Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Pulitzer Prizes inspire, reward great journalism

Journalism is what we do in the newsroom every day. We do our best to tell you what’s going on in your community and introduce you to some interesting folks who live here.

But there’s journalism, and there’s Journalism, with a capital “J.” From time to time, we commit some Journalism as well. We take the time to explain, in-depth, a particularly complex subject. We investigate the goings-on at a government agency. We tell a really good tale. We take an outstanding picture.

Each year, we submit a few of our best pieces of Journalism to contests, the biggest being The Pulitzer Prizes. This year, I was invited for the first time to help judge the Pulitzers.

The judging takes place at Columbia University in New York City. The university administers the prizes, as set forth in the 1904 will of Joseph Pulitzer, the audacious 19th-century publisher of the New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspapers.

I would need to be in New York for three days in February. I would learn only days before the trip which of the 14 journalism categories I would judge. I would feel both deeply honored at the invitation and a little uncertain of my credentials for judging such a prestigious contest.

In the meantime, the TNT and news organizations across the country prepared and submitted their Pulitzer entries.

Pulitzer journalism prizes are limited to work by U.S. newspapers and online news organizations that publish at least weekly; broadcasters and magazines are not eligible. Nominations come mainly from news organizations, but individual journalists and even readers can submit entries.

Shortly before the judging, I was assigned to the explanatory reporting jury, along with six others. Our task would be to select three finalists from among the more than 100 entries and offer them in no rank to the Pulitzer board, which would select a winner.

Simply reading all the entries, which we began before arriving in New York, was overwhelming. These were among the longest, most complex news stories written in 2013. Topics included everything from global warming to human trafficking, from drug cartels to atomic particles. Most of the 110 entries included multiple pieces — some as many as 10, the maximum allowed.

On the first day of judging, jurors assembled at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and filed quietly into the two-story-tall, wood-lined Joseph Pulitzer World Room. Straight ahead, a stained glass window from the old World building, featuring the Statue of Liberty between two giant globes, filled the wall. It felt like we were going to journalism church.

The members of our jury gathered around one of the tables, each of us popping open our laptops. Among us were editors from national news outlets including Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, but also regional editors from Norfolk, Va., and Phoenix.

Likewise, the entries we judged came from news organizations large and small. The Pulitzers, unlike many contests, don’t have size divisions. Judges are asked to consider the level of difficulty for any organization when determining the winners, and smaller news outlets sometimes win. (Former News Tribune reporter Jen Graves, who now works for The Stranger in Seattle, was named a Pulitzer finalist last week in the criticism category.)

For hour upon hour, we variously read stories, discussed them aloud and eliminated entries. In general, we were looking for original reporting, deep research and strong storytelling. In particular, our category sought stories that provided “deeper understanding of a subject that is both significant and complex, enabling readers to put news about it into a meaningful context.”

At day’s end, we returned to our hotels and stayed up half the night reading some more. We regrouped the next day to weigh the merits of pieces that remained in the running. Our job required us to pick apart the finest details of some outstanding journalism in order to produce a list of three finalists, which we submitted to the board.

Sworn to secrecy, we returned home and waited with everyone else for last week’s announcement. The Pulitzer board chose Eli Saslow of The Washington Post as the winner in explanatory reporting for his stories about how the prevalence of food stamps affects the culture of poor communities. Reporters from The New York Times and The Oregonian were named finalists.

The judging experience was both humbling and rewarding.

We don’t write stories to win prizes, but contests — and especially The Pulitzers — set a standard for the industry and encourage journalists to create good work.

Our congratulations go to the winners.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434