Explainer: Why No Pulitzer for Editorial Writing?
Two categories of the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes were not awarded prizes this year: fiction and editorial writing.
This is the 11th time the fiction prize was withheld, the last time being in 1977. Horror and discussion ensued, takes of which can be read in yesterday’s NY Times Media Decoder piece, or listened to at NPR’s The Two-Way. The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Shea speculates that the decision reflects the awkward add-on role the arts is still playing in the Pulitzers.
Let’s stay on journalism, though. There hasn’t been too much talk about the withheld editorial writing prize, except this comment from Gawker:
We’d like to state our formal strong agreement with the Pulitzer Committee’s acknowledgment—however tardy—that institutional editorial writing is a worthless anachronism in this modern media age.
Anachronism? Really? This year is the ninth time the editorial writing award has been withheld (last was 2008). First, let’s understand the process of awards and why they can be withheld.
Journalists, papers, news organizations, and editors submit nominations for each category. Then a jury (selected by the Pulitzer Prize Office with consultation from the Pulitzer Prize Board and others) is assigned to each category. In this case, the jury had three days to read 44 editorial submissions and recommend three finalists to the Pulitzer Prize Board, who would then pick a winner to receive $10,000.
The jury has to write up a description of each finalist they select, but indicate no preference among the three. The Plan of Award establishes guidelines used to evaluate categories. Editorial Writing reads like this:
For distinguished editorial writing, the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, using any available journalistic tool.
But the board can also opt not to pick a winner:
If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld.
Also, if in any year all of the competitors in any category should fail to gain a majority vote of the board, the prize may be withheld. So what exactly happened to editorial writing this year?
We called up Sig Gissler, Pulitzer Prize Board Administrator, to find out. “The three [finalists] were discussed at significant length,” he says, “and there were several votes but none of the three had a majority. The Board is dealing with 21 categories in a two day period, so in this case, they just decided to make no award and move on.”
In accordance with their history of confidentiality,Gissler couldn’t tell us anything more specific than “there are always multiple factors and multiple perspectives involved in these decisions.”
You can read about the finalists here, all of which exemplify great journalist work.
Now, back to the snarky Gawker comment about editorial writing being a worthless anachronism in the modern media age.
Gissler clarifies that, “When the board makes a decision to not make an award, it’s a decision about the three entries in the competition; it’s not a statement about editorial writing across America.
Two interesting questions do come to light, though. How is digital media changing editorial writing? And does the expansive reach of the internet and myriad mediums in which we can produce journalism make it harder to judge such things as “moral purpose” and “power to influence the public”?
“[Editorial writing] was one of the original categories and they wrote those words many, many years ago,” says Gissler. “I think the Board allowed them to stand but it’s really up to each jury to interpret and apply them.”
So we chatted with Richard Coe, chair of the editorial jury, and also editorial page editor at The Bulletin, about how to judge the influence of an editorial. He explains:
Let’s say if I were to write a series of editorials arguing for a change in a law. Either the law was changed or not. Whether or not what I wrote was published digitally or in a newspaper, it’s still difficult to measure influence. If the law was changed, then you know. If the law wasn’t changed, did it have an impact on the debate? You don’t know how much influence those editorials had unless after the change in the law, you have some legislators or lawmakers saying, ‘well this powerful series from the newspaper or online publication shaped our thinking.’ It’s always difficult to determine the influence that editorials have, and I’m not sure whether that changes if it’s a digital publication or not.
CJR’s Dean Starkman further comments on the difficulty to judge quality:
One thing the digital era has given us is ability to measure news quantity, down to the keystroke per second. There are good sides to this, and also very bad ones. But there is no metric for journalism quality, and there probably never will be one. And if you can’t measure it, it’s hard to make an argument for it. That’s just life in a bureaucracy.
Evaluation doesn’t seem to be about to get any easier, but thinking about the possibilities for digital editorial writing is fun. Gissler weighs in:
In my perspective, [the digital age] gives editorial pages some new tools to use in their editorials. Some papers have been doing more of that than others. I’ve seen some that have interactive graphics sometimes and videos or that kind of material. We say that for the editorials, any available tool can be used presenting the editorials. So they don’t have to be text, for example. You can present ten items that you put into an entry and in theory you could have the majority of them be short videos. I’m not saying that’s what they should have done in this case. I’m just putting aside all those other questions. In theory, there is nothing to prevent the editorial pages from using the digital tools that are available to them.
So, was it too hard to judge? We’ll never know. Maybe the submissions had excellent “moral purpose” but could have done a better job using “any available journalistic tool.” For an industry in flux and an ocean of new tools to explore, I wouldn’t be surprised. Is editorial writing still alive and kicking? It sure seems to have a lot of potential. Is the Pulitzer Board willing to explore these new forms of mixed-media editorial writing? Absolutely. —Jihii