New York Two newspapers hit hard by a historic downturn won Pulitzer Prizes on Monday for exposing sex scandals that brought down a governor and a big-city mayor, in what was hailed as a victory for old-fashioned watchdog journalism at a time when the industry’s very survival is in question.
The New York Times received five Pulitzers in all, including one for being the first to report that then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer was a client of a high-priced call girl ring — a discovery that led to his resignation. The Detroit Free Press won for obtaining a cache of steamy text messages that destroyed then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s political career.
Three Pulitzers were awarded for coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election. But in a surprising turn, not one prize was handed out for the other big story of 2008 — the financial meltdown. Some suggested it could be a criticism of the press for not sounding enough of a warning 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.
The awards were announced after one of the most depressing years ever for the newspaper industry, with layoffs, bankruptcies and closings brought on by the recession and an exodus of readers and advertisers to the Internet. Many of Monday’s winners were among the hardest hit; in fact, one of the winners, a reporter in Arizona, was laid off a few months ago.
“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. “It’s quite notable that the watchdog function of journalism is underscored in this year’s awards. The watchdog still barks, and the watchdog still bites.”
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.
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 led to changes in workplace conditions.
“The fact that this series stopped people from dying on Las Vegas Strip construction projects is the most important part of what we did,” said Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley.
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.
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.
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.