Putting the “i-” in Pulitzer
So yesterday the 2008 Pulitzer prize winners in journalism were announced. It’s an inspiring group of works of what some are now calling “slow journalism”–carefully made, long-cooked, calendar-be-damned, properly staffed, well-written, old-fashioned gumshoe reporting.
[Now accepting proposed coinages for a term to replace the retro, Fedora-esque anachronism “gumshoe” to describe diligent fact-gathering].
Reading the entries (okay, some of the entries; that slow-cooked stuff is long) is enough to make one believe, as many of us refugees from the world of lumberjack journalism insist, that this kind of work must be sustained in the digital age. Not merely for the good of the self-involved journalists who care deeply, perhaps excessively, about the awards. But (to be plain, I intend no irony or sarcasm here) for the benefit of civic life. Each of the news-related winners holds power accountable, most of the projects producing results that clean up some mess or illuminate some untenable situation. Your blog gonna do that, buddy?
HAVING SAID ALL THAT. . .it’s at least interesting, and journalistically significant, to view the digital-only iterations of the winning work. This demonstrates how newsrooms, even when they do world-class work, embrace the new media world.
All a long way of saying: Which winners put the “i-” in Pulitzer? [Conflict-of-interest disclosure: I’m a former employee of The Washington Post, but have tried not to let that influence my opinions below.]
In this order:
1. washingtonpost.com: With six winners, perhaps this rank is inevitable.
Why: Nearly every winning series or story has an elegant, deep, media-appropriate online iteration. The Walter Reed story includes narrated slide shows of genuine photojournalism, interactive explanatory graphics, an unusually rich PTSD primer, key videos showing political responses and public statements, and more additional features than I can list here. Even the feature writing winner, Gene Weingarten’s perfectly-pitched, daringly high-concept tale about luring world-class violinist Joshua Bell into performing in the local subway in disguise has three wonderfully curated and edited ‘hidden camera” videos of the stunt itself that truly enhance the (many!) words of the story in a way no other media could. Plus an audio tape of the entire performance. The bottom line with post.com’s work is that the digital content is not a mere extension of the journalism, but appear to be built in from the ground up.
2. JSOnline, digital arm of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Why: Its relentless three-year pursuit of a shamefully self-dealing county executive that resulted in his resignation offers a startlingly long list of stories, explaineers, graphics, video and audio of press conferences, court actions, etc. (The videos are not just talking-head interviews–a common but largely ineffective digital-journalism gambit. They provide glimpses of the story unfolding over time, including public performances by the perp himself.) One wishes for a package that pulled it all together in a timeline, but to be fair MJS does not have the resources of a major newspaper. The point is, JSOnline added significant value with multimedia reporting and archive it in an accessible manner.
Why: The newspaper’s Kids at Risk series on dangerous products is well-curated and enhanced by an excellent set of resources for parents that help them take informed action. It also features an easy-to-navigate menu of 15 videos, which are on-point and produced more for the content they deliver than for the slickness they convey. They add information rather than recapitulate print content.
Why: The New York Times’ masterful investigation into how deadly fake drugs make it across the globe is enhanced by multimedia that is mostly slick decoration: Over-produced, TV-magazine-style mini documentaries that provide little value beyond the words themselves, competently scanned images of dead graphics published in the paper, an archive of the stories. With the exception of one excellent web-native interactive graphic that illustrates how a toxic solvent made its way from China to Panama, killing 100 people, the digital presentation of these stories consists of little more than what, back in the day, we referred to as “shovelware”–articles shoveled online after they’d been written and, it appears, published in the newspaper.
So what’s the message here? Slow-cooked journalism matters. It can be enhanced in meaningful ways when the projects are constructed, from the outset, as multi-media, cross-team efforts. I’m guessing that some day, the Pulitzers committee may come to recognize online presentation among its judging criteria.
If it doesn’t, it may find itself at the margins, rather than the center, of journalism excellence in the future.