In the latter years of the 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer stood out as the very embodiment of American journalism. Hungarian-born, an intense indomitable figure, Pulitzer was the most skillful of newspaper publishers, a passionate crusader against dishonest government, a fierce, hawk-like competitor who did not shrink from sensationalism in circulation struggles, and a visionary who richly endowed his profession.
His innovative New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch reshaped newspaper journalism. Pulitzer was the first to call for the training of journalists at the university level in a school of journalism. And certainly, the lasting influence of the Pulitzer Prizes on journalism, literature, music, and drama is to be attributed to his visionary acumen.
In writing his 1904 will, which made provision for the establishment of the Pulitzer Prizes as an incentive to excellence, Pulitzer specified solely four awards in journalism, four in letters and drama, one for education, and five traveling scholarships. Initally, three of the scholarships were awarded on the recommendation of the Faculty of Journalism at Columbia to graduating students; two of the scholarships, in art and music, respectively, were administered externally by a jury comprised of faculty from the Columbia Department of Music and the Institute of Musical Art (music) and the National Academy of Design (art). Like the other awards, the latter two scholarships were open to all music and art students in America. (Currently, five scholarships of $7,500 are awarded to graduating students from the School of Journalism.)
In journalism, prizes were to recognize “the most disinterested and meritorious public service rendered by any American newspaper during the preceding year” (a gold medal worth $500 with no monetary component); “the best editorial article written during the year, the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in the right direction” ($500); and “the best example of a reporter’s work during the year, the test being strict accuracy, terseness, the accomplishment of some public good commanding public attention and respect” ($1,000). (A $1,000 prize for the best history of services rendered to the public by the American press in the preceding year was only awarded once; similarly, a $1,000 prize for a paper on the development of the School of Journalism was never awarded due to a dearth of competitors.) In letters, prizes were to go to an American novel ($1,000), an original American play performed in New York ($1,000), a book on the history of the United States ($2,000) and an American biography ($1,000).
But, sensitive to the dynamic progression of his society, Pulitzer made provision for broad changes in the system of awards. He established an overseer advisory board and willed it “power in its discretion to suspend or to change any subject or subjects, substituting, however, others in their places, if in the judgment of the board such suspension, changes, or substitutions shall be conducive to the public good or rendered advisable by public necessities, or by reason of change of time.” He also empowered the board to withhold any award where entries fell below its standards of excellence. The assignment of power to the board was such that it could also overrule the recommendations for awards made by the juries subsequently set up in each of the categories.
Thus, the Plan of Award, which has governed the prizes since their inception in 1917, has been revised frequently. The Board, later renamed the Pulitzer Prize Board, has increased the number of awards to 21 and introduced poetry, music, and photography as subjects, while adhering to the spirit of the founder’s will and its intent.
The board typically exercised its broad discretion in 1997, the 150th anniversary of Pulitzer’s birth, in two fundamental respects. It took a significant step in recognition of the growing importance of work being done by newspapers in online journalism. Beginning with the 1999 competition, the board sanctioned the submission by newspapers of online presentations as supplements to print exhibits in the Public Service category. The board left open the distinct possibility of further inclusions in the Pulitzer process of online journalism as the electronic medium developed. Thus, with the 2006 competition, the Board allowed online content in all 14 of its journalism categories. For 2009, the competition was expanded to include online-only news organizations. For 2011, the Plan of Award was revised to encourage more explicitly the entry of online and multimedia material, with the board seeking to honor the best work in whatever form is the most effective. And for 2012, the board adopted an all-digital entry and judging system, replacing the historic reliance on submission of scrapbooks.
The other major change was in music, a category that was added to the Plan of Award for prizes in 1943. The prize always had gone to composers of classical music. The definition and entry requirements of the music category beginning with the 1998 competition were broadened to attract a wider range of American music. In an indication of the trend toward bringing mainstream music into the Pulitzer process, the 1997 prize went to Wynton Marsalis’s “Blood on the Fields,” which has strong jazz elements, the first such award. In music, the board also took tacit note of the criticism leveled at its predecessors for failure to cite two of the country’s foremost jazz composers. It bestowed a Special Citation on George Gershwin marking the 1998 centennial celebration of his birth and Duke Ellington on his 1999 centennial year. In 2004, the Board further broadened the definition of the prize and the makeup of its music juries, resulting in a greater diversity of entries. In 2007, the music prize went to Ornette Coleman for “Sound Grammar,” the first live jazz recording to win the award. The Board also awarded posthumous Special Citations to jazz composers Thelonious Monk in 2006 and John Coltrane in 2007.
Over the years the Pulitzer board has at times been targeted by critics for awards made or not made. Controversies also have arisen over decisions made by the board counter to the advice of juries. Given the subjective nature of the award process, this was inevitable. The board has not been captive to popular inclinations. Many, if not most, of the honored books have not been on bestseller lists, and many of the winning plays have been staged off-Broadway or in regional theaters.
In journalism the major newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, have harvested many of the awards, but the board also has often reached out to work done by small, little-known papers. The Public Service award in 1995 went to The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas, for its disclosure of the links between the region’s rampant crime rate and corruption in the local criminal justice system. In 2005, the investigative reporting award went to Willamette Week, an alternative newspaper in Portland, Oregon, for its exposure of a former governor’s long concealed sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl. In 2008, the feature photography prize was captured by the Concord (N.H.) Monitor for its portrayal of a family coping with a parent’s terminal illness. In 2010, the Public Service prize went to the Bristol, Va., Herald Courier, a small daily, for exposing the mismanagement of natural gas royalties owed to thousands of landowners. And in 2013, the National Reporting prize was won by InsideClimate News, a small online news organization.
In letters, the board has grown less conservative over the years in matters of taste. In 1963 the drama jury nominated Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” but the board found the script insufficiently “uplifting,” a complaint that related to arguments over sexual permissiveness and rough dialogue. In 1993 the prize went to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” a play that explores homosexuality in the early days of the AIDS crisis, before transmission was widely understood or effective treatment was available. Kushner doesn’t shy from strong language, a change from earlier playwrights whose cursing could have cost them an award. On the same debated issue of taste, the board in 1941 denied the fiction prize to Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” but gave him the award in 1953 for “The Old Man and the Sea,” a lesser work.
Notwithstanding these contretemps, from its earliest days, the board has in general stood firmly by a policy of secrecy in its deliberations and refusal to publicly debate or defend its decisions. The challenges have not lessened the reputation of the Pulitzer Prizes as the country’s most prestigious awards and as the most sought-after accolades in journalism, letters, and music. The Prizes are perceived as a major incentive for high-quality journalism and have focused worldwide attention on American achievements in letters and music.
The formal announcement of the prizes, made each April, states that the awards are made by the president of Columbia University on the recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize board. This formulation is derived from the Pulitzer will, which established Columbia as the seat of the administration of the prizes. Today, in fact, the independent board makes all the decisions relative to the prizes. In his will Pulitzer bestowed an endowment on Columbia of $2,000,000 for the establishment of a School of Journalism, one-fourth of which was to be “applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education.”
In his ascent to the summit of American journalism, Pulitzer himself received little or no assistance. He prided himself on being a self-made man, but it may have been his struggles as a young journalist that imbued him with the desire to foster professional training.