When muckraking New York newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911, he left a $2 million endowment to Columbia University. To this day, Pulitzer’s name is best known for the resulting Pulitzer Prizes, given each year in multiple categories by the university.
This year, This is True was under consideration for the Prize in three categories.
Pulitzer (the man) is known for the newspaper “wars” at the turn of the 20th century. He purchased the New York World newspaper for $346,000 in 1883.
Notably, in 1895 the paper introduced a comic, The Yellow Kid by Richard F. Outcault. It was featured in the paper’s new Sunday color supplement and became immensely popular. (Yes, there was color printing in newspapers in the 19th century!)
San Francisco Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst, meanwhile, had ambitions to have a chain of important papers, and bought the New York Journal to compete in the New York City market, which was well saturated with at least 16 newspapers.
The Hearst/Pulitzer competition was fierce. Hearst lured Outcault to bring The Yellow Kid to the Journal, and both newspapers fought the other with lurid headlines featuring crime, corruption, sex, and innuendo. After the comic, the style was known as “yellow journalism,” which is to this day considered a pejorative in journalism.
Both became very wealthy, and both managed to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, both as Democrats: Hearst serving from 1903 to 1907 in New York’s 11th District. Pulitzer entered office in 1885 in New York’s 9th District, but Pulitzer resigned on his birthday (April 10, which he shared with me) a year later because he realized that being a leading New York City newspaper publisher gave him more power, influence, and money!
Back to Columbia University
To leave a long-lasting legacy, in 1892 Pulitzer offered money to Seth Low, president of Columbia University, the oldest university in the city, to establish the first journalism school in the world. Low turned it down.
In 1902 his successor, Nicholas Murray Butler, signaled that he would accept such an endowment. That didn’t happen until Pulitzer died in 1911. But once it received the money from Pulitzer’s will, the school founded the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — but it wasn’t the world’s first.
Before barging into the New York City newspaper market, Pulitzer gained fame and fortune as the leading newspaper publisher in St. Louis. When Columbia University first turned him down, Pulitzer convinced the University of Missouri to found the Missouri School of Journalism in 1908 …in Columbia, Missouri!
Both schools are still considered the top schools in Journalism today.
Columbia University has administered The Pulitzer Prizes since they started in 1917; the 105th “class” of winners was announced today. There are 15 Journalism categories, plus 7 for Books, Drama, and Music.
Enter This is True
I didn’t go to Columbia or “Mizzou”; my journalism degree is from California’s Humboldt State University. But yes, True qualifies as a “regularly published news publication” in that it’s a weekly news commentary feature column, and thus qualifies for consideration for the Pulitzer Prize.
True qualifies in at least three different categories, and was under consideration in those three for 2021:
In the middle of the 2020 controversy over police shootings, Peak Stress, published 20 July 2020, walked readers step by step through the killing of a Covid mask denier who fatally stabbed a civilian, and then attacked the lone deputy who pulled him over shortly after. Rather than simply recounting the events, it explains why certain actions were taken, how the deputy cleared her malfunctioning firearm in the middle of the incident, what would normally happen next, and what did happen next, including the results of the man’s autopsy and the prosecutor’s investigation.
It was a shocking event that made national and international headlines. But no journalist covered it like I did to explain in detail what happened and why.
YouTube refused to let the video of the incident to be embedded on any web site, so I produced my own version of the video, adding slow- and stop-motion analysis with commentary to explain the situation thoroughly — and hosted it elsewhere so it could be included with the web-published story.
Commentary, the Pulitzer Committee notes, can be created “using any available journalistic tool.” Well, how about a variety of journalistic tools? What I pulled together included This is True stories, Uncommon Sense podcast episodes, Randy’s Random editorial cartoon/memes, and even some Honorary Unsubscribe entries into one interactive multimedia look at the pandemic, with a slant toward how our thinking — or lack thereof — affected its spread and society as a whole. It was published on True’s web site on 27 December 2020, titled The Year of Covid.
The volume of coverage on the pandemic is too much for any lay person to fully grasp, especially over time as the story evolves. It’s a special challenge for a commentator to keep readers engaged week after week when they expect to be entertained.
This is True is a weekly news commentary column and, by extension, illumination of the human condition. Some in the audience are pandemic deniers and anti-maskers. I wanted to keep the doubters reading — and open to reconsidering their positions — by choosing stories to draw them in to better understand the details I wanted to illuminate. And I had to do it while keeping to the promise of the “humorous, ironic, and/or opinionated” comments that brought them to the column in the first place.
But pithy commentary alone isn’t enough to provide perspective during an unrelenting saga of illness and death. To keep readers engaged and learning the facts behind Covid-19 and the myriad ways it catches up with its victims, I used my subfeatures — the “Honorary Unsubscribe” (a brief obit to recognize some of “The People You Will Wish You Had Known”), “Randy’s Random” (meme-based editorial cartoons), editorials, and “Uncommon Sense” podcast episodes — to produce a fuller and more rounded understanding of the pandemic from multiple directions.
Examples of all of these elements were woven together into this a web-based interactive multimedia compilation to bring readers a much wider perspective, while also illustrating wide-ranging commentary.
The Pulitzer Committee says “the test of excellence [is] clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, using any available journalistic tool.”
The Jury wants up to seven examples published through the year so they can see the kind of work being done in editorials, rather than just one piece. While I published well over seven, I didn’t want to submit that many since I tend to write pretty long in my editorials, so I chose four:
- Aurora Police: Not Accountable, published 13 January
- Make Cheating Wrong Again, published 17 February
- Fixing Georgia, published 18 May, and
- Covid: Think for Yourself (Dammit!), published 16 November.
It’s a nice assortment of my editorial work on various topics with what I think is a clearness of style, with sound reasoning and a moral purpose to influence public opinion.
Each Jury is charged to come up with three “nominated finalists” out of each category’s entries — though sometimes there are four. The Pulitzer Board then chooses the winner in each category …though sometimes it gives two Prizes in a category. That happened this year in both Explanatory Reporting and Feature Writing. The Committee can also choose to not give any award in a category; that happened this year in Editorial Cartooning.
I thought my strongest entry was Peak Stress (Explanatory Reporting). It did not make it into the finals, nor did my other entries.
Professor Thomas Davidson once asked the publisher, “I cannot understand why it is, Mr. Pulitzer, that you always speak so kindly of reporters and so severely of all editors.”
“Well,” Pulitzer replied, “I suppose it is because every reporter is a hope, and every editor is a disappointment.”
Maybe that also applies to juries and committees!
Still, it was a great honor to participate and have my work be considered. I will not be discouraged from continuing to produce my best work, and occasionally put up pieces for future Pulitzer consideration.
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