An online journalist's guide to entering the Pulitzer Prizes

Set one more milestone along the road toward the convergence of the online medium with the rest of the field of journalism.

This week, the Pulitzer Prizes announced that it will accept entries from online-only news publications. The highest honor in American newspaper journalism now is simply the highest honor in American written journalism. Print and online, at last, will be judged as one.

Of course, I’d argue that distinction between the media long since been lost among our readers, the public. News is news, regardless of its medium. People will turn to the news sources that are, for them, the most informative, engaging, immediate and convenient. But I’ll let other wax about the cultural significant of the Pulitzer decision. Today, allow me to address a more practical matter…

How do you nominate your website for a Pulitzer Prize?

Many print veterans are familiar with the entry process. But many worthy bloggers and online reporters won’t be. And putting a site up for a Pulitzer isn’t as simple as pasting your best URLs into an online form. A Pulitzer win, however, could catapult an online-only news site, fighting for attention in a hyper-competitive news marketplace, into a leading position in its market. The $10,000 cash award also could help plump the lean budgets at many online news start-ups.

Still, the awards are not throwing open their doors to every blogger on the planet. Entries are restricted to U.S.-based publications which “regularly engage” in original reporting. Commenting on work done by others isn’t enough. Your site needs to be publishing original interviews, public record research and/or event coverage on a regular basis for the Pulitzer juries to consider your entry.

I swapped e-mails this week with Sig Gissler, administrator of the Prizes, to get more details to help online-only publishers navigate the process.

First, you will need to send print-outs of your work, as well as URLs. From The Pulitzer Prize Plan of Award [PDF file]:

All online material, which may include written stories, interactive graphics, databases, blogs and still or video images, must be published on an eligible Web site during the calendar year and, when submitted, must depict its original publication on the Web, not its subsequent update or alteration. An online link to material must remain active during the judging period. For ease of judging, the URL should be as brief as possible. The entry‚Äôs summary letter should describe the online material being submitted and the entry should include a legible representation of the material, such as screen shots.”

The deadline for entries in February 1, 2009 and this years’ awards cover work first published from Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2008. Entries in most categories must consist of the entry form, a cover letter and print-outs or CD/DVDs of up to 10 URLs. (Reserve the CD/DVDs for essential video elements. Send print-outs for text and photo work.)

Do also read the Pulitzer Tips for Online Entries. That PDF file (again – the Pulitzers love their PDFs) was written for newspapers including online elements in their Pulitzer submissions, but the advice still holds for online-only entrants, Gissler wrote.

Two pieces of advice stood out: “Think thematically” and “Beef up your cover letter.”

Gissler echoed that thought on the importance of the cover letter:

“We put the burden on the entrant to demonstrate that they meet the criteria (e.g., primary dedication to original news reporting and adherence to the highest journalistic principles),” he wrote.

“It is important that in a cover letter, the entrant describes their journalistic mission and provides ample evidence of their primary devotion to original news reporting…. We deal with this in the Q&A, where we also define ‘original news reporting’ and the ‘highest journalistic principles.'”

Of course, many news websites are creating and embracing publishing and story formats that have no identical counterpart in print. Gissler wrote that the Pulitzer Board is not creating new categories for online-only work at this point, but he noted that the Pulitzers “have changed a lot in recent years” in expanding eligibility for online work.

Perhaps that door is not closed?

It’s also one thing to invite online-only websites to submit their work, but something else to have that work judged by online veterans, as opposed to judges who spent their entire careers in print. Gissler wrote that the Pulitzer Board is inviting some representatives from the online-only world to serve as judges, but that the juries are still in the early formative stage.

I asked Gissler how his crew was preparing for the possibility of an onslaught of submissions from websites.

“We’re uncertain about the impact,” he wrote. “While an outlet might qualify, it might hesitate to enter because of the high-quality competition. Certainly, in years past, not every eligible newspaper has entered the Pulitzers. That said, we have been handling online content in the judging process for several years. For example, we used rented laptops to provide online access for jurors. So we’re hopeful that we can deal with the changes with reasonable smoothness.”