Few media bodies enjoy as revered a reputation as that of the century-old Pulitzer organization. Mere mention of its coveted prize in the profiles of journalists catapults their reputations. So it seems only fair that, just as Pulitzer Prize scrutinizes and awards the best of American journalism, the overall process behind the granting of these vaunted awards should similarly undergo closer examination.
Pulitzer jurors serve as gatekeepers for the awards. The jury for each of the 14 categories includes five to seven members—typically former prizewinners or editors of winning publications. They meet to cull through the entries and select three finalists for each category. The 17-member board makes the final determination of the winner in each category.
The board members are former jurors or award winners from the fields of journalism, academia, and literature. To help avoid conflicts of interest, both jurors and board members physically recuse themselves from discussion and voting on specific entries from their own publications. Lobbying for any entries is explicitly prohibited. However, the judging and selection process is shrouded in secrecy and not made public.
Some of the who’s who of the American journalism — the current and former administrators of the Pulitzers Dana Canedy, Mike Pride, and Sig Gissler; former board members like Greg Moore, Jim VandeHei, and Margaret Sullivan; and former jury member Leonard Downie — have defended the fairness of the Pulitzer prizes.
Given this august backdrop, it was surprising to discover instances of a dozen publications that have predominantly won their Pulitzers during a period when a current or former editor or publisher was serving on the Pulitzer board. In examining the awards won by the 117 large and small publications, it is difficult to determine whether these patterns are sheer coincidence; stray examples of potential bias; simply the law of averages due to the hundreds of entries over time; or perhaps even indication that the judges were truly outstanding leaders during the time they served as judges.
The Evidence Reveals a Pattern
For instance, Concord Monitor of New Hampshire won its only Pulitzer Prize in 2008, in the category of feature photography, while its editor, Mike Pride, was one of the co-chairs of the Pulitzer board. It was Pride’s last year on the board.
The Denver Post, which has won nine Pulitzers, brought home four of the awards between 2004 and 2013 while its editor, Gregory Moore, served on the Pulitzer board. It won its most recent Pulitzer in 2013, when Moore was one of the board’s two chairmen.
The Tampa Bay Times won a third of its dozen Pulitzers during the tenure of its chairman and CEO, Paul Tash, who served on the Pulitzer board from 2006 to 2014. The publication did not receive any Pulitzer Prize in 2015, when there was no member on the board with a past affiliation with the paper. The publication won again in 2016, the same year Neil Brown, its former editor, joined the board.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has won eight Pulitzers, with three of these awards occurring between 2002 and 2014, during the time its former editor, Sig Gissler, was an administrator of the Pulitzer. The paper has not won any such prize since Gissler’s retirement from the board in 2014.
According to the Gissler and Moore, as the resources of small and regional newspapers wane, their capacity to produce award-winning journalistic work also dries up. “Newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal put in new resources in investigative journalism and that resulted in them having some strong entries for the Prize,” explained Gissler.
Bloomberg won its sole Pulitzer in 2015 during the tenure of its executive editor, Robert Blau—a member of the board since 2011. Politico, founded in 2007, won its only Pulitzer in 2012 for editorial cartooning. Its executive editor and co-founder, Jim VandeHei, served on the Pulitzer board from 2010 to 2012.
Similarly, the nonprofit news organization ProPublica won a Pulitzer in 2016 and again 2017; its editor in chief, Stephen Engelberg, has been on the Pulitzer board since 2012. The Missouri-based St. Louis Post-Dispatch won its first Pulitzer in 43 years in 2015 while Joyce Dehli, the vice president of Lee Enterprise—the company that publishes the Post-Dispatch—was on the Pulitzer board, serving from 2008 to 2017. Seven of the nine Pulitzers won by The Dallas Morning News in its history have been during the tenure of its editors on the Pulitzer board.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, an online publication, won its last Pulitzer award for editorial cartooning in 2003 while its former editor, Joann Byrd, was part of the Pulitzer board, serving from 1999 to 2008. The last Pulitzer victory for Ohio-based Akron Beacon Journal came in 1997 during the tenure of John Dotson, the president and publisher of the Journal and member of the Pulitzer board from 1992 through 2000.
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Louisiana, has won four Pulitzers. The last two came in 2006 when its editor, Jim Amoss, was a member of the Pulitzer board, upon which he served from 2003 to 2012. The Times-Picayune won its 2006 Pulitzers for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, underscoring the inherent struggle in deciphering a correlation between prizes won and the tenure of the editor on Pulitzer board.
Large papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times have won Pulitzers irrespective of the years their editors were (or were not) on the board. The New York Times, which has won more Pulitzers than any other news organization, has had an editor on the board nearly continuously since 1939.
The Pulitzer Prize’s Response
Dana Canedy, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prize, believes the organization’s system is fair and questions the appearance of a correlation between awards won and editor or publisher tenure.
“It’s simply a dozen of cases or so where (publications of) board members have won Pulitzers,” she said when contacted last year, adding that “thousands” of journalists have won the prize over the past hundred years, making these cases “a small percent” of the total. “If you did an opposite kind of research,” she later added, “you would see that far more board members’ organizations have never won while they are on the boards than have won.”
The “opposite kind of research” showed that 170 publications have won awards without having any past or present editors or publishers on the Pulitzer board. Reuters is a significant example, having won five Pulitzers with no representation on the board ever.
Board members are discouraged from discussing their votes publicly. Perhaps as a result, no current board members responded to a request for comment. Some former board members were willing to go on the record, however.
“I was only on the board for a year, but I did not feel any pressure, direct or indirect, to vote for a fellow board member’s entry,” said Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for the Washington Post, when approached last year. “Before that, I was a juror four times, and our decisions as jurors in choosing finalists were, I’m quite sure, not affected by who was or wasn’t on the board.”
Jim VandeHei, formerly of Politico, echoed this sentiment. “There is definitely no explicit bias. I never saw any evidence of that. Is there a subconscious bias? I don’t know how. It is human nature that you might be inclined to help people who are represented already. But I never saw that or evidence of that during the time I was there,” he said.
Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post, said any instances found are coincidence, not correlated. “I would be very surprised if there is any causation,” he said. “I have known the deliberations that result in the final selection and I do not see any causation.” In Downie’s view, related reforms the organization enacted over the years have worked. “It was a long time ago in 1940s that the board was more of a club—but not now,” he said.
Canedy echoed this assessment. “I think the board members take the entire process with integrity,” she said. “The reason that Pulitzers have endured so long is because the system does work the way it should.”
Yet questions about objectivity of the awards, which have haunted the prizes since their inception, linger to this day. The Pulitzers have attracted a variety of criticisms, ranging from arbitrary selection of awards to board errors.
Opportunity for Change
There’s obviously room for improvement. Increased transparency and democratization of the jury and board selection process could be a step in the right direction. In his critique of the prizes, Erik Wemple, a media critic for the Washington Post, highlighted the secrecy code of the jury and the board.
“The group that celebrates journalism’s highest achievements contravenes the core value of journalism,” he wrote in a 2012 column. “Pulitzer jurors and board members are having discussions about the merits of published articles—information that is available to anyone. The evaluators have opinions about those stories. Yet they don’t want those opinions known.”
Measures like making public the rationale of the board’s choice of the winning entry and having a set of eligibility criteria in place for selecting a jury or a board member could be helpful.
In the end, the advantage a publication enjoys with a representative on the board is less about influence over the final vote, and possibly more about influence back in the newsroom.
“The only advantage the board member has is that you get to know the quality of work that is required to win the prize,” says the Concord Monitor’s Pride, a four-time juror, a member of the board for nine years, and the administrator of the board for three years. “If you are on the board, you develop a better understanding of what it takes to win or what you do to win the prize.”
Perhaps it is time for the Pulitzer board to make this understanding clearer for all publications, not just those with a window into its hidden world.
This article’s headline has been updated to say “board” instead of “jurors” to be more precise, although many board members have served as jurors also.