Eyes on the Prize

The shootings at Columbine High School last year caused untold repercussions, almost all of them bad: lost lives, broken hearts, families ripped apart. But for the folks at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, there may be a silver lining -- a Pulitzer Prize.

Few staffers at either paper want to talk on the record about this possibility, apparently out of fear that they might seem to be exploiting the slayings for personal gain: For instance, Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple, in a display of timorousness that seems especially calculated considering the staggering number of Columbine articles his paper has printed over the past nine-plus months, did not respond to numerous interview requests on the subject. But while News sources insist that the prospect of Pulitzers has seldom been mentioned in relation to Columbine coverage, reporters there aren't immune to discussing it. As Julie Scelfo wrote in her piece about the News's Columbine reporting, "In Their Backyard," which ran in the July/August issue of Brill's Content, "One of journalism's abiding ironies is that the worst tragedy is also a huge opportunity, and a couple of News staffers say they'd be lying if they denied that, after the initial flurry, thoughts of a Pulitzer Prize didn't cross their minds."

As well it might. First dished out in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize (named for Joseph Pulitzer, the hard-as-nails publisher of the defunct New York World, whose 1904 will included a provision that led to the contest) has long been seen as journalism's most prestigious bauble, and earning one has made many a reporter's career. It won't be long before the next batch of victors learns this for themselves: The deadline for submitting stories and photos for 2000 Pulitzer consideration was February 1, with the announcement of winners expected in April. According to Seymour Topping, who was named Administrator of the Pulitzers in 1993 after 34 years at the New York Times, approximately 1,400 entries were received this year. These will be studied by nominating jurors appointed by the Pulitzer board, a sixteen-member panel that includes heavy hitters such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Safire and Topping; the jurors will then submit their top three choices in categories ranging from "Public Service" to "Feature Photography," and the board makes the final selections.

Topping refuses, in the gruffest imaginable way, to discuss whether the far-reaching effects of Columbine make it any more likely that the Post or News will walk away with a prize. He does concede, however, that while "the principal factors that are involved in making a story deserving of the award are its quality of enterprise, quality of writing, its speed and so on," the size and scope of Columbine "are bound to be looked at by members of the jury."

Recent Pulitzer history bears out this observation even as it implies that the bigger the disaster, the better for the publication covering it.

The News was widely praised for its articles about the 1994 blaze on Storm King mountain, in which fourteen firefighters died, but while it was a Pulitzer finalist in what was then called "Spot News Reporting," it finished behind the Los Angeles Times's reportage following the 1994 Northridge earthquake -- an even more devastating occurrence that took more than fifty lives.

Likewise, the Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the confrontation between cops and philanthropist John DuPont after a murder on his estate was bested for the 1997 "Spot News Reporting" prize by Newsday's writing about the crash of TWA Flight 800, in which the body count was far higher.

Maximum cynicism insinuates that numbers may have counted last year as well: The Hartford Courant stories about a state lottery worker who killed four people and then himself (total corpses: five) bested the Jonesboro (Arkansas) Sun's coverage of a school shooting there in which four students perished.

Still, carnage is not a guarantee. No Oklahoma City publication won a 1996 Pulitzer for reporting on the bombing there. The only Oklahoma City-related Pulitzer was earned in "Spot News Photography" by Charles Porter IV, a freelance shutterbug whose shot of a fireman holding a baby was distributed by the Associated Press.

Although Porter's photo became the single image most associated with the bombing, Topping insists that its publication in untold hundreds of newspapers around the globe "wouldn't necessarily have come into play" when the board decided to recognize it. But its omnipresence certainly couldn't have hurt -- which is why many insiders regard News photographer George Kochaniec Jr. to be the Coloradan most likely to bring home a Pulitzer this year. His moving, vivid photo of grieving Columbine student Jessica Holliday traveled far and wide -- a point underlined in the News on June 27, 1999. "The Girl in the Picture," a profile of Holliday by staffer Lisa Levitt Ryckman that served as the centerpiece of that edition, was surrounded by reproductions of newspaper covers from New York, Chicago, L.A., Australia, South China and elsewhere that featured Kochaniec's effort; also included was a sidebar in which Kochaniec talked about snapping the shot. The result was a virtual commercial aimed straight at Pulitzer jurors.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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