When it was announced earlier this year that Joshua Marshall, founder of TalkingPointsMemo, had become the first blogger to win a George Polk Award for his coverage of the attorney firing scandal, many recognized the news as a milestone for online journalism. A somewhat condescending New York Times headline read, “Blogger, Sans Pajamas, Rakes Muck and a Prize.”

Earlier this week the Pulitzer Prize Board initiated another milestone when it announced that it would expand the prestigious prize to online-only news organizations for all 14 of its journalism categories.

Though it has accepted online content for various categories for years, prior to this announcement, entrants were required to have a print newspaper publication in order to be considered. This news means that more organizations will be able to compete for the award, but the ambiguity of the announcement leaves some wondering which online-only publications will be eligible. For instance, under these new guidelines would Marshall and TPM be able to submit their work?

According to a Q&A published [PDF file] on the Pulitzer website, an entrant must publish at least weekly, be based in the U.S., be “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories,” and “adhere to the highest journalistic principles.” The new rules continue to exclude websites for magazines and broadcast outlets. The Pulitzer Q&A stops short of naming online-only publications that will actually fit the bill.

Burden of Proof on the Entrants

I spoke to Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler to find out what kind of entrants the Pulitzer Board is looking for. He told me that a special committee had made recommendations for the changes earlier this year and in November the board adopted them.

“We’re not about the business of looking around the country to identify specific organizations,” Gissler said. “We leave it up to the entrants to meet our criteria.”

In other words, the burden of proof lies on the news organization to provide ample evidence that it meets all the qualifications for the award. Each entrant must submit a detailed cover letter with each entry, and Gissler said that the organization would have to make the case that it adheres to strict journalistic standards and engages in original reporting.

Pressing further, I asked whether sites like Salon, Slate and the Huffington Post would qualify.

“I’m not sure if they all qualify,” he replied. “I think you have to determine if they’re primarily original news reporting. We’re really trying to push the burden on the entrants and not try to sit here and speculate about an entry that may or may not be let in.”

He did, however, confirm that a blog could hypothetically qualify. “If one or two people call their website a text-based newspaper, would it be eligible?” he said. “Blogs tend to fall into three categories. There are news reporting blogs, there are commentary blogs, and there’s a hybrid version of the two. If they’re text-based and meet our criteria, then they probably could compete. But it would be up to them to satisfy the criteria.”

Frustrating Ambiguity

After interviewing Gissler I spoke to editors from several major online-only news organizations to gauge their reactions to the announcement. Salon editor Joan Walsh said she has always believed that the Pulitzers should open to online content and that she’s pleased that they’ve “belatedly” acknowledged the need to do so. But, like others, she found the ambiguity surrounding the announcement frustrating.

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Joan Walsh

“I think we’ll look closely at the requirements and we’ll look at whether it makes sense to make a pitch,” she told me. “I still think they’re being a little bit — what word do I want to be quoted using — prissy comes to mind. Prissy and backward-looking, sort of putting it on us to make the case that we qualify rather than having an open-minded come-all approach.”

Walsh cited the work of Salon writer Mark Benjamin, who covered major stories like Abu Ghraib and Walter Reed, as someone who has been passed over for award recognition.

“Our reporters are doing work that regularly competes with and gets followed by major news organizations, that AP picks up, that the New York Times picks up,” she said. “And it’s been really silly for us not to be eligible and it would be silly as they go forward and lay out their requirements if they exclude Salon, or Slate, or TalkingPointsMemo.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Others believed the Pulitzer Board should be much more open in who it accepted for award eligibility. Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, had been consulted by the Pulitzer Board about changing criteria before it made its decision. He recently shared his answers to their questions in a blog post on Idea Lab.

Gillmor thinks the board should do away with the rule that online content from magazines and broadcast outlets should be excluded, arguing that the Pulitzers should be the top journalism prize for all media, whatever the medium. He also believes winners should be able to come from countries outside the U.S., and that the Pulitzer Board should include people outside the newspaper business.

“Celebrate great journalism wherever it comes from,” Gillmor wrote to the Board. “This includes digital-only, and probably should include English-language reporting that didn’t originate in the United States…[The Pulitzers should] become the top prizes for journalism of any kind. Do away entirely with the distinction between newspapers and other media. There’s no real alternative.”

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen showed similar skepticism in a series of posts on his Twitter account. In a message to me he asked if a blogger known for insightful opinion could win the award for commentary even though she doesn’t engage in original reporting. When I responded that she probably wouldn’t qualify, he replied, “Oh, I see. If it’s commentary at a reporting based news organization, [you’re] golden. [It’s] the derivation that counts.”

Journalism Changes Ahead of Pulitzers

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David Plotz

Slate editor David Plotz said he had never thought about the online-only question prior to the announcement the other day. Asked if he considered this to be a milestone for online journalism, he said that this point had passed long before the Pulitzer Board made its decision.

“We’ve already reached a point where journalism has effectively recognized that great reporting is done online, that any media outlet has to publish its best work online, and publish it before it appears in print or on the air,” he told me. “And so the recognition that there are web-only outlets that are providing great work — I think that’s already factored into the equation…It’s so obvious to everyone in the business; this is ground zero for where journalistic innovation is taking place, where growth is, where the most vigorous competition is. And the prizes follow that; they don’t lead it.”

Plotz seemed unmoved by the ambiguity of the qualifications, saying that the prize would simply follow great journalism.

“It’s their prize, and they have a much better sense for what qualities of journalism that they’re looking for than I do,” he said. “So the plain language of it that I read suggests that we’re probably eligible, but they can surely make the case that we’re not. And again, they want to recognize great journalism in whatever form it is, and if great journalism comes from Slate or The Smoking Gun or Salon, they’re going to want to recognize it. If Slate has a project that is worthy of consideration with them, then I think they’ll consider it.”

Richard J. Tofel, general manager of the investigative journalism at non-profit site ProPublica, said that he understood the need for ambiguity because it gives the Pulitzer board more room to make decisions. Prematurely announcing what websites qualify and which don’t would perhaps discourage worthy submissions. I asked Tofel what his views were on online-only entrants before the announcement.

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Richard Tofel

“I didn’t really have a view prior to that because we knew that they were sort of in transition,” he replied. “They had allowed some online content as of a few years ago, and we knew that they were considering continuing further on that evolution.”

Salon’s Walsh had a slightly more cynical take on why this sudden shift in criteria was taking place.

“I think it’s a turning point for online media but I also think it’s recognition of the state of doom for newspapers right now where you have papers looking at online-only futures,” she said. “It hasn’t really happened yet — I mean the Christian Science Monitor has come closest, but you don’t have any dailies doing that. Lots of people have speculated that that’s a possibility, that whatever print product that remains is really a vestige of what was, and the main action is online. I think it’s more of a recognition of where newspapers might be headed than a recognition that wow, people have gone off and done interesting things online and we need to bring them in.”

What do you think about the new eligibility for Pulitzer Prizes in journalism? Are they open enough or should they include more entrants? How would you define who should be eligible for Pulitzers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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