Why Pulitzer Prizes still matter

By Caitlin Kelly


This week the most coveted awards in journalism were given out, the prizes named for Joseph Pulitzer, a man born in Hungary in 1847 and who became a legendary publisher of major American newspapers; (pronounced Pull-itzer.)

It is a very big deal to win a Pulitzer Prize, both for the writers and photographers who win it for their individual, often team, efforts, but also for their editors and publishers.

It can take decades to win one, or, for the fortunate few, it arrives early in their careers. The photographer who’s won the most ever in journalism, four, is Carol Guzy, of The Washington Post — who began her career as a nurse.

In a time when our industry is struggling mightily — tens of thousands of us having been laid off in recent years — this sort of accolade is still something many of us strive for.

If you stay in journalism a few decades, you come to know, and sometimes work with, and possibly deeply admire, many colleagues, sometimes scattered globally. When they win, we’re also cheering for our tribe.

Here’s the list of all the 2017 winners, including history, poetry, drama and music.

One of my favorite stories of 2016, a stunning 18,102 word account of a young combat veteran, was written by The New York Times’ staff writer C.J. Chivers, himself a former Marine. He won the 2017 Pulitzer for feature writing.

His award is one of three Pulitzers awarded to the Times this year. Another went to Australian-born, New Delhi-based freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak for breaking news covering the drug war in the Philippines being waged by President Duterte. He also won the award in 2015 for feature photography for documenting the Ebola outbreak.

From his website:

Their Ukrainian practicality did not consider photography to be a viable trade to pursue so at an early age Daniel worked on the farm and at his father’s refrigeration company.

Not so surprising — journalism is still considered a terrible career choice by many parents: it’s professionally insecure, badly paid and sometimes dangerous.

It’s one of the many reasons we, (I’ve been a journalist for decades), are so proud of our colleagues who persist and succeed. It’s damn hard!

In an era of “fake news” and endless claims to the “truth”, we need media literate readers/listeners and viewers more than ever.

And we need smart, tough, determined reporters, whether visual or word-focused, and their editors and their publishers, to stay committed to strong, intelligent work of lasting value —- not just chase clicks and views.


David Farenthhold — we all knew he had this one in the bag — took the prize for National Reporting, on Trump, for The Washington Post.

In 1912, one year after Pulitzer’s deathย aboard his yacht, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 under the supervision of the advisory board to which he had entrusted his mandate. Pulitzer envisioned an advisory board composed principally of newspaper publishers. Others would include the president of Columbia University and scholars, and “persons of distinction who are not journalists or editors.” Today, the 19-member board is composed mainly of leading editors or news executives. Four academics also serve, including the president of Columbia University and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Also from the Pulitzer website:

What do Pulitzer Prize winners get when they win?

There are 21 Pulitzer categories. In 20 of those categories the winners receive a $10,000 cash award and a certificate. Only the winner in the Public Service category of the Journalism competition is awarded a gold medal. The Public Service prize is always awarded to a news organization, not an individual, although an individual may be named in the citation.

Selfishly, I have a deeply vested interest in the Pulitzers — as we have one in the family. It belongs to my husband, Jose R. Lopez, whose blog is here.


On 9/11, as fighter jets screamed over Manhattan and the Twin Towers fell, Jose was a team member of talented, fast-thinking, quick-acting New York Times photographers and photo editors covering it.

They won the Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography.

Jose, then a photo editor, (and former news photographer), literally turned his basement Brooklyn apartment, (the very day he was to move in with me and everything was already packed!) into a local Times bureau — scanning and transmitting images from his computer as photographers delivered their film to him.

There was no way to physically get into Manhattan from Brooklyn in time, to reach the Times‘ building that day.

On a day of confusion and terror and trauma, the Times team stayed calm and organized. Their job — our job — always, is to witness, testify, explain, share.

That’s what we do.

Columbia Journalism School

15 thoughts on “Why Pulitzer Prizes still matter

  1. The Pulitzer absolutely matters! Not so much for the prize itself but as you say, in recognition of professionalism. These days I lament the loss of robust, professional, investigative journalism worldwide – the reduction of news, instead, to gladiatorial entertainment designed to wrap around advertising. Mix in social media and that becomes a recipe for wild ‘alternative facts’ and village gossip on a colossal scale, where the ‘spin’ of vested interests becomes as credible as anything else. It’s a problem shared here in New Zealand, and one that was becoming evident even a decade ago. All the good investigative journalists here have been spinning out of the industry and going into public relations or similar fields – the handful of ‘current affairs’ programs that used to be the premise of really good journalism are instead fronted by ‘personalities’ whose circus antics, themselves, become news. I presume it’s the same in the US?

    1. Indeed… the number of PR people now vastly outnumbers the people they are vastly out-earning (and trying to pitch.)

      My favorite hashtag (sadly) is #PRFail. I use it many many times a week — they throw spaghetti at the wall and pitch me 99.9% of stories of NO interest to me, in areas my website makes clear I have never ever covered. They don’t care. They get paid anyway.

      It’s a real mess.

  2. It’s unlikely I’ll ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (horror writers rarely do), but I understand the need for the award. It’s to recognize people who act both as educators and influential advisers about the world and what goes on in it. Without journalists who go the extra mile to inform us, where would we be?

  3. the pulitzer means so much in my eyes, and that will never change for me. it carries a certain level of reverence and respect for incredible work. the story of jose and 9/11 is amazing and you must be so proud –

  4. It’s sad to see that in some countries, journalists are silenced, jailed and killed. Good journalism still matters. I hope people will pay attention to this and be willing to part with their hard earned money for it. We don’t seem to have a problem paying a ton of money for coffee and booze. But not for good reporting.

    I love that you continue to carry the torch for your peers and giving us some insight into your profession.

    p.s. I just followed your husband’s blog – thanks for putting his link here.

    1. Thanks so much for following his blog! He doesn’t write it often enough, even though I keep suggesting it. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I know that journalism is even more essential than ever and am very, very proud of the people I respect and admire in the business.

      It’s become even more difficult for all of us, so those who thrive and survive deserve our respect, kudos — and, yes, our dollars.

      Thanks for reading and your enthusiasm!

  5. Itโ€™s especially meaningful to see that some of these winners have been demonized by president trump, hopefully undermining the credibility of his rants. Congrats to husband, it takes great passion to be innovative and mold to unfolding events.

  6. “Jose, then a photo editor, (and former news photographer), literally turned his basement Brooklyn apartment, (the very day he was to move in with me and everything was already packed!) into a local Times bureau โ€” scanning and transmitting images from his computer as photographers delivered their film to him.”

    Woah. Respect! Kudos to you Caitlin, and your peers, who do the hard yards so the rest of us can sit around and read / watch. We really do need journalists and quality journalism more than ever, as is evident every single day.

    1. Thanks!

      It was the most insane of days — I was in Maryland on a fellowship and didn’t even know if he was alive or read until 4pm that afternoon. The entire story is really something; if we (?!) meet up in Berlin, I’ll tell you.

      People who work at the NYT and others across the globe do that kind of work every day — I see their photos and stories in my FB feed, like friends now working in Iraq, for example. It’s normal for us and for them. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Without you and them, we’d be frogs in the well, a dangerous place to be for all its advertised safety.

        Will drop you an email when I have confirmed my dates for Berlin. Looking forward to it!

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