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May 7, 2024, 2:37 p.m.

This year’s Pulitzer Prizes were a coming-out party for online media — and a marker of local newspapers’ decline

For the first time ever, more online news sites produced Pulitzer finalists than newspapers did.

Some day in the distant future, scholars looking back on the evolution (devolution?) of the American news business will consider May 6, 2024 a date worthy of note. They’ll see it as the day the most prestigious prizes in journalism reflected the changing face of the field itself.

On Monday afternoon, the 108th edition of the Pulitzer Prizes was announced. In some ways, the winners and finalists were familiar: important investigations, incisive commentary, tremendous photography. But the list of honorees also highlighted three major ongoing shifts in American journalism:

  • The best works of journalism are increasingly produced by just a few high-end institutions.
  • The decline in local and regional newspapers has pushed online-native outlets to the forefront.
  • The work historically performed by newspapers is increasingly done by other forms of media.

To state the obvious: Duh. None of those is a flashy new trend for 2024; they’ve each been in progress for at least two decades. But we’ve never seen a Pulitzers announcement like yesterday, when more online-native outlets (12) were honored than newspapers (8).

The Pulitzers are an annual opportunity for journalism to reflect on its best work — and who is producing it. Between my years in newspapers and here at Nieman Lab, I’ve now seen 27 Pulitzer announcement cycles — and this year’s batch of honorees is different.

The Pulitzer Prizes were, for decades, meant to honor the best in journalism as produced by American newspapers and wire services. Radio, TV, and magazines all had their own prestigious awards to battle over; the Pulitzers were for print.

But the arrival of the internet flattened out media formats and pushed a series of Pulitzer boards to broaden the prizes’ boundaries over time. In the 2009 prizes, online-only outlets were allowed to enter for the first time. In 2015, magazines were let in.1 In 2020, the debut of a new Audio Reporting prize gave radio outlets a foot in the door. And for this year’s prizes, all TV and broadcast outlets were allowed in.2

In the years that have followed, non-newspaper outlets have made substantial gains in certain categories — Audio Reporting, obviously, but also Feature Writing, which magazines have come to dominate. But despite online-only news orgs having been eligible for 15 years now, their wins have been more sporadic. Newspapers were still the dominant force in the main reporting categories.

Let’s look back at some Pulitzers past to see the shifts in progress. (Here and throughout this piece, I’m counting both the winners of Pulitzer Prizes and the nominated finalists, of which there are usually two per category. So some of the finalists I’ll mention were also winners, in the same way that some Oscar nominees are also Oscar winners.)

First, let’s go back twenty years, to 2004 — roughly speaking, the end of the good ol’ days for the newspaper industry, just before the Internet started to eat its lunch.

In that year, 19 newspapers produced Pulitzer finalists. Those included a wide range of dailies in metro and local markets, like Philadelphia, Providence, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Dallas, San Jose, Minneapolis, Baltimore — even Toledo, Ohio, and White Plains, N.Y. Outside newspapers, the only other finalists came from five wire services (AP, Reuters, Getty, Copley, and Universal Press Syndicate).

Move ahead a decade to 2014 — well into newspapers’ financial decline. Still, 24 newspapers produced Pulitzer finalists that year, including a slew of metros and smaller fry like the Colorado Springs Gazette, Seattle weekly The Stranger, and New Jersey’s Woodland Park Record. Joining newspapers were two wire services (AP and Reuters) and just one online news organization, the Center for Public Integrity. (Though CPI’s origins date back well before the web.) By this point, online outlets had been eligible for Pulitzers for five years — but finalist status was still hard to come by for those without printing presses.

How about the past couple of years?

In 2022, finalists included 17 newspapers, three radio outfits, two magazines, two wire services, one TV network — and five online news organizations (ProPublica, Futuro Media, Insider, The Marshall Project, and Quanta).

In 2023, finalists included 13 newspapers, three magazines, two wire services, one radio outfit — and four online news organizations (ProPublica, Politico, Mississippi Today, and Gimlet Media).

Now let’s move to yesterday’s announcement. This year’s Pulitzer finalists came from just eight newspapers, four wire services, three magazines, three TV outlets, one radio network — and a whopping 12 online news organizations.

  • The newspapers: The New York Times (8 finalists), The Washington Post (6), the Los Angeles Times (2), the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Miami Herald, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Tennessean, and The Villages Daily Sun.
  • The wire services: The Associated Press (2 finalists), Bloomberg (2), Reuters (2), and Agence France Presse.
  • Magazines: The New Yorker (5 finalists), The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books. TV: NBC News, Frontline, and Cox Media Group.
  • Radio: New Hampshire Public Radio.
  • Online outlets: ProPublica (2 finalists), Invisible Institute (2), Alabama Reflector, City Bureau, Honolulu Civil Beat, KFF Health News, Lookout Santa Cruz3, Mississippi Today, Stat, The Marshall Project, The Texas Tribune, and USG Audio.

That’s a big shift. Only eight newspapers producing finalists would have been unthinkable not long ago; it’s by far the lowest total since the Pulitzers began announcing the finalists (not just the winners) in 1980. And it’s not just the number of online finalists — it’s how local they are. We’re used to national powerhouses like ProPublica and The Marshall Project are competing at the highest levels. But these pieces are coming from places like Montgomery and Jackson, Honolulu and Santa Cruz.

(The finalist recognition for the Alabama Reflector, a States Newsroom site, must feel extra sweet, given that some still misguidedly label it and its siblings as so-called “pink slime” news sites.)

Look again at that list of finalists from newspapers. Collectively, they produced 21 Pulitzer finalists. But a whopping 14 of those came from either The New York Times (8) or The Washington Post (6) — leaving just 7 from all other newspapers combined. The national newspapers4 are in an entirely different business these days from the rest of the industry. (A magazine version of the same top-heavy phenomenon can be seen in The New Yorker’s five finalists.)

There are two ways to look at this broader shift at the highest levels of award-winning journalism. An optimist would look at the unprecedented excellence from online news outlets, especially at the local level, and see signs of tremendous hope. A pessimist would see the shrinking pool of finalist-worthy newspapers and rue the continuing spiraling of the newsrooms that are, in most communities, still the single largest producers of journalism. Both would have strong arguments.

For more than a decade, news watchers have debated what a post-newspaper stage of local news might look like. What happens when the local daily goes from being the dominant provider of news to just another online news site with a print edition on the side? Some communities are closer to that reality than others — but I count Monday’s Pulitzers as yet another sign that journalism will remain feisty even after that transition.

Photo of the Lookout Santa Cruz staff learning of their Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting by Natasha Loudermilk/Lookout Santa Cruz. (Ken Doctor is sitting at the table, third from left.)

  1. Technically, magazines were allowed to enter only two of the journalism categories in 2015, then five categories in 2016, then finally all of them in 2017↩︎
  2. Except in the photography categories. Also of note: Even before these changes, non-qualifying outlets were sometimes allowed to enter work that was done in partnership with a newspaper or other eligible outlet. ↩︎
  3. What a day for our old friend Ken Doctorlongtime Nieman Lab columnist and founder of Lookout Santa Cruz. I mean, he won a Pulitzer and had a Nieman Lab byline on the same day! ↩︎
  4. Including The Wall Street Journal, which got skunked this year. ↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 7, 2024, 2:37 p.m.
 
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