Are we closing in on a Pulitzer Prize for tweets?
Today the Pulitzer Prize board announced changes to the awards competition, with the headline being: Pulitzers will now require entries to be submitted digitally, saving dozens of poor newsroom clerks the labor of cutting and pasting newsprint onto 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheets. That’s news in itself, but more interestingly, they’re also altering the Breaking News category to emphasize real-time reporting.
It’s a step away from the punctuated publication cycle newspapers were tied to in print, and an acknowledgement of breaking news becoming real-time news, even at a news organization that still buys ink by the barrel. When a crisis happens, be it natural disaster, tragic accident or man-made calamity, we’ve come to expect consistent updates, whether through a liveblog, raw streaming video, or live tweeting.
Here’s how the Pulitzers officially described the Breaking News prize until today:
For a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news, with special emphasis on the speed and accuracy of the initial coverage, using any available journalistic tool, including text reporting, videos, databases, multimedia or interactive presentations or any combination of those formats, in print or online or both.
And here’s the new language:
For a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news that, as quickly as possible, captures events accurately as they occur, and, as times passes, illuminates, provides context and expands upon the initial coverage.
In today’s press release, the Pulitzer board says “it would be disappointing if an event occurred at 8 a.m. and the first item in an entry was drawn from the next day’s newspaper.” (Full disclosure: Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski is co-chair of the board.)
In other words, the new language seems to ask for multiple snapshots of the active, in-the-moment, messy-at-times reporting outlets are giving their readers. (The revised instructions also suggest the entrant include a guide to how that reporting evolved over time, “detailing the chronology of events in a breaking story and how it relates to the timing of items that comprise the entry.”) It’s a way of displaying the strength of a news outlet’s reporting during a developing situation that requires the best of a news team: Gathering reports, filtering out noise, finding context, and doing it all rapidly. All of that’s not really reflected in the next day’s paper, which, let’s face it, has the hindsight of a day’s reporting to provide. Live-action reporting is no longer the preserve of TV and radio.
Of course, this sort of online, of-the-moment material could be part of an entry before today’s announcement. Today’s announcement is a shift in emphasis. The Houston Chronicle’s Pulitzer-finalist entry in 2009, for instance, was entirely made up of online material.
The Seattle Times received the 2010 award for its coverage “in print and online, of the shooting deaths of four police officers in a coffee house and the 40-hour manhunt for the suspect.” In 2009, The New York Times was awarded for its reporting on the downfall of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, with the jury crediting the Times for “breaking the story on its Web site and then developing it with authoritative, rapid-fire reports.”
Live blogs and Twitter are where lots of rapid-fire reporting lives now. There were the blogs with live video or text updates on the tornado that destroyed Joplin, Missouri, or the Boston Globe’s live tweeting from Whitey Bulger’s first court appearance. The New York Times deployed both a live blog and a brand new breaking news Twitter account to cover the approach and aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
Perhaps this change could increase entries in the Breaking News category, which attracted the fewest entries of any last year and in which no winner was named in 2011. For a competition that once gave awards for Telegraphic Reporting and eventually opened the door to online-only outlets, it may be only a matter of time before someone breaks the ProPublica barrier and wins for live-tweeting.