Ryley in her research and spent hours sifting through thousands of pages of documents. Ultimately, what resulted was Ryley’s first long form stories of her career and a drastic change in the number and in the way that the police department used this statute.

And for her efforts, she won a Pulitzer Prize.

“The investigation into the workings of the nuisance abasement law is a stellar example of the media fulfilling its duty to monitor fairness in the legal system,” said Arthur Browne, editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News to ProPublica when describing the significance of the work. “Designed as a tool for closing establishments rife with criminality, the statute vests police and other officials with extraordinary powers — powers they misapplied against regular citizens without check by an effective judiciary. Thanks to this investigation, New York now sees how an extremely muscular law, combined with aggressive policing, combined with a lack of counsel, combined with lax judges produced damaging miscarriages of justice.”


2. ‘Editorial Writing’, Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times

Art Cullen reportedly yelled out “holy s***!” while watching the live stream of the Pulitzer announcements from his desk at the Storm Lake Times — a biweekly newspaper owned by his brother, John, that employs about 10 people. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. I imagine my reaction would not have been much different. 

Art is technically a part-time reporter at the 3,000-circulation newspaper (Appen Media is 75,000 circulation, by comparison), and does some layout work as well. He even used to run the printing press before it moved out of town. Also on staff are his wife and son and his brother John and his wife. 

They are proof that you don’t need a big newsroom and a huge budget to crank out news that makes an impact. 

“Journalism really matters, and good journalism is being done all around the country,” Cullen said.

He won his Pulitzer for two years of work dedicated to investigating Iowa’s powerful and influential players in agriculture, including the Koch Brothers, Cargill, and Monsanto, which were secretly funding the government’s defense of big environmental lawsuits.

“Art has attacked local farmers, lawyers, county supervisors, Monsanto, the Koch Brothers, agribusiness and the Republican Party — all icons in northwest Iowa,” Richard Longworth, a retired and esteemed Chicago Tribune reporter and foreign correspondent told the Poynter Institute.

“Art’s Pulitzer is virtue rewarded,” he said. “Sometimes the good guys really do win.”

In the same interview with Poynter, Art was asked if he had any final thoughts. After all, the man had just won a Pulitzer. 

“Yes. Put in a plug for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council,” he replied. “They are broke and have little support.”

Yeah, journalism does really matter, and it’s important that at least once a year the world is reminded why. 

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners. We salute your hard work, bravery and dedication to your craft.


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