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The Pulitzer Prize in the digital age

How journalism’s highest honor has (or hasn’t) adapted to the changing media landscape


Story by Emily Toman / Illustration by Victoria Flores

When Columbia University launched its new media program in 1994, students were just beginning to discover this new thing called the World Wide Web. One of the first projects involved publishing an arts magazine online complete with its own URL.  
“People were blown away,” says Andrew Lih, the engineering consultant hired to help spearhead the program. “No one was creating feature content — originally reported stuff.”
Flash forward to today, and we carry the news around in our pockets, receiving instant updates across multiple platforms. Audiences now consume more than half of their news on a mobile device, according to a 2015 Pew Research report.
Sree Sreenivasan, the new media guru who led Columbia’s program along with Lih, created the Online Journalism Awards in 2000 to recognize digital excellence.
“That was because the Pulitzers were locked for print,” Sreenivasan says.
In 2009 the Pulitzer Prize board opened the contest to online-only news sites that publish at least weekly, but since then few have actually won. Legacy newspapers still dominate the awards even on the digital front.
The Denver Post secured the feature photography award in 2012 for a web-based series on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The New York Times took home a Pulitzer in 2013 for its much-lauded multimedia narrative, “Snow Fall,” covering a deadly avalanche in the Cascade Mountains. The Pulitzers often recognize print publications for their impressive use of digital tools, particularly in the breaking news category — the Boston Globe for its live-blogging and video of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Seattle Times for its interactive on the fatal Oso landslide.
“Part of the reason why you see similar organizations continuing to win is that it’s in the DNA of the Pulitzers,” Sreenivasan says. “The best of the newspaper industry are investing in new technology.”
New digital publications must work harder to establish credibility and get noticed alongside print newspapers that are a century ahead. Sreenivasan says finding a niche might be the key.    
“I think it is by spending time and energy on serious journalism, and by owning your topic,” he says. “Specialized journalism is going to be more and more important.”
Some of these new media have surfaced in the form of independent nonprofits that go deep on subjects traditional outlets only skim.
ProPublica launched in 2008 focusing on “investigative journalism in the public interest.” It made history in 2011 as the first web-based news outlet to win a Pulitzer Prize for its series, “The Wall Street Money Machine.” The story exposed bankers and hedge funds that engineered the housing market collapse and ultimately profited from the nation’s economic meltdown.  
InsideClimate News, a tiny digital outfit founded in 2007 and dedicated to environmental reporting, won a Pulitzer in 2013 for “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.” The four-part narrative reveals how a new kind of corrosive oil caused an underground pipeline to burst, spilling more than 1 million gallons into the Kalamazoo River. It’s the same type of oil that would flow through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and across the United States.
These small start-ups prove that time and energy can yield Pulitzer Prize-winning stories. But so can money — a lot of it. In 2012, the Huffington Post became the first commercial online news organization to win for David Wood’s 10-part series, “Beyond the Battlefield,” chronicling the lives of wounded veterans returning home. The story came a year after AOL bought the news site for $315 million. That allowed Arianna Huffington to hire a top-notch war correspondent with 35 years of experience, the editor-in-chief told the Wall Street Journal.
While it may seem like the Pulitzers have been slow to adapt to the digital age, the contest has expanded significantly in other ways since 1916, having gone from only four journalism categories to 21. Lih argues that the addition of editorial cartooning in 1922 could have been controversial.
“Can you imagine the first person to propose that? He could have been laughed out of the room,” Lih says. “How could you put cartoons in the same stratosphere? Now it’s one of the most treasured categories.”
He also points to a long-forgotten category of the 1940s, telegraphic reporting, which recognized stories filed quickly over a wire service outside the newsroom. The board later nixed the category, agreeing that the way stories were produced made no difference to the overall quality, according to The Pulitzer Prize Archive 1941-1986.
That seems to mirror what’s happening between print and web journalism today, but Lih says it could become even more complicated than that. News sites can now publish native content within social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, capturing more eyeballs than ever before at a much lower cost. The problem is, after readers consume the content, it becomes harder to reference or disappears altogether.
“All the stuff we’re seeing now is un-capture-able by internet archives,” Lih says. “It relates to the Pulitzers because when you don’t control the open technologies that allow you to publish, you lose control of your content. How do you submit content for the Pulitzers created on this platform? You can’t.”
It’s hard to imagine a Snapchat story winning a Pulitzer Prize, but there’s no doubt that influx of new media organizations has begun to redefine newspapers. Lih suggests that could open the contest to other media like broadcast and magazines, which traditionally have not been eligible.
“The Pulitzer Prize should and must evolve beyond the confines of that definition,” Lih says. “You must have enough reach and enough impact. As long as you pass that bar, you’re in the race to win a Pulitzer.”

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How journalism’s highest honor has (or hasn’t) adapted to the changing media landscape
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