What is a Pulitzer Prize?
The Pulitzer Prize is the most prestigious of all awards or prizes for American journalists. The Pulitzer Prizes were established as part of a bequest made by Joseph Pulitzer, the Hungarian- born American reporter and editor who bought the New York World in 1883 and turned it into one of the largest, most innovative, and most lucrative newspapers anywhere. After his death, as part of his gift to Columbia University to establish a School of Journalism, he provided the funds for the Pulitzer Prizes.
There are Pulitzer prizes for history, biography or autobiography, general non-fiction, drama, poetry, fiction, and music. In journalism, there are fourteen prizes—thirteen that go to individuals or groups of individuals for work in specific journalism fields, from editorial writing to editorial cartooning, from breaking news photography to investigative reporting to feature writing. The prize for public service is awarded to a news organization rather than to an individual journalist.
The self-perpetuating Pulitzer board has full power to maintain the prizes as it determines, although the prizes are officially presented to recipients by the president of Columbia University who, along with the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, are ex officio members of the board. Sometimes the board makes significant changes in the awards—adding the prize in music in 1943, expanding the music award in the 1960s from classical music composition to jazz composition, inaugurating a prize in "explanatory journalism" in 1985. Since 2006 the Pulitzer board has welcomed online elements of newspaper submissions and since 2009 has invited submissions from online-only news organizations. In 2013, a small, online-only news organization founded in 2007, Inside Climate News, won the Pulitzer for national reporting.
Other awards celebrate achievements in radio and television news, notably the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University awards—established in 1942 and administered by Columbia since 1968—and the George Foster Peabody Awards, established in 1940 and administered through the Grady College of Journalism, University of Georgia. The National Magazine Awards, established by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 1966, and also administered through the Columbia Journalism School, recognize news and public affairs magazine excellence. There are other prestigious national awards for journalism as well as awards chosen by state and local press clubs and press associations.
These various changes in the Pulitzer awards have done nothing to diminish and have almost certainly enhanced Joseph Pulitzer's original intention of creating awards that contribute to recognizing journalism as a professional pursuit in the public interest. Pulitzer wrote earnestly in his 1904
essay: "Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations."
How do you win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism? There are different criteria for different prizes. Sig Gissler, the executive director of the Pulitzers from 2002 to 2014, told us that winners in public service, investigative reporting, and national reporting are usually marked by "deep-digging reportage and evocative storytelling (using all available tools, including video)." Jurors also give weight to "results and impact. Did the stories produce meaningful change?" With breaking news, jurors look for "coherent balance under deadline pressure. They look for immediacy—swift, accurate coverage especially during the first 24 to 48 hours after a story breaks, with demonstrated examples of real-time reporting." Still, even for breaking news, jurors "also seek coverage that, over several days, places an event in context."