Friday, April 18, 2008

How to produce great journalism, and win prizes

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."

Your thoughts, in the comments section, below. Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.


  1. Don't forget the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, a two-time runner up in the past five years.

    2003: For its uncommon courage in publishing stories that exposed a culture of corruption in Escambia County, Fla., and resulted in the indictment of four of five county commissioners.

    2005: For its valiant and innovative coverage, in the newspaper and online, of the coastal devastation caused by Hurricane Ivan.

    And the winners those years?

    2003: The Boston Globe. For its courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church.

    2005: L.A. Times. For its courageous, exhaustively researched series exposing deadly medical problems and racial injustice at a major public hospital.

  2. Interesting takes, Jim.

    I'd say last year the Courier-Journal was cheated out of a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Comair crash in Lexington, Ky. The paper's on-going reporting in the months following the crash (as well its print and online coverage the day of and after) led to investigations that resulted in changes across the aviation industry. The C-J was one of three finalists last year. Who won? The Oregonian for coverage of that guy whose family was left in the station wagon up in the mountains while he died going for help. Granted that was a good story...but did it really have the overal impact the Courier's story had and isn't that was the Pulitzer's are partially about?
    I'm still scratching my head over this.

  3. Gannett's no-jumps, no-stories-longer-than-12-inches polcies makes it tough to do Pulitzer-quality journalism. Gannett has no interest in doing good journalism, all it's interested in is making money. And it doesn't do either of these things very well.

  4. newsache says "Prizes matter because you can't be good if you're not trying to be great."

    you also can't be good if you drive out the people who know a city best so you can bring in company hacks and corporate gypsies who look at each job as a stepping stone. our paper has been so stripped of people who know the city that adequacy is a real achievement.

  5. And it sold off one of the few Gannett papers that actually won a Pulitzer while it was owned by Gannett. Most of Gannett's Pulitzers come from properties Gannett bought after-the-fact, right?


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