THIS JUST IN. NO PULITZER AWARDED WAS GIVEN IN THE BREAKING NEWS CATEGORY!
I write this tongue-in-cheek, of course. This is not “just in;” it happened last week, and since I adhere slavishly to the my schedule of Monday-morning posts for Inside Pages, I’m just getting around to discussing it here.
Read on, and you’ll see that by doing so, I also am taking a stab at irony.
Anyway, 2010 marked the first time in the Pulitzer’s 95-year-history that no award was given in the breaking-news category. (Vacant categories aren’t unprecedented, though; it has happened on 24 other occasions.) Newspapers are a-Twitter trying to figure out how this happened (pun very much intended.)
The chair of the nominating committee for breaking news, Philadelphia Inquirer metro editor Gabriel Escobar, told CNS News it was not a year “defined by major breaking news.” Well, OK, but it was an election year, and there was an earthquake in Haiti, floods in the Midwest and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico oil-well malfunction — not to mention any number of events that are more regional in scope but not precluded from Pulitzer glory.
More likely, no newspaper organization grabbed the committee with their online prowess.
New rules for this year’s breaking-news category emphasize speed, accuracy and use of multiple reporting platforms. (Last year’s winner in this category was The Seattle Times, which used Twitter, Google Wave, Dipity and other digital tools to cover the shooting deaths of four police officers, as was noted in an article on the Poynter Institute website.)
My own ham-fisted attempts to keep readers abreast of a fairly straightforward school bus accident early last week — I was updating constantly, moving too fast and posted some typographical errors that, thankfully, didn't stay up too long — demonstrated how easy it is to goof up such reporting. I was posting to multiple Twitter accounts, updating a breaking news story on our website, responding to comments there and filing through scads of photos sent to us by people at the accident scene armed with cellphone cameras. We were down two editors last week, so it was a lot to juggle. I'm not whining or making excuses. I'm merely pointing out that dealing in multiple platforms at a time in which newsrooms are shedding manpower, not gaining it, is a keen challenge. Additionally, new tools only increase the urgency to break news quickly, and that urge can lead to mistakes, as was the case with media reports earlier this year of a far more serious story — the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Getting it right and getting it fast isn't easy, folks.
However, for the newspaper industry to survive the digital onslaught and evolving customer demands, we’d better get adept at it. I’ve warned in the past of the bad things that can happen when journalists chase awards instead of focusing on readers, but the Pulitzer organization’s new rules are instructive: We should use “any available journalistic tool, including text reporting, videos, databases, multimedia or interactive presentations or any combination of those formats, in print or online or both.”
If we’re not yet as comfortable doing this as we will need to be, at least we seem to realize that. As Sig Gissler, a Pulitzer administrator, told Poynter, breaking news coverage attracts the fewest entries of the Pulitzer categories — only 37 in this year’s contest, down from 41 in 2010, 35 entries in 2009, 47 in 2008 and 52 in 2007.
He chalked up the decline to a crisis of confidence, and I chalk up as a good thing: Recognition of a need is the first step toward fulfilling it.