What the Loebs can learn from the Pulitzers

April 18, 2012
Loeb award jury, twice.

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I’m not a huge fan of journalism awards. The Pulitzers, in particular, are a peculiar fish: they tend to award long and worthy work which almost nobody had the time to wade through when it first came out. That’s a type of journalism, to be sure — but is it the very best journalism that the profession produces? And while this year’s journalism winners were very good, the editorial cartoons which got Politico its first Pulitzer were so bad as to make one wonder whether the quality of the jury’s awards was more a matter of luck than judgment.

I’ve never sat on a Pulitzer jury, but I have sat on a Loeb award jury, twice. The Loebs are the Pulitzers of the business press, and perform a necessary function in a world where the Pulitzer jury saw fit to award precisely zero business or finance stories in 2008, 2009, or 2010. Eventually, Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein won for their Magnetar story in 2011 — it was perfectly good, but it was hardly the greatest piece of business journalism that the crisis produced.

The Magnetar story, which was published online rather than in print, didn’t win a Loeb, and similarly it’s very hard to imagine the Huffington Post winning a Loeb award. This is the first area where the Loebs should learn from the Pulitzers: they should stop being obsessed with the medium in which a story appears. The Loebs have awards for large newspapers and for small newspapers, for news services and for magazines — all of them judged according to exactly the same criteria. The result is that some weak stories win Loeb awards because they’re in categories with no strong competition, and others get two or more bites at the cherry, being nominated in multiple categories to maximize their chances.

The Pulitzers, by contrast, just talk about things like feature writing and international reporting and commentary. Medium is unimportant, which probably goes to explain why outlets like ProPublica and HuffPo and Politico are finding it significantly easier to win Pulitzers than to win Loebs. Meanwhile, the Loebs respond to new media by creating a “blogs” award and then turning around and giving it to the NYT.

While the Loebs are learning from what the Pulitzers are doing right, they should learn from the Pulitzers’ mistakes, too. This year, the big controversy at the Pulitzers is over the fiction award, or rather the lack thereof. Three jurors read 300 books each over the course of six months before finally whittling the finalists down to three books — a huge effort and achievement. And all of them thought that the finalists were more than worthy of a Pulitzer. Yet for reasons which remain extremely murky, the final jury, after reading all three books, declined to give any of them the award.

There are two possible things going on here. The first is that the final jurors thought less of the finalists than the fiction jurors did, and decided that none of them was worthy of a Pulitzer. The second is that there was a deadlocked jury with each of the three books having its own partisans, and none of the three books being able to win over the absolute majority of the votes needed. Or it could be some combination of the two.

Either way, it’s abundantly clear that the fiction jurors are now looking at the final jurors with disgust, and wondering why they put so much effort into reading so many books, if the outcome was going to be so incredibly disappointing for all concerned.

Now as a Loeb juror myself, I have to start treading carefully here: everything that happens in those meeting rooms is confidential. But I can say that after my last appearance on a Loeb jury, my feelings weren’t all that far away from those of the fiction jurors for the Pulitzers.

The problem, in both cases, is the same: a panel of senior jurors picks winners without really understanding how and why the shortlist was chosen. And, at least at the Loebs, the final jury not only has the ability to award no prize at all; they even have the ability to award the prize to a piece which the junior jury deliberately left off the list of finalists.

The final jury is filled with important worthies: there’s no point in them just being a rubber stamp. But at the same time, the lower juries tend to be much more familiar with the pieces in question, and tend to have put a huge amount of thought into determining who should be on the list and who shouldn’t be.

To take a not-entirely-hypothetical example: what if someone won a Loeb award for a piece which rehashed a much more original work in the same publication, dated a couple of months earlier? That would be bad. But this would be worse: if the rehashed piece was deliberately excluded from the list of finalists for obvious reasons, and then reinstated by the final judges, just because they had no idea why it wasn’t included.

The problem, in general, is a lack of communication between the first-round and second-round judges. The final-round judges should be much closer to the initial-round judges, going back and forth, asking them why this made it through and that didn’t. The final decision can remain where it is, but it should be much more informed by the people who picked the finalists than it is right now. Because if the second-round judges don’t talk to the first-round judges, the first-round judges are likely to feel rather disgruntled. Especially if the winner was never on the original list of finalists, or if there’s no winner at all.


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