So Do Pulitzers Matter?

Whenever anyone--including us --writes about the Charlotte Observer and tries to make the case that it's not as good a paper as it used to be, they inevitably bring up the Pulitzer count. That is, the O has only won journalism's top prize four times (the Washington Post won six this year alone), and has been shut out since 1988. That's evidence, detractors say, that the Observer has slipped into mediocrity.


I bring this up for two reasons. One, the Observer's investigation of Beazer Homes and the subprime lending mess was one of three Pulitzer finalists in its category this year (the WP's investigation of Walter Reed hospital won the award). It's the first time in 13 years that the Observer has been named a finalist. Two, there's an interesting debate taking place on the Internet about whether or not Pulitzers matter. One line of thinking is that readers don't care about awards; only journalists do. Another line of thinking is that readers care about excellence, and Pulitzers are a symbol of such.

I say it's a good thing that the O was a Pulitzer finalist for the Beazer Homes work. I think readers did care about that series, and I bet it ended up selling more papers. On the other hand, the Observer recently ran a multipart series on alleged worker abuses at a nearby chicken-processing plant. Word is, staffers spent more than a year working on that one. The stories needed to be done; part of a newspaper's job is to hold the powerful accountable, especially when they abuse that power, which certainly appears to have happened in this case. But I can't help but think that this massive journalistic undertaking was being done with at least one eye on the prize committees. And therein lies a potential problem. No one I talked to read that series. I read the first installment, then read the headlines and pullouts of the rest. I still feel like I got the whole story. I wonder if all the other unread column inches were written for judges, not readers. In which case, valuable and shrinking resources were shifted from covering truly local topics (or the local effects of national or international topics) to a series of stories written essentially for other journalists.

Hey, far be it from me to, ahem, judge. We in the magazine biz are certainly guilty of coveting awards (and the next time we win one, you can be sure I'll let you know about it). And there is definitely an element of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" to this argument. I just hope that newspapers, in a desparate rush to reverse the trend of declining circulation and revenues, don't take their eyes off the prize. That prize being us, the readers, not the awards committees. 

Anyone out there have any thoughts? Do you care whether or not your local paper wins a Pulitzer? Did you read the series on the chicken-processing plant?

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