This year's big kahuna of journalism awards, the Pulitzers, is now history -- creating a good opportunity to consider the role of prizes in running a first-rate newspaper or TV station.
First, about the Pulitzers: Gannett employs a combined 5,000 newsroom staffers at its 85 daily papers, give or take a few -- probably more than any other company. (A possible exception: Tribune. Its Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other titles might beat Gannett in total employment.) This year, the closest Gannett came to winning a Pulitzer was the Idaho Statesman's breaking news finalist showing -- and GCI sold the Statesman two years ago.
Here's the popular theory why Gannett was shut out of the Pulitzers and many other major awards this year: long-standing institutional bias against the company. (I mostly don't buy that.) Another popular explanation: Gannett's newsrooms are too small to produce the jaw-dropping investigations that win big prizes. There's some truth to that, although the Statesman offers a compelling example of why that's not necessarily the case.
The Boise paper employed about 65 folks in its newsroom when I worked there in 1991-96; I suspect employment under McClatchy hasn't changed much. But my experience, working for one of the best editors I've known, shows that a small number of staffers, managed well, can produce very good work. The editor, John Costa, had come to the Statesman from Florida's St. Petersburg Times. Costa was an outsider; he had not worked his way up through Gannett, so his hiring was a little unusual.
Costa was an old-fashioned First Amendment journalist. Over and over, he preached the importance of using freedom of information laws to hold powerful people accountable. Once, for example, when I was reporting on a state prison story, I found myself in a federal courtroom, hearing a judge about to seal an important court document from public view. During a hearing break, I called Costa and asked what to do. He told me to return to the courtroom, and ask the judge to reconsider. When the hearing resumed, I stood up at the back of the very big courtroom, and called out to the judge -- startling the assembled attorneys. (In response, the judge offered a compromise.)
Costa's approach to producing great journalism was simple: Take the best stories, assign them to the newsroom's most talented people -- then get out of the way, and let them do their jobs. He believed readers would remember big, impactful stories long after they'd forgotten the routine stuff we produce daily, just to fill tomorrow's paper. If a reporter was working on a project, and Costa saw her name attached to a daily on that morning's budget, he'd demand to know why. He insisted that watchdog journalism be a fixture in story planning meetings. (When's the last time your editor mentioned the First Amendment to you?)
Newspapers aiming for Pulitzers almost always lose; it's the law of averages. But as Cincinnati blogger Newsache says: "Prizes matter because you can't be good if you're not trying to be great. If you're great, you'll win prizes. If you're trying to be great, you'll get lucky and bag a few. If you're not winning any, it's a pretty good sign you're not trying to."
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