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Pulitzer Prize Panel

Posted by sjbutterfield on September 11, 2008

Wow, what a group. Thursday morning saw former Pulitzer winners Jacqui Banaszynski, Steve Fainaru, James Grimaldi, Jeff Leen, Mike McGraw, James Steele, Seymour Topping and author and Pulitzer researcher Roy Harris discuss their personal stories as well as the sustained significance of the Pulitzer, journalism’s most hallowed honor.

Harris, author of the book “Pulitzer’s Gold” may have hit it best when he quipped “if you’re humbled to be in this company, you’re not alone.”

Banaszynski kicked off the panel by relating the story behind her Pulitzer, which she won for covering AIDS in the heartland in the late 1980s. She revealed how the story had touched even her highly conservative rural Wisconsin mother, showing the power a personally touching story can have on even obdurate hearts and reflecting how journalism can transcend bias.

The large Fred Smith Forum in the new Reynolds Institute was packed with attentive listeners of all kinds, as dozens of foreign dignitaries joined students and professional journalists in lending their ears to the seasoned panelists. Five of the panelists were MU grads, including Washington Post writers Fainaru and Grimaldi, who serendipitously both graduated in 1984. All had clearly earned their merit as reporters, as they casually tossed around first hand reports of covering stories from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal to exposing the cocaine trade.

Further, all of the panelists presented an optimistic picture of the future of journalism. Topping, the former Managing Editor of the New York Times and clearly the statesman of the group, himself a ’43 MU grad, gave parting words of encouragement, telling aspiring journalists that with hard work and diligence they can achieve great amounts, despite the difficulties journalism is facing in the modern era.

Steele, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair perhaps spoke best to the lasting meaning of the Pulitzer, saying “it’s a message to other people that these are the things you should be doing and the things that you should keep doing.”

Harris, for his part, spoke to the progression of journalism as it relates to the Pulitzer, explaining that the founding of the prize gave journalists some much needed legitimacy in a time where they were considered to be yellow scam artists. Harris described the establishment of the prize as “elevating the profession,” and elaborated that “you can really trace the advancement of American journalism through the advancement of the Pulitzer prize.”

At the end of the panel, the audience was certainly wowed. Two themes to take away: yes, we should be humbled, there was some serious star power in that room, but also, more importantly, the ability to make a difference is within our grasp, most of that panel was at one point very much in the shoes of a freshman journalism student, it’s all happening.

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Pulitzers: Believe in Your Work and You Might Get Lucky

Posted by absolutelyape on September 11, 2008

Although winning a Pulitzer is the ideal for most journalists, the six Pulitzer winners speaking at RJI this afternoon said their success wasn’t based on a concentration for the prize – it was based on believing in their project and in many cases, a lucky break for recognition.

“Lucky?” you might say – they worked their butts off on a story, how is that considered luck, rather than skill? Well, Jacqui Banaszynski told the Centennial attendees that she happened to be in the right circle of people to get her work recognized.

Other Pulitzer winners (more particularly, those working in the investigative unit at The Washington Post) attributed their Prize-winning to resources.

Steve Fainaru, an embedded reporter in Iraq for the Wash Post, reported on the corruption and violence among American contractors long before the Iraqi civilian story in Baghdad got attention. He was only able to chase the issue so diligently and for so much time because The Washington Post could afford the resources to keep him there. He estimates it cost the Post around $50,000 to send him and then keep him there.

All the winners acknowledged these physical (money) resources, but also the benefits of a supportive newsroom.

“When a lot of people think of the Pulitzer, they think it’s an award for the individual,” said one panelist. “It’s important to remember that the Pulitzer is awarded to an entire newsroom, there are staffs working on these projects.”

The most important aspect of this talk for students was, I think, the emphasis on chasing a story for the story’s sake, not for the chances of obtaining a Pulitzer Prize. In a way, it’s somewhat of a relief to hear winners admit the “luck” factor of the Prize – there are countless reports that are important but have gone unrecognized by the Prize. And that’s ok. If the Prize were the only measure of journalistic greatness, this would contradict the principal duties of the profession, wouldn’t it? And it render the metric of excellence highly political.

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