News & Politics

Why Was the "Post" Passed Over in This Year's Pulitzers?

The paper was not even a finalist in any of the reporting awards, which could herald problems at its core.

Photograph courtesy of Flickr user biblicone.

The Pulitzer Board at Columbia University announced the 2012 awards, and for the first time since 1995 the Post was not only not among the winners of journalism’s most coveted prize, but it wasn’t even a finalist in any of the reporting awards. (In 2007, 2006, 2001, and 1998 it didn’t win awards but was a finalist in the reporting awards.)

And news broke that one of the Post‘s young bloggers had resigned, after the paper had to issue a second explanation of reporting errors on her postings. Post editors cited a “significant ethical lapse” in a post by Elizabeth Flock that borrowed information and failed to note the source.

The two events might seem random and disparate: the Post comes up empty for a Pulitzer; a young staffer takes her leave, to report rather than to aggregate, in her words.

But within the Post newsroom, reporters and editors see links that might expose problems at the paper’s core, especially if they are seen against the backdrop of the New York Times, the paper the Post once measured itself against, and the Huffington Post, the web-based publication the Post now emulates.

The two events cast a spotlight on the Post‘s core mission, which used to be reporting.

All newspapers have suffered in the digital age, now that news and information flow freely and for free on the Internet. Traditional news operations have lost advertising revenue, readers, and profits. They have responded in various ways; many have been forced to close down. All have been forced to control costs. The Post has chosen to maintain profits by drastically cutting newsroom costs, principally by reducing its reporting staff. The paper is in the midst of a fifth round of buyouts in the past decade.

In the process, the Post has lost many of the best journalist in the business, either by buying them out or by making them feel as if their work is no longer valued. Many left for the New York Times. I count at least ten star reporters who switched to what Posties call “Brand X.”

The Post has replaced some political reporters with experienced, veteran journalists, among them Karen Tumulty and Peter Wallsten. But it has chosen to hire scores of young reporters with little experience to staff its burgeoning array of blogs.

Elizabeth Flock was writing for the Post‘s BlogPost, “which follows conversations taking place on the web,” according to the Post‘s website. In practice, Flock could write on everything from politics to foreign policy to robotics. She came to the Post in September 2010 as a web producer and became a breaking news blogger in December, at age 24. She had interned at newspapers after college and had been a feature writer for Forbes magazine in Mumbai. She came to the Post in hopes of becoming a reporter, but she found herself aggregating news on a journalistic assembly line. She swept the Internet for news, reassembled it, added links, and filed. Her support system? One copy editor who checked for grammar and style.

“Too much pressure, not enough net,” is how one Post writer put it.

In one online article, Flock quoted Mitt Romney uttering phrases used by the Ku Klux Klan. He didn’t. Last week Post editors issued a note that Flock “made inappropriate, extensive use of an original report by Discovery News” in a blog post and failed to credit it. Her error was a failure to create a link for Discovery News. Is that plagiarism, or an oversight caused by speed and pressure?

Flock resigned and told Poynter News she was neither pressured to leave nor told she would be fired. She’s looking for a reporting job.

The view from her former colleagues came to this: too young and inexperienced under too much pressure. The clear implication was that fault lies with the Post as an institution rather than with a young woman shoved into a precarious position, with little reporting experience.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of excellent reporters at the Post. But reporting has been devalued under the new regime, led by executive editor Marcus Brauchli, who’s been setting the tone since 2008. Success is measured by page views rather than news value. Web traffic flashes in front of editors. The message to many reporters, especially the younger ones, is that speed is valued over quality, according to many in the newsroom.

In response to the announcement of the most recent buyout in February (the deadline of which was, coincidentally, also yesterday, adding to the newsroom’s gloom),Post guild representative Frederick Kunkle offered his take: “You cannot continue to cut your way to profitability alone, or offer readers less–and not just in quantity of the report, but its quality and sophistication in all sections–and expect the public to pay more. Yet we seem to be heading toward a model like Huffpo or Patch that relies on interns, freelancers, free content from citizen bloggers, and aggregation at the expense of original journalism created by experienced journalists. And that’s a sad path for a place that has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence.”

And many Pulitzer Prizes: six in 2008, Leonard Downie Jr.’s last year as editor.

This year the New York Times won two Pulitzers. Ironically, this was also the year the Huffington Post, which made its name by aggregating news, won its first Pulitzer–for national reporting.