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Online News Organizations Compete For Pulitzers

It used to be that online news organizations were out of the running when it came to the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism. In 2007, Josh Marshall, the editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo, an online news and opinion site, was the first person to identify and reveal the full scope of the politicization of the Justice Department under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.

Though Marshall won a George Polk Award for his work on the story, some people said he should have won a Pulitzer — perhaps the highest honor in American print journalism. But back then, because of where he works and because of the medium in which he works, Marshall wasn't eligible.

But Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, says times have changed.

"We expanded the online aspect of the competition and made it open to online-only news organizations, provided they were primarily dedicated to original news reporting and the coverage of ongoing events," explains Gissler.

Those are important stipulations. To be eligible for a Pulitzer Prize, a site must show that original news reporting outweighs aggregated content from other news sites — and Gissler says the onus is on the news organization to make the case that it meets the standard.

Joan Walsh, the editor-in-chief of Salon, applauds the Pulitzer Board for recognizing the contributions of online news organizations, but she adds that she doesn't think the guidelines were clear enough.

"I felt like somebody had a formula some place that they weren't entirely sharing with me, and it just felt like more trouble than it was worth at that point," says Walsh.

Ultimately, Salon didn't apply for a Pulitzer. Neither did Slate — the chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group wasn't sure it qualified. And Marshall says Talking Points Memo didn't submit anything either.

But at least two nonprofit sites — the St. Louis Beacon and MinnPost — did submit stories.

Susan Albright, an editor of the Minnesota-based MinnPost who has served as a Pulitzer juror twice, says that her site covers national and international stories, usually from a Minnesota angle.

"We sent, for example, John Camp to Iraq last January, along with a photographer and videographer, and they spent a good bit of time there, writing news about Minnesotans who are there," says Albright. "So we do news, but we do it in a different way."

Albright submitted that series for a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. She says the prize would mean a lot to her small staff of reporters and freelancers: "I think it would be terrific. I mean for an online news site to win something like that would be great."

Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, says that the Pulitzer Board will continue to "monitor the impact of the Internet. ... The Pulitzer Prizes are a living organism, and we take into account what's happening in the world of journalism, in the world of the news media, and we'll, I'm sure, continue to do that."

Walsh says she spoke with Gissler two weeks ago, and he addressed some of her questions. She says Salon will "absolutely" apply next year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.