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New York Times wins Pulitzer for Spitzer coverage that evolved online

Back in the day — you know, five years ago — when a big news story had been written, edited, fact-checked, vetted, proofread, and anguished over one last time, an adrenaline-pumped editor would cry out, “Run it!” As in, the presses.

When The New York Times was ready to report that Eliot Spitzer, then governor of New York, had been implicated in a prostitution ring, managing editor Jill Abramson yelled 20 feet across the newsroom, “O.K., hit it!” As in, the button to publish the story on NYTimes.com.

The Times’ coverage of Spitzer, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, hit the web shortly after 2 p.m. on March 10, 2008. (Two minutes later, I instant-messaged a friend with a link to the article: “SPITZER HUH?!?!?!?!”)

Releasing the news in the middle of the afternoon meant the Times couldn’t control the story, but they certainly owned it, instantly becoming the go-to source for reliable Spitzer news. The Times website crashed several times that day before the servers were rejiggered to handle the crush of traffic.

The Times’ lede and headline initially reported, somewhat obliquely, that Spitzer had been “linked to a prostitution ring.” As two editors later explained, they added details about the precise nature of Spitzer’s “link” to prostitution as more reporting was conducted over the afternoon. Obsessive readers, of which there were millions, could watch the story evolve on the Times website — almost as good as actually being there to hear Abramson yell, “hit it!” That sort of transparent rewrite is why the Times’ Spitzer coverage, though lacking in multimedia bells and whistles, should be considered an online-native story.

                                   
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Caroline O'Donovan    April 23, 2014
“Is there a way to take some of the knowledge that people at The New York Times already have that ends up on the cutting room floor, and put it in front of readers?”