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The Elephant in the Jury Room
Maybe it's time to be as visionary as Joseph Pulitzer

The Pulitzer Prizes annually highlight the brilliant work of many -- and the dashed hopes of many more. 

This year's crop also shines a spotlight on the artificial chasm between how news is delivered and the actual content of that news.  The journalistic headstands and double back flips that made so much information about the tragic events of September 11 rapidly available to millions of people around the world are irrelevant in the eyes of the Pulitzer Prize board despite claims that it recognizes "the growing importance of work being done by newspapers in online journalism." 

I would suggest creating new categories instead of simply rewriting the old rules.

It's hard to know what Joseph Pulitzer would have made of it. After all, he was a highly innovative newspaper pioneer willing to take gambles and push the limits; the Pulitzer site's own history describes him as a "visionary." It doesn't take a giant leap of faith to imagine him irritated by the insistence on ignoring entire chunks of journalism solely because they appear digitally instead of as ink on newsprint.

This isn't another one of those arguments about how the Pulitzers should be open to all journalists. I was deeply involved in the decision of the Society of Professional Journalists to set up online categories for the Sigma Delta Chi Awards -- the difference being that SDX awards were already open to relatively all news media except online at that point and we did not have to change the character of the competition to accommodate a new medium.

But as I argued back then and continue to believe today, there should at least be room in the Pulitzer inn for the work being done online by news organizations that already qualify as entrants. I'm not talking about recognizing the best repurposing -- the SDX guidelines, for instance, require sites with parallel print or broadcast editions to explain how the entry differed from or enhanced coverage and to submit proof that the site did more than repurpose. (SDX also recognizes the journalism of stand-alone sites as does the Online News Association.) In the case of the Pulitzers, though, I think it would be important to take into account the best use of the medium to complement print coverage instead of trying to see the two as completely separate.

In a sense, that is what the Pulitzer board tried to do with its grudging, yet self-congratulatory acceptance of online journalism back in 1997. As the official history explains: "The board typically exercised its broad discretion in 1997, the 150th anniversary of Pulitzer's birth, in two fundamental respects. It took a significant step in recognition of the growing importance of work being done by newspapers in online journalism. Beginning with the 1999 competition, the board sanctioned the submission by newspapers of online presentations as supplements to print exhibits in the Public Service category. The board left open the distinct possibility of further inclusions in the Pulitzer process of online journalism as the electronic medium developed."

Five years after that decision and three years after its implementation, what does it mean? From the outside looking in, precious little. It's impossible to discern without interviewing jurors if the online component of "Portraits of Grief" swayed the Public Service jury this year. If we have to conduct interviews to get a sense of the value of online in the process, well, that speaks for itself. It is a heartening sign that Bill Mitchell, online editor of the Poynter Institute, was one of the jurors for the Public Service category.

That appears to be the extent of the progress. It's possible that the Pulitzer board has "further inclusions" in mind. One concern amplified by this year's shut-out of smaller papers has to be ensuring a level playing field between those with deep resources and their less-blessed relatives. That is one reason I would suggest creating new categories instead of simply rewriting the old rules.

In the meantime, online coverage of the awards and access to winning entries offers the closest obvious connection between online journalism and the Pulitzers. 

The Pulitzer site itself is somber and distinguished, reflecting the serious side of the prize rather than its champagne-popping persona. The pensive John Singer Sargent version of the first Joseph Pulitzer presides over the simple front page while a timeline resembling a ruler hovers overhead. Through the timeline a visitor can head straight to any year that piques interest. Click on 1936 and quickly discover that the winner for reporting that year was Lauren D. Lyman of the New York Times "For his exclusive story revealing that the Charles A. Lindbergh family was leaving the United States to live in England."

Five journalism Pulitzers were supposed to be given that year but there was no award for editorial cartooning. [No offense to this year?s winner but I was rooting for John Sherffius of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, whose incisive, well-drawn work deserves attention even though I don?t always agree with his point of view.]

Anyone with a keen interest in journalism and a few minutes to spare can get a quick fix even if it's only skin deep since most of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work isn't online. Full texts, photographs and cartoons are available for Journalism winners from 1995-2001 only. Visitors can, however, find out how to order photocopies of winning entries for $15 a pop.  A little red box that invites users to search for winners by typing in a year pops up at the bottom of some pages. The chance to explore The Virgin Islands Daily News 1995 winning entry for Public Service is muted by the lack of simple tools that would make it easier to navigate the four-dozen-plus stories. Instead, a reader must return again and again to the "works" page to reach each piece.

In an odd twist, rooting through the archives pulls up the 2001 winner for Explanatory Reporting a Chicago Tribune package about air travel gridlock written in the fall of 2000. The headline: "The Longest Day: How September 11 exposed the weaknesses of the nation's air travel system." Once the shock passed it was possible to appreciate use of the "Previous -index - next" links so lacking in the 1995 selection.

It?s a little tough for me to criticize a site that I've been watching grow for years. Tough -- but necessary. Putting all of the archives online may be an insurmountable task but making it easier to use the ones that are up should be possible. I wasn?t surprised by the insistence on waiting to post the winners and finalists for 30 minutes; after all, giving the Associated Press first dibs is a tradition. Even knowing that the content is likely to evolve, it was hard not to be dismayed by the lack of depth when the entries went up and the lack of on-site content.

Instead, users were sent off-site to winner Web sites with the oddly phrased caution:  "These stories, on The Washington Post's Web site, may not be identical to the Prizewinning exhibit." Looking for Clay Bennett?s winning cartoons turned up only one cartoon at the Pulitzer site and no link to the online portfolio. Then again, The Christian Science Monitor online provided a front-page link to his award-winning cartoons but no link from the story about the awards. I couldn?t even find an online archive of his work, aside from the portfolio (unlike the pages kept for columnists).

The slideshow of The New York Times? breaking-news photography couldn't be reached from the Pulitzer site either, which instead posted a single image.  Users had to go to the nytimes.com and seek it out.

That single image says very little about the entire package, just as that one cartoon alone probably wouldn't have brought Clay Bennett a Pulitzer. The whole portfolio needs to be seen to even come close to understanding why the judges chose the Times' work instead of the iconic image taken by Thomas Franklin. One columnist has tried to make this decision sound like a win for political correctness. I see it as contention between the notion that a single image should say it all and that a group of photos might have a greater collective effect. It could also be that it did not win the Pulitzer for the very reason that it struck a nerve with so many: because it was so evocative of a previous Pulitzer Prize winner. Having nearly instant access to the photos in question makes an educated discussion possible.
 
I remember the days of waiting for the newspapers to come out with the details about the winners and their work. To have the luxury now of hearing about a winner or finalist and be able to turn almost immediately to the work that won is an incredible gift. Reading Barry Siegel?s deftly crafted tale not only provided insight about the choice between his work over others for the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing; it took me to a different world for a few minutes.  Re-reading feature-writing finalist David Mariniss?s chronicle of the events of Sept. 11 -- written under incredible pressure and published only five days later -- reminded me of what journalists can accomplish. I could see the front page produced by a Wall Street Journal staff driven from its home and awarded the Pulitzer on the day the very style of that front page was shifting to a new look.

And I can still hear the echo of the words spoken by New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to a staff hovering between celebration and remembrance (provided via a video clip) as he quoted an e-mail from a reader who thanked the Times for "making the unimaginable understandable."