NEW YORK (AP) — The historic collapse of the American newspaper industry was evident at every turn as the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes were announced.
One winner was laid off three months ago. Winning newspapers have eliminated home delivery and editions to stay afloat. A photographer celebrated his victory while lamenting the loss of colleagues who are about to be laid off.
But Pulitzer administrators said the winners, including stories that brought down two philandering politicians, were a victory for old-fashioned watchdog journalism at a time when the industry’s very survival is in question.
“These are tough times for America’s newspapers, but amid the gloomy talk, the newspaper winners and the finalists are heartening examples of the high-quality journalism that can be found in all parts of the United States,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes. “The watchdog still barks, and the watchdog still bites.”
Gissler said he would not try to predict the future of print journalism, “but we have to wonder what life would be like without newspapers.”
The leader was The New York Times, which won five awards, including one for being the first to report that then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer was paying thousands of dollars for high-priced prostitutes. The story led to his stunning resignation. And the Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer for obtaining a cache of steamy text messages that destroyed then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s political career.
In a measure of how bad things have gotten, the Detroit paper less than a month ago cut back home delivery to three days a week. Similarly, the Metro staff that broke the Spitzer story at The Times has since been cut back, and Metro was eliminated as a standalone section and folded into the main news part of the paper six days a week.
Among winners in the arts category were “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s unnerving stage play about rape and brutality in the Congo, and “The Hemingses of Monticello: American Family,” historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s account of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with slave Sally Hemings and her family.
Despite a rule change that allowed online-only news organizations to compete for Pulitzers this year for the first time, none of the 65 entries won any prizes. However, the Pulitzer board said online content played a role in several of the winning entries, and Matt Wuerker of the Web site Politico was among the three finalists for the editorial cartoon award.
Most of the journalism prizes followed conventional lines — coverage of wars, natural disasters, political scandals and presidential politics. But no one won an award for the historic Wall Street meltdown.
The Las Vegas Sun won the Pulitzer for public service for exposing a high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip. Alexandra Berzon described how the rush to build quickly and at highly congested work sites led to deadly shortcuts. Her work produced changes in workplace conditions.
The Free Press was honored in the local reporting category for helping to expose an extramarital affair between the mayor and his chief aide. Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to perjury, lost his office and served 99 days in jail after the text messages made it clear he had lied under oath in denying the affair while testifying in a lawsuit.
The judges also awarded a second Pulitzer in local reporting, honoring the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., for revealing how a sheriff’s focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigations of other crimes. Paul Giblin, one of the reporters who wrote the prize-winning series, was laid off in January.
“It is kind of sad,” Giblin said. “I wish I was still at the Tribune. I’d have a party with them right now.”
The only multiple winner besides The New York Times was the St. Petersburg Times. It was honored for national reporting for fact-checking what the candidates said during the 2008 White House campaign, and for feature writing for Lane DeGregory’s story on a neglected girl who was unable to talk or feed herself.
The presidential race also figured in the Pulitzer awarded in commentary: Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post was honored for his columns on Obama’s run for the White House.
The prize for editorial cartooning went to Steve Breen of The San Diego Union-Tribune, which was sold last month to a private equity firm after its advertising plunged and employees were forced to take unpaid furloughs.
No Pulitzers were awarded for coverage of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression, even though five finalists — including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times — were recognized for their coverage of some aspect of the meltdown. Among them was Times columnist Paul Krugman, who was commended for his “prophetic columns” on the economic perils.
Some suggested the lack of financial news winners could be a criticism of the press for not sounding enough of an alarm before the crisis.
“If I had to guess, I feel like there is going to be some reluctance to give prizes for after-the-fact reporting no matter how good it is, period,” said Dean Starkman, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review’s The Audit, which focuses on the business press.
Gissler said the meltdown of the world economy may have come too late in 2008 to have much impact in the Pulitzer competition, but “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this story, by a long shot.”
In addition to winning in the breaking-news category for the Spitzer scandal, The New York Times collected Pulitzers for international reporting for its coverage of deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan; for criticism, for Holland Cotter’s art reviews; for feature photography, for Damon Winter’s coverage of Obama’s campaign; and for investigative reporting to David Barstow, for revealing how the networks used military commentators who had ties to the Pentagon or defense contractors.
The five Pulitzers won by The Times are the second-highest total in the newspaper’s history; it received seven in 2002, in large part for its coverage of the 9/11 attacks.
The prize for explanatory reporting went to the Los Angeles Times for its coverage of the cost and effectiveness of efforts to fight wildfires across the West.
In the breaking news photography category, Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald won for his images of the humanitarian disaster that unfolded in Haiti after Hurricane Ike.
“I’m walking on Cloud Nine. I’m overwhelmed, I’m humbled — it’s such a huge honor,” exulted Farrell, 49. But noting the cutbacks that have swept the Herald, he said: “This is the last week for a few of our colleagues. I would prefer not to have won this in this climate, but I’m just grateful.”
Mark Mahoney of 32,000-circulation Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y., received the Pulitzer in editorial writing for his pieces on government secrecy and the public’s right to know.
“If I’m going to win, I’m glad it’s for that,” Mahoney said. “I think this indicates that we really are making a difference.”
Among other journalism categories, The Associated Press was a finalist in two — international reporting, where reporter Rukmini Callimachi was considered for her investigation of labor-exploited children in Africa, and breaking news photography, where the AP staff was nominated for its photo coverage of earthquake-ravaged Sichuan, China.
The Pulitzers are the most prestigious awards in journalism and are given out annually by Columbia University on the recommendation of a 19-person board. Each award carries a $10,000 prize except for the public service award, which is a gold medal.