Time For Google To Fund An Online-Only Version Of The Pulitzers?

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced today — and sincere congrats to the hard-working journalists who’ve won those highest of prizes. But with no online-only publications winning — in the first year they were eligible to enter — I wonder if it’s time for an online-only version of the Pulitzers to be offered.

I was struck hard by this notion yesterday as I was pondering a piece I’m writing about Maureen Dowd’s recent column on her visit to Google. I was asked what I thought about it on Twitter on Friday, and I engaged in a fun conversation with several people that I want to put down into an easier-to-read and annotated blog post (you can get a sense of some of it with this Twitter conversation thread)

One of the things Dowd wrote was:

The therapist tone works with me because my profession is in a meltdown. Firms, like Google here and Craigslist in San Francisco, have hijacked journalism, making us feel about as modern as the Tyrannosaurus rex model that sits on the Google campus.

I’ll expand on this more in my future piece, but no, I don’t think journalism is in meltdown. As I tweeted:

Dowd’s profession isn’t in meltdown. Newspapers are. Journalism happens outside “traditional” channels and is thriving, I’d say.

This is important. Newspapers are not the only place where journalism happens. I do think journalism is healthy. And believe me, I want good journalism. Several people misinterpreted my rant against newspaper business people blaming Google for their problems as some suggestion that I don’t want or care for in-depth reporting. I do (and my Blogs & Mainstream Media: We Can & Do Get Along post goes into detail about this).

Unfortunately, the woes of newspapers make people assume that “quality” journalism is dying. Note the quotes around “quality.” When I use them, I don’t mean it in the way the trio of former industry execs who trotted out Journalism Online two weeks ago with this call-to-action:

Citing “the urgent need” for a comprehensive, immediate plan to address the downward spiral in the business of publishing original, quality journalism, experienced journalism and media industry executives Steven Brill, Gordon Crovitz, and Leo Hindery today announced the formation of Journalism Online, a company that will quickly facilitate the ability of newspaper, magazine and online publishers to realize revenue from the digital distribution of the original journalism they produce.

That got my hackles up, because it suggest that there isn’t “original, quality journalism” out there. In contrast, I think there’s been a huge growth in original, quality journalism from online publications that grew up on the web and have been building ways to thrive on it for years.

Again, don’t get me wrong — I desperately want new and smart business models that can increase the amount of good journalism out there. But I also wonder if we simply aren’t doing enough to recognize the successes that have already been happening. That’s especially so as we get Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt constantly reminding us that the web is a “sewer,” in what seems a bid to get the newspaper folks all nodding about how important their “quality” publications are and that Google really does value them.

Yeah, there’s crud on the web (lots of it ironically funded by Google’s own AdSense program). But there’s lots of good content out there, as well (lots of it ironically underpaid by Google’s own AdSense program that doesn’t report what cut it keeps).

That brings me to yesterday. Sitting on my patio, I broke open my Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. The print one. In the opinion section was The Pulitzers — and Charles Ponzi. It was a great overview of how the Pulitzers got started and in particular, how they were meant to improve the then sorry state of journalism:

The early 20th century featured a mainstream media much more in disrepute than today’s. By then, “yellow journalism” — the sensationalist, jingoistic approach adopted in the 1890s by publishing giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer — was largely discredited, but it remained a fresh memory as newspapers sought a new model of success.

A leader in the search was that same Joseph Pulitzer, a reformed man after his shameful New York circulation battles with Hearst. In a 1902 memo, Pulitzer dreamed up a plan to advance both public service and professionalism among the press: offering prizes for extraordinary journalism and university-based schooling for future journalists. When Pulitzer died in 1911, his bequests set up Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and, in 1917, the first Pulitzer Prizes.

So just under 100 years ago, the quality journalism we’re so worried will be lost if newspapers go under wasn’t so commonplace. It took an X-Prize style contest to help improve things (or more accurately, the X-Prize is like a Pulitzers for commercial space flight).

Now talking about online journalism, a key part of this piece was this:

The awards had a rocky start. For one thing, the Pulitzer organization — a board dominated by newspaper editors — wasn’t sure exactly what kind of work to honor. Great novelists and playwrights came easily to them, with Eugene O’Neill, Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder among early winners. Picking exemplary journalism was tougher. Indeed, there were no recipients for the public service award in 1917 and 1920, and no reporting prize in 1919.

Remember I said that this was the first year online-only publications could enter the Pulitzers? None of them won. There were 37 of them that entered, with 65 entries, but none of them made it. From the Nieman Journalism Lab’s post about this (and further discussion on Techmeme):

A small irony was that of the 37 online-only sites and the 65 entries coming from those in this, the first year in which online-only organization could enter, much of their content was text-based, about three-quarters not including video or other other such content.

Hey, I’m a writer. Good writing alone can win Pulitzers. Why should being an online publication mean that you somehow are lacking if you don’t have video and other whiz-bang stuff?

But more important, perhaps the Pulitzers are the wrong prizes to be judging online-only content? Perhaps the judges simply as as ill-equipped to understand what’s outstanding online content now in the same way 100 years ago, figuring out what was “quality” print journalism was a challenge.

I thought about entering this year’s Pulitzers for about a micro-second. I know the quality of work that goes into a Pulitzer prize winning story, and that’s intimidating. I just couldn’t conceive of tossing any of my content into a contest like that.

But then again, maybe I should have had the guts to look over some of my columns at Search Engine Land and put in an entry. If you don’t try, you don’t know (even though I’m pretty sure I do know!).

But an online-only contest? That might have been less intimidating. And I think that online news reporting is also evolving differently from its print-world cousin. Again, I have a longer piece coming about this. But one thing that’s common online is the amount of referencing that happens. TechCrunch covers something with a particular angle on their own original reporting, and then I might pick that up and add to it more with some of my own original reporting, then ReadWriteWeb might pick up further with their own reporting.

This type of thing happens all the time with online journalism. Sure, there are rivalries, but there’s also far more acknowledgement of facts that other publications have gathered to use as a base for extending a story. Rather than a story being built in isolation, it could be argued that online, reporting is done more collectively.

Given this — plus a format where there is no need to be restricted on length — an online-only version of the Pulizers might make sense. It could be extended to traditional publishers, too — as an added incentive for them to prove that they can do great work that’s not just in print and that can pay for itself online.

Remember the X-Prize? Google’s funding a multi-million dollar Lunar X-Prize for a commercial company to put a robot on the moon. If we want to get on at Google about journalism, how about having them fund a prize for quality, online journalism? Google says it wants good journalism to continue (and I believe that). Google has a serious stake in ensuring the health of the online world. An online-only version of the Pulitzers might be the kick in the pants some papers need to get further moving along on new business models. And for some independent journalists already using blogs to publish, winning a prize like that would be reaffirming that it’s not all sewer out there.