If we’re going to have journalism prizes . . .

I’ll be frank about this up front: I’ve never been a big fan of awards, prizes and honors for journalists.

And not because I’ve won exactly two awards in 25 years, neither of them instigated by me. I couldn’t care less if I had won nothing at all.

Not long ago, I argued heatedly with a someone who submitted my name — against my wishes — for a media award given by a non-journalistic organization. Thankfully, I didn’t win. Like Susan Lucci, I’m anticipating a long and rewarding tenure of seeing someone else’s name next to that award.

Please, not me!
No please, not me!

While the recognition is nice, I didn’t get into this profession to win awards. In fact, my aversion to self-promotion is so great that I hesitated to start this post in this way.

So pardon me for sounding contradictory because I am also happy for those people who won Pulitzer Prizes yesterday, especially those whose work I’ve become familiar with. Doug Blackmon, a reporter who worked at my former newspaper and who is the Atlanta bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, won not a journalism prize but one for non-fiction for his book about blacks in the post-Civil War South.

In the first year online news outlets were eligible for Pulitzers, the fact-checking site PolitiFact, operated by the St. Petersburg Times, won for national reporting. A member of the PolitFact team, news technologist Matt Waite, is the co-author of a new book with a college friend of mine, SPT reporter Craig Pittman, about the erosion of Florida wetlands due to overdevelopment. That stemmed from an award-winning series in the Times.

As I was watching, listening to and reading media accounts of the journalism Pulitzers and the mournful backdrop of the declining newspaper industry, I was taken aback by how maudlin this was being presented.

Especially regarding Paul Giblin, the East Valley Tribune (Ariz.) reporter who was part of a Pulitzer-winning team but got laid off last fall, months before the good news came down yesterday. Understandably he’s got mixed feelings, but he also has been busy writing for a startup news site devoted to state government and public policy issues.

Even the New York Times, which won five Pulitzers, couldn’t celebrate for long. Not with horrendous details laid out today of its increasingly dire financial situation.

As more journalists get laid off, take buyouts and early retirements or are otherwise shooed from their newsrooms, it ought to be apparent to those dispensing awards that relaxing their newspaper-oriented rules is imperative.

I don’t mean relaxing standards, of course, but merely the guidelines for online entries. And not just for online news organizations, but also in accepting the work of reporters and journalists going solo with their own blogs and sites, and doing solid, public service reporting. Said Patti Epler, the laid-off East Valley assignment editor now working with Giblin online:

“It shows you can still do significant work, even in the face of declining resources, if you put your mind to it. It’s almost like I’m glad we’re not at the Tribune anymore because we’re doing our own thing and it’s pretty cool. And even though we’re not making any money, journalistically and professionally it’s really great and satisfying.”

These are the Pulitzers for journalism, and not just for newspaper journalism. In this case, awards can be a good thing, especially if they spur the kind of journalistic work online that still hasn’t captured the kind of revenue models to pay for itself.

For starters, the Pulitzer folks at the Columbia University need to get over their hang-ups over aggregation. While cluttered sites that traffick in outside links may seem tawdry to print bluebloods, this is the reality of news Web sites now, and probably forever. If there’s original reporting on a site, it should be judged on its own merits, and not be punished for the mass of links that surround it on a Web page.

If Arianna Huffington publishes just one groundbreaking, impactful and originally reported piece of journalism on her plethora of sites that Pulitzer judges believe to be prize-worthy (and that might be the first one!) then the fact that HuffPost is rife with endlessly cheesy links (a shirtless Obama!) shouldn’t detract from that.

So many newspapers that have won the latest Pulitzers (as well as those that didn’t) have more wire service material in them now than ever. Is someone at the Columbia J-School calculating percentages for print? I think not.

Secondly, the Pulitzers should be expanded to include more multimedia journalism than what exists now (hope I’m not stepping on any ONA toes here). There should be more recognition for journalists like Waite and the database developers who are ushering in new approaches to journalistic storytelling. Ideally this could accelerate badly needed online innovation in mainstream newsrooms. Ideally.

Apparently quite a number of online outlets didn’t even bother submitting Pulitzer entries; surely that needs to change as well. Especially when a leading media ethicist says online journalism is gaining “increased legitimacy.”

These ideas are just off the top of my head and may turn out to be unworkable. I just think if we’re going to have Pulitzers, and journalism awards in general, they can be useful in this period of jarring change. But they need to reflect the dramatically different ways that citizens are getting their news, which in turn is transforming how journalism is done.


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