I was a Pulitzer juror and here’s what I learned about great journalism

Reporters aren’t very good at keeping secrets, but I’ve managed to stay mum for a couple of months about some exciting professional news: I was one of roughly 100 jurors who vetted nominees for the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes. For three days in February, I sat hunched over a table at Columbia University’s journalism school reading page after page of powerful work.

I was assigned to the local reporting category, so I saw projects produced by newsrooms of all shapes and sizes. The details of Pulitzer jury deliberations are secret, but the experience gave me lots to think about in terms of what it means to practice excellent journalism. There’s no universal checklist, but the winners that were announced last week shared four common factors I’ve tried to summarize here:

Pulitzer_elements1.) Top-notch journalism relies on three elements: diverse human voices, bulletproof verification and technical proficiency with both language and digital tools. I came to think of it as a stool with three legs similar to the one pictured to the left. This mix is apparent in many of the winning entries, but it’s especially effective in the collection of columns that won the Pulitzer for editorial writing. Kathleen Kingsbury of The Boston Globe explored how the booming restaurant business often fails to provide living wages for kitchen workers. Kingsbury uses crisp writing to blend the experiences of these workers with extensive research into economics, labor laws and more.

2.) The rise of digital publishing means journalists have dozens of new tools — and those tools should be used in a way that serves the audience and the story. Video, interactive games and other multimedia features should rise above flashy window dressing to enhance readers’ understanding. Effective multimedia doesn’t have to be expensive, either. The newsroom that won in the local reporting category used open-source tools like Timeline JS to help the community follow a long and complex investigation into corruption at a school district in California.

3.) Strong verbs make confusing topics comprehendible. Zachary R. Mider of Bloomberg News won the Pulitzer in explanatory reporting for his work on tax-dodging corporations. It’s complicated, abstract stuff, but Mider’s lively writing makes it easy to understand. Take, for instance, this story about one particular manufacturing company. Mider builds his lead around verbs like “forged” and “carved” and “sparked.” Such words carry the reader into the piece. He also uses a nice mix of short, medium and long sentences that rely on precise, plain language instead of headachy jargon.

4.) There’s strength in numbers. Many of the winning entries were produced by teams of reporters. In some cases, newsrooms also had outside assistance. A good example is The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina where four journalists won the Pulitzer for public service for their investigation into the state’s high rate of domestic violence. The newsroom received technical, editing* and financial support from the Center for Investigative Reporting; that partnership yielded a database used to identify trends in domestic violence fatalities. Some of that information appears throughout the online version of the investigation — a collection of multimedia narratives that also required teamwork to build. This is a reminder that, while writing is often a solitary task, modern journalists must hone their interpersonal skills the same way they practice storytelling.

Finally, here’s a tip for anyone applying for jobs: White space matters. Each Pulitzer entry includes a nomination letter introducing the project to the jury. That means I read dozens of them in the space of a few hours. The ones with clean fonts and line breaks between the paragraphs were easiest on the eyes. Small details, I know, but both are techniques every new (and not-so-new) journalist should consider when writing cover letters to potential employers.

* Post updated 5/4/2015 to more precisely reflect the Center for Investigative Reporting’s role in the project. More details about the partnership here

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