This year’s Pulitzer Prize box score has the Washington Post taking four prizes (international reporting, feature writing, commentary, and criticism) and the New York Times snagging three (explanatory, national, and investigative reporting). This last the New York Times Magazine shared with Sheri Fink of the independent, not-for-profit, online newsroom ProPublica. (The Philadelphia Daily News tied for the award.)
ProPublica, together with its partner the Los Angeles Times, was also a finalist for the much coveted public-service gold medal. The investigative prize, together with the public-service shortlist, clearly makes ProPublica — helmed by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger — the succès d’estime of this year’s Pulitzer cycle.
Quality, of course, is a highly subjective measure. And nobody in their right mind would suggest that the Pulitzers are the only measure of what counts in journalism. Given the miserable economics of the business these days, I strongly suspect that a publisher or two might swap a year of profitability for a past or future prize. Still, it is hard to deny that winning is far superior to, well, not winning.
Here, over a period of 10 years, is how the nation’s quartet of qualities stacked up — at least by the Pulitzer measure:
The New York Times leads with 25 prizes; the Washington Post places second with 24; the Los Angeles Times runs third with 16; and the Wall Street Journal finishes with 12.
Not everyone can win something every year. The New York Times, for example, blanked in 2000. But over the last decade, the New York Times has won at least one Pulitzer 90 percent of the time. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have won 70 percent of the time, and the Wall Street Journal 60 percent.
Here is where things get interesting: no paper except the Wall Street Journal has missed for three consecutive years.
The last time the Journal won a Pulitzer (two in 2007) was for work done before the paper was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
It strikes me that there are three plausible reasons for this current dry spell:
1. Bad luck — could happen to anyone.
2. Prejudice against Murdoch. If the Pulitzer process represents the closest thing to the sanctum sanctorum of journalism, then the Murdoch interests — a challenging rather than collegial force in the business — could invite indifference.
3. The changes instituted by Murdoch at the Journal and so ably executed by publisher Les Hinton, formerly of the Times of London, have made that paper snappier and more immediate in the manner of the Financial Times (also London based), but in the process sacrificed the sort of heft that high-minded journalism judges seek to reward.
I’m going to wait until next year and see what the judges dish up before I hazard a definite guess.