NEW YORK – Two newspapers hit hard by a historic downturn won Pulitzer Prizes on Monday for exposing sex scandals that brought down a governor and a big-city mayor, in what was hailed as a victory for old-fashioned watchdog journalism, at a time when the industry’s very survival is in question.
The New York Times received five Pulitzers in all, including one for being the first to report that then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer was a client of a high-priced call girl ring – a discovery that led to his resignation. The Detroit Free Press won for obtaining a cache of steamy text messages that destroyed then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s political career.
Three Pulitzers were awarded for coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election. But in a surprising turn, not one prize was handed out for the other big story of 2008 – the financial meltdown. Some suggested it could be a criticism of the press for not sounding enough of a warning before the crisis.
“If I had to guess, I feel like there is going to be some reluctance to give prizes for after-the-fact reporting no matter how good it is, period,” said Dean Starkman, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review’s The Audit, which focuses on the business press.
The awards were announced after a depressing year for the newspaper industry, with layoffs, bankruptcies and closings brought on by the recession and an exodus of readers and advertisers to the Internet. Many of Monday’s winners were among the hardest hit; in fact, one of the winners, a reporter in Arizona, was laid off a few months ago.
“These are tough times for America’s newspapers, but amid the gloomy talk, the newspaper winners and the finalists are heartening examples of the high-quality journalism that can be found in all parts of the United States,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes. “It’s quite notable that the watchdog function of journalism is underscored in this year’s awards. The watchdog still barks, and the watchdog still bites.”
Despite a rule change that allowed online-only news organizations to compete for Pulitzers this year for the first time, none of the 65 entries won any prizes. However, the Pulitzer Board said online content played a role in several of the winning entries.
In a measure of how bad things have gotten, the Detroit paper less than a month ago cut back home delivery to three days a week. Similarly, the Metro staff that broke the Spitzer story at the New York Times has since been cut back, and Metro was eliminated as a standalone section and folded into the main news part of the paper six days a week.
The Las Vegas Sun won the Pulitzer for public service for exposing a high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip. Alexandra Berzon described how the rush to build quickly and at highly congested work sites led to deadly shortcuts. Her work led to changes in workplace conditions.
The Free Press was honored in the local reporting category for helping expose an extramarital affair between the mayor and his chief aide. Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to perjury, lost his office and served 99 days in jail after the text messages made it clear he had lied under oath in denying the affair while testifying in a lawsuit.
The judges also awarded a second Pulitzer in local reporting, honoring the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., for revealing how a sheriff’s focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigations of other crimes. Paul Giblin, one of the reporters who wrote the prize-winning series, was laid off in January.