Apocalypse 22: Fiddling while Rome burns

By , 22 April, 2009, No Comment

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this week, to little fanfare, as perhaps befits a set of awards for such a troubled industry. I’m really pleased with the choice of WaPo’s Gene Robinson for Commentary; his columns on the presidential campaign were insightful but respectful, something rare in political opinion. I’m also happy to see the NYT (esp Jane Perlez and Carlotta Gall) get the nod for their AfPak coverage.

I’m less pleased with the lack of ANY awards for reporting on the financial crisis. Gretchen Morgenson and Vikas Bajaj both probably deserved to be recognized, as the did the WaPo’s series on AIG (nominated) and the WSJ’s series on the End of Wall Street (nominated).

But the real killer was this: In the category of breaking news, the NYT won a prize for its coverage of the Spitzer scandal. The NYT wins my prize for breaking news this year, but I’d have given it for the superior coverage the paper did of the election eclipsing, IMHO, both the WaPo and CNN (the usual dominators in horse race coverage) with its impressive use of multimedia features like live blogs of campaign events, district-by-district maps and polling data, and all manner of unique ways of calibrating and comparing the candidates. Breaking news in the digital age is not just about getting information out there–anybody with a cell phone can do that; it’s about providing depth and insight in real time. That’s where the journalism happens.

Nominating the Times for the Spitzer story (which was just info-dissemination) was shortsighted and backward-looking. Coupled with the lack of acknowledgement for financial reporting in a year dominated by financial news, the choice reflects, to my mind, the problem with groups like the Pulitzer board. Instead of using their considerable brand power and influence to lead reporters to a brave new digital future, they are rewarding increasingly irrelevant forms of content and ceding the public discourse to amateurs.

The amateurs will have no problem disseminating information, and may beat the journalists at this function, but there are no amateurs so far replicating the analytical depth of the big papers’ reporting on credit defaults. By trying to compete at a disadvantage in the info-breaking space, the professional media will only put itself out of business and we will all be the worse off for it. If organizations like the Pulitzer don’t incentivize a change of direction, it won’t happen.

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