Tuesday, April 11, 2017


My favorite Pulitzer Prize winner this year had to be the tiny Storm Lake Times of Storm Lake, Iowa, a 3,000-circulation paper that took home the editorial writing prize on Monday for some real  shoe-leather work.

Editor and publisher Art Cullen raised the issue of how local government entities planned to defend themselves against lawsuits related to agricultural and irrigation toxins in local water. When they would not reveal their funding, the paper kept digging and uncovered the fact that the defense cash came from companies known for their own questionable practices such as Koch Industries and Monsanto, according to The Washington Post.

The Pulitzer Board described the work as "editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa."

For years I was lucky enough to cover the Pulitzer Prizes annually for Editor & Publisher. When the biggest awards in journalism were announced inside the third-floor World Room at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, I was as excited as any of the hopeful candidates.

At E&P, we also had a string of finding out the finalists names in advance for several years, a scoop that upset the decision-makers at Columbia, but one that still gets some people reaching out to me for such information. Alas, the well of leaks dried up years ago.

More important, however, was the idea that the Pulitzer could be won by any newspaper, of any size or readership. To this day, The New York Times - which garnered three more prizes on Monday - can be challenged by the likes of a Point Reyes Light or Grand Forks Herald in the competition that gives no weight or sympathy to staff size or revenue.

You win because you speak truth to power, dig up the real story, or challenge the status quo. 

In my 11 years at E&P, I was lucky to write about many notable Pulitzer winners -- ranging from The Village Voice's Mark Schoofs, who won that weekly's first Pulitzer in 2000 for a lengthy series on AIDS in Africa (for which he caught malaria during his time overseas) to The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, MA., honored in 2003 when it went all out on the story of four local boys who drowned in a river boating tragedy.

One of my favorites, however, was The Boston Globe's Spotlight team revelations about the Catholic Church. Although far from a small newspaper, The Globe had additional challenges as it took on one of the city's sacred institutions - a battle many saw in the 2016 Oscar-winning film Spotlight

What the film failed to mention, however, was that the coverage won the 2003 Public Service Pulitzer, considered to be the most prestigious, and the only one without a cash prize.

So as this year's winners properly enjoy their accolades, knowing they are well-earned in this time of newsroom cutbacks and instant deadlines over dogged reporting and fact-finding, readers should also rejoice that such true newspapering is still going on.

And as the editor of the Storm Lake Times put it, still scaring "the bejeebers" out of those in power.