The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners, which were announced Monday afternoon at Columbia University, under a brilliant blue sky in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City, came with one surprising omission.
There was no Pulitzer awarded in the field of Feature Writing. http://goo.gl/8f9xua
But it wasn’t unprecedented. Since Feature Writing was introduced as separate category, beginning in 1979, this year marked the second time there was no award given in that category; the last time was in 2004. According to the Pulitzer’s website, no awards have occurred 63 times in Pulitzer history, including 2014.
In the 14 Journalism categories, 1,132 entries were submitted this year (51 more than last year) with 20 Pulitzers awarded.
So why was Feature Writing denied journalism’s top prize this year?
It appears the committee was deadlocked. According to Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, and a longtime faculty member at Columbia's Journalism School: ``after extensive discussion and several votes, none achieved a majority.’’ Mr. Gissler preferred not to go into too much detail, since there were multiple factors involved.
So should the features shutout be interpreted as a damning indictment on the state of journalism, where long form journalism and magazine articles have increasingly been hijacked by the graphics department with their infographics, aesthetically pleasing colored maps, top 10 lists, and photo galleries?
Author Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of The New York Times, thinks the no award decision was simply ``idiotic.’’ ``The notion that there was no prize-quality feature-writing this year doesn't imply there's anything wrong with feature writing; it just suggests there's something wrong with the prize committee.’’
According to the guidelines of the Pulitzer committee, journalism juries typically have five to seven members. Each jury recommends three finalists – no more, no less – without statement of preference. The Pulitzer Board, composed of 19 members, 17 of whom are voting members, makes the final decisions after evaluating all the nominated finalists and considering jury reports. Prizes are awarded by majority vote of the Board, but the Board has the additional authority to vote “no prize” or by three-fourths vote to switch nominations among categories or to select any entry that has not been nominated by a jury.
Kevin Merida, managing editor of news and features at The Washington Post, echoes Okrent’s cynicism. ``I don't know what was going on in the board's collective mind. I wasn't part of those deliberations. But I don't think the lack of a Pulitzer feature prize is an indictment of long form journalism or narrative projects. There is great writing going on all over the country, including at our place.’’ In fact’’, Merida tells me, ``it would not have been a crime to award Eli Saslow a second Pulitzer this year for an amazing piece he did on Newtown parents coping with the death of their 7-year-old son.’’ http://goo.gl/53NASl
Despite his disappointment, Merida understands the frustration and difficult deliberation that goes into the selection process. ``I think the juries spend a lot of careful time considering work, discussing it, and coming to a judgment.’’ ``That the board chooses not to hand out an award,’’ Merida said, ``doesn’t invalidate that work, and doesn’t mean the jurors were wrong about their choices. It just demonstrates what we intellectually know—journalism, like art, is not science. ‘’
Asked for his reaction, Bob Mong, Editor of The Dallas Morning News, said he doesn't have any insights into the Board's reasoning. ``Obviously, I think our submission was Pulitzer worthy or I wouldn't have submitted it. The degree of difficulty was extraordinary.’’ The two other finalists, Mong was quick to point out, `` look strong, too, but in the end, you have to respect the integrity of the process.’’
And exactly who were the three finalists who fell short of earning a Pulitzer?
Scott Farwell of the Dallas Morning News, wrote passionately about a young woman's struggle to live a normal life after years of horrific child abuse, an examination of human resilience in the face of depravity. http://goo.gl/J6WtfQ . The other feature writing finalist belonged to Christopher Goffard of The Los Angeles Times for his chilling account of an ex-police officer’s nine-day killing spree in Southern California, notable, according to the Pulitzer committee, `` for its pacing, character development and rich detail. ‘’ http://goo.gl/EXZtv5 . The third finalist went to Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and his compelling feature about a group of first-year medical students in their gross anatomy class and the relationships they develop with one another, amid the nameless corpse on the table, an account enhanced through the use of innovative multimedia elements. http://goo.gl/elVN9V
This year, the Pulitzer Prizes will be awarded at a luncheon ceremony at Columbia University's Low Library on May 28th. The annual luncheons began in 1984. Prior to that time, Pulitzer Prize certificates, medals and checks were sent in the mail.
A Footnote: If there's one takeaway from this year's winners, it's that if you think you're in Pulitzer Country; don't wait for your editor to submit your work. Josh Haner of The New York Times, self-entered the images that won the Feature Photography prize for 2014; a moving photo essay on a Boston Marathon bomb blast victim who lost most of both legs and now is painfully rebuilding his life. http://goo.gl/1xew3u
April 15, 2014