A Pulitzer (almost) lost to history

I spent a weekend last fall in the basement of a public library in rural Maine, picking through century-old letters between two sisters, Laura Richards and Maude Howe Elliott.  They were both writers and both living the kind of creative existences that were rare for women in that era.

Together, they produced a sweeping biography of their mother, the abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe. (If that name takes you back to grade school history, it’s probably because she also wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.)

In 1917, her daughters became the first women to win a Pulitzer Prize but, as I discovered in my research, neither was associated with the honor until recently. You can read the full story here.

How serving as a Pulitzer juror made me a better journalism teacher

Being invited to serve on a Pulitzer jury is probably a little like getting accepted to Hogwarts: You receive a letter written on really nice stationary with instructions to show up at a certain place and time. And please, it goes on, don’t tell anyone what you’re up to.

My envelope from Hogwarts has, alas, never arrived, but for the second year in a row I was summoned to Columbia University in February to serve as a Pulitzer juror, picking finalists in one of 14 journalism categories.  Last winter, I sat on the local reporting jury. (Details on that experience here.) This time was breaking news.

Pulitzer deliberations are confidential, and jurors’ identities are secret until after the winners are revealed, but my experience has still been a powerful teaching tool, one that’s given me fresh vocabulary to describe what it means to master the craft of modern nonfiction storytelling.

My students have been poking around the new Pulitzer website for a couple of months, identifying strong leads and mulling over what topics make compelling stories. We also talked a bit about the Pulitzers and public service journalism ahead of our Spotlight event earlier this month.

Last week, my editing class watched the announcement of the 2016 winners live:

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Then we examined the winner and finalists in the breaking news category and talked about the hallmarks of effective, responsible journalism in the first few hours of a big story. The students liked how the Los Angeles Times’s winning entry used rumor-busting bullet points to list known facts after the San Bernardino shootings. They found the Baltimore Sun’s interactive timeline useful in understanding the events that led to Freddie Gray’s death. We also talked about how the Post and Courier used a mix of screen grabs to illustrate a video showing the shooting of Walter Scott. (When it came to whether or not to publish the video itself, the students’ opinions were mixed.)

All three entries show a mix of urgency and comprehensive follow up. Here’s a little scribble that I used to illustrate this concept:

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In the hours, days and even months after a major breaking news event, readers want – need – coverage that provides context, answers questions and explores possible solutions. Accuracy matters more than speed. Or, as I told my students, it’s better to be dead last than dead wrong.

These Pulitzer-inspired lessons will continue in the fall, too. My colleague Tom Haines is teaching a course focused on environmental reporting, and his students will be able to learn from finalists like InsideClimate News, the Portland Press Herald and ProPublica. I’m teaching entrepreneurial journalism, and we’ll talk about how several of this year’s top entires came from news organizations that didn’t exist a decade ago.

So thanks, Pulitzers. And happy 100th birthday. Here’s hoping for another century of identifying and honoring excellence in journalism.

I was a Pulitzer juror and here’s what I learned about great journalism

Reporters aren’t very good at keeping secrets, but I’ve managed to stay mum for a couple of months about some exciting professional news: I was one of roughly 100 jurors who vetted nominees for the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes. For three days in February, I sat hunched over a table at Columbia University’s journalism school reading page after page of powerful work.

I was assigned to the local reporting category, so I saw projects produced by newsrooms of all shapes and sizes. The details of Pulitzer jury deliberations are secret, but the experience gave me lots to think about in terms of what it means to practice excellent journalism. There’s no universal checklist, but the winners that were announced last week shared four common factors I’ve tried to summarize here:

Pulitzer_elements1.) Top-notch journalism relies on three elements: diverse human voices, bulletproof verification and technical proficiency with both language and digital tools. I came to think of it as a stool with three legs similar to the one pictured to the left. This mix is apparent in many of the winning entries, but it’s especially effective in the collection of columns that won the Pulitzer for editorial writing. Kathleen Kingsbury of The Boston Globe explored how the booming restaurant business often fails to provide living wages for kitchen workers. Kingsbury uses crisp writing to blend the experiences of these workers with extensive research into economics, labor laws and more.

2.) The rise of digital publishing means journalists have dozens of new tools — and those tools should be used in a way that serves the audience and the story. Video, interactive games and other multimedia features should rise above flashy window dressing to enhance readers’ understanding. Effective multimedia doesn’t have to be expensive, either. The newsroom that won in the local reporting category used open-source tools like Timeline JS to help the community follow a long and complex investigation into corruption at a school district in California.

3.) Strong verbs make confusing topics comprehendible. Zachary R. Mider of Bloomberg News won the Pulitzer in explanatory reporting for his work on tax-dodging corporations. It’s complicated, abstract stuff, but Mider’s lively writing makes it easy to understand. Take, for instance, this story about one particular manufacturing company. Mider builds his lead around verbs like “forged” and “carved” and “sparked.” Such words carry the reader into the piece. He also uses a nice mix of short, medium and long sentences that rely on precise, plain language instead of headachy jargon.

4.) There’s strength in numbers. Many of the winning entries were produced by teams of reporters. In some cases, newsrooms also had outside assistance. A good example is The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina where four journalists won the Pulitzer for public service for their investigation into the state’s high rate of domestic violence. The newsroom received technical, editing* and financial support from the Center for Investigative Reporting; that partnership yielded a database used to identify trends in domestic violence fatalities. Some of that information appears throughout the online version of the investigation — a collection of multimedia narratives that also required teamwork to build. This is a reminder that, while writing is often a solitary task, modern journalists must hone their interpersonal skills the same way they practice storytelling.

Finally, here’s a tip for anyone applying for jobs: White space matters. Each Pulitzer entry includes a nomination letter introducing the project to the jury. That means I read dozens of them in the space of a few hours. The ones with clean fonts and line breaks between the paragraphs were easiest on the eyes. Small details, I know, but both are techniques every new (and not-so-new) journalist should consider when writing cover letters to potential employers.

* Post updated 5/4/2015 to more precisely reflect the Center for Investigative Reporting’s role in the project. More details about the partnership here