Pulitzers, Broadcasters and Digital Denial
Apr 24, 2009 4:00 AM PT
Journalism has a glass jaw these days, threatening to shatter into a million pieces with the next right hook that lands courtesy of another layoff, another closing of a daily newspaper, another inane, biased utterance from a cable news host. But journalism could have landed its own body blows this week by showing it can handle the jump to hyperspace and the digital future.
The punches missed their mark, thanks to the actions of those who handed out the Pulitzer Prizes and those who staged the annual National Association of Broadcasters/Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in Las Vegas.
Last December, the Pulitzer board announced that for the first time, online-only media outlets would have a chance to compete for journalism's top prize. When the awards were announced on Monday, however, no award was given to Web-only news. It's true that online efforts that were part of print journalism outlets were indeed pointed out -- and in one notable case singled out -- but enough voices at both traditional media and in the blogosphere were asking "why not?" to merit discussion here.
The stressed-out news directors and media executives who passed on Vegas, baby, for NAB/RTNDA have a better excuse: After a steep dive in advertising revenue, many barely have the budget to adequately staff their newsrooms, much less roll the dice on plane tickets and lodging in Sin City for three days' worth of endless seminars and discussions. Attendance was reported to be down a staggering 20 percent this year, which can mean only one thing: Those who attended actually had a chance to spend less than a half-hour waiting in a cab line on the Strip.
Did those who decided to bite the bullet and go actually hear an answer to their prayers -- namely, a business model for TV station Web sites? Or was it yet another series of debates between those reliable Central Casting stereotypes, the old-school news fossils and those Twittering new media acolytes? If so, did the organizers deserve to be shunned by their own members?
I hope everybody enjoying the Vegas nightlife and all that champagne flowing in certain print newsrooms are all partying like it's 1999. Because here in the world of 2009, it's still one nasty, hairy-tongued hangover.
The Pulitzer board is famous for not making everybody happy and for refusing to explain decisions, other than issuing the paragraph-long blurbs that accompany the final listings of nominees and winners. Editor and Publisher says six representatives of online-only publications were among the jury members, and they got to consider 65 Web entries in their first year of eligibility. However, E&P says 21 of those were kicked back because they didn't meet the qualifications found on the Pulitzer Web site: That is, they weren't "primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories." The rejected entries were news aggregators, which is rapidly becoming a dirty word online, thanks to the Associated Press.
So, no other Pulitzer-worthy Web reporting? No original criticism/analysis to be found that doesn't involve a fire-breathing, search-engine-optimized blogger? I'm hoping that the debate between the Pulitzer jurors and the board was a crackling one. The Pulitzer by-laws set up some doozies, I'm sure:
Awards are made by majority vote, but the board is also empowered to vote "no award," or by three-fourths vote to select an entry that has not been nominated, or to switch nominations among the categories. If the board is dissatisfied with the nominations of any jury, it can ask the Administrator to consult with the chair by telephone to ascertain if there are other worthy entries. Meanwhile, the deliberations continue.
The final arguments that found their way to the blurbs describing the winning entries point to grudging acknowledgment of the Internet's role in journalism's finest work. PolitiFact, the St. Petersburg Times' online truth squad during the 2008 election, was honored for using its "probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine more than 750 political claims, separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters." (The Pulitzer board moved this entry from the Public Service category to National Reporting.) Aron Pilhofer, editor for newsroom interactive technologies at The New York Times, took to his blog to hail PolitiFact's award as "a watershed moment for journalism ... as of today, newsrooms have to take Web journalism seriously."
In the Breaking News category, the Houston Chronicle was cited for "taking full advantage of online technology and its newsroom expertise to become a lifeline to the city when Hurricane Ike struck, providing vital minute-by-minute updates on the storm, its flood surge and its aftermath."
In Local Reporting, reporters at the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Arizona, got the award for "their adroit use of limited resources to reveal, in print and online, how a popular sheriff's focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigation of violent crime and other aspects of public safety."
Two finalists in Editorial Cartooning were specifically honored for pushing the envelope online: the Detroit Free Press' Mike Thompson "for his compelling collection of print and animated cartoons that blend the great traditions of the craft with new online possibilities"; and Politico's Matt Wuerker for "his engaging mix of art and ideas, resulting in cleverly conceived cartoons that persuade rather than rant and that sometimes use animation to widen their impact." Tough to do animation in dead-tree newspapers (unless you flip those pages awfully fast). By the way, Wuerker came the closest for online-only recognition.
National Public Radio's David Gura dug up the fact that Slate, Salon and TalkingPointsMemo -- three top contenders in previous years when they weren't eligible -- didn't submit any Pulitzer entries this year. One editor said the guidelines were confusing. Two nonprofit news Web sites did enter, with one editor telling Gura just how much the award would mean to a small staff doing what it loves.
Give that sentiment the headline "encouragement" in 96-point type. It's one of the reasons why the Pulitzer board and jury should have found somebody to recognize in a year that included a game-changing presidential election with plenty of online scoops contributing to the daily news cycle. To me, the decision not to award smells a tad elitist, even with the mentions of online involvement in winning and finalist newsgathering.
If the guidelines are fuzzy, clear them up. It's going to be a little tough to find a good Web site doing hard news reporting that also doesn't do some aggregating; linkage is part of the Internet's DNA, don't you know. It would be worth it for the Pulitzers to tell a Web site large or small, well-capitalized or not, that it's on the right track by covering all the journalistic bases while also doing what online does best -- provoke, update its own story in real-time, engage its audience. If some of the Pulitzer jury and board members don't know that, they might need to clear up any misconceptions/prejudices they have about the Internet in general.
Viva Lost Wages
In the neon oasis of Las Vegas, my former Austin and Dallas broadcasting colleague Chip Mahaney -- now director of digital content for E.W. Scripps -- is attending, and in some cases moderating, RTNDA seminars with titles like "Leading News Reinvention," "Ten Tech Trends," "How NOT to Get a Job in TV News" and "Ethics of Digital Journalism."
To answer your snarky sotto voce comment: Yes, he's been Twittering his convention itinerary. He complains of having "convention feet" after three days of navigating, but I suspect he's also getting a nice case of carpal tunnel in his thumbs.
He also notices the shorter cab lines and extra elbow room in the convention halls. I ask for his take on what Cory Bergman, cofounder of Lost Remote -- a blog for local broadcasting/digital media types and a longtime advocate for digital acceptance in TV newsrooms -- wrote earlier this week explaining why he was passing on attending RTNDA for the first time in a decade:
"I'm glad I'm not there, because despite RTNDA's best efforts, the panel discussions erode into the same old arguments. It seems the local broadcasting industry is underestimating the need for meaningful change, or perhaps, unable to make it happen. So this year, I'm sitting it out, and I'll spend the time working on some promising projects that I believe have the potential to take local news to the next level." (Cory now works at MSNBC.com.)
"Cory's a pioneer in our field. He's a great journalist and a great guy," Chip writes me in an email from Vegas. "I totally get his frustrations, but I don't agree with his decision to stay away. If nothing else, Cory should be back here in Las Vegas to say 'I told you all this is how things would work out.'"
It's easy for me to say since I don't have to squeeze blood out of a budget. I agree with Chip that the TV news biz will have to innovate its way out of its current mess, but I also agree that it's time to stop talking and start doing. The recession isn't just a handy excuse to cut back; it's a perfect opportunity to experiment, to create solutions. So did any of that make the agenda, and did Chip find the Next New Thing for the Net?
"Truth be told, I know of at least one discussion in a seminar today that involved the battle between the old vs. the new way of thinking. There are still a few holdouts in the crowd," Chip notes. "But the fact is, there is no better place to discuss these kinds of issues than at an RTNDA convention.
"As far as anything revolutionary for the Web, no, I haven't seen it. We're all looking for better ways to generate online revenue, but it's great to see more and more stations producing quality online content. My session this morning was all about leading a socially networked newsroom, so I hope those lessons resonated. A session on Top Ten Tech Trends was jam-packed this morning, for instance, and people were buzzing about it all day."
The target of the real buzz remains Twitter, now making both Oprah's list for New Tech Plaything and "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau's list of Things to Use to Stick It to the Media.
"Twitter is a game-changer in daily and breaking news coverage," says Chip. "I've heard it compared to a scanner -- good information if you trust the source and verify yourself before you publish. If you use a client like Tweetdeck to organize searches, you're really creating a rich feed list to track 24/7. Every newsroom journalist should see Twitter for its news-gathering potential. For publishing, there's really nothing simpler and more instant than publishing (broadcasting!) breaking news. Twitter technology is so light, so portable, so mashable, the uses for news are great and still being dreamed up week by week."
Spoken like a true director of digital media, certainly; but at least Chip is going in eyes wide open, tweeting an optimistic song.