The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for revealing that politicians in a small, working-class California city were paying themselves exorbitant salaries. But for the first time in the Pulitzers’ 95-year history, no award was given in the category of breaking news — t
he bread and butter of daily journalism.
In a year when the big stories included the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the Gulf oil spill, the Pulitzer Board didn’t like the entries in the breaking news category enough to honor any of them with the most prestigious award in journalism.
The Los Angeles Times won for its series revealing that politicians in Bell, Calif., were drawing salaries well into six figures. The newspaper’s reporting that officials in the struggling city of 37,000 people were raising property taxes and other fees in part to cover the huge salaries led to arrests and the ouster of some of Bell’s top officials.
The Times won a second Pulitzer for feature photography, and The New York Times was awarded two Pulitzers for international reporting and for commentary.
“The real victors in this are the people of Bell, who were able to get rid of, there’s no other way to say it, an oppressive regime,” said reporter Jeff Gottlieb, clutching a bottle of champagne before about 100 people in the newsroom.
Ruben Vives, another staff writer on the story, said: “At a time when people are saying newspapers are dying, I think this is the day when we can say, no, not really. We gave a small town, we gave them an opportunity to speak out. That’s what newspapers do.”
One out of six people live in poverty in Bell, while its homeowners paid property taxes higher than those in Beverly Hills. The series showed that the city manager was drawing a salary and benefits package of $1.5 million a year and that four of Bell’s part-time City Council members were pulling down annual salaries of $100,000.
The former city manager and seven other ex-officials are awaiting trial on fraud charges. And the entire City Council was thrown out of office in a recall election last month.
The Los Angeles Times has been hobbled by the troubles of its owner, Tribune Co., which has been operating under federal bankruptcy protection for the past two years. Tribune Co. has been trying to shed most of the debt that it took on in an $8.2 billion buyout of the company engineered by real estate mogul Sam Zell. The Times has also gone through wrenching staff cutbacks before and after the bankruptcy filing, and other turmoil in the newsroom.
The board named three finalists for the breaking-news award: The Chicago Tribune for coverage of the deaths of two Chicago firefighters; The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald for reporting on the Haiti earthquake; and The Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn., for coverage of a devastating flood.
“No entry received the necessary majority,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes. He wouldn’t elaborate except to say that the breaking-news award is given for covering local stories — stories in your own backyard, not somewhere else in the world — and it recognizes “speed and accuracy of initial coverage.”
Gissler said there were only 37 entries in the breaking news contest and called it an indication of the category’s strict criteria. He said judges have failed to agree on an award 25 other times, but never in breaking news.
Roy Harris Jr., author of a book about the Pulitzers, said several reasons could be behind the failure to agree, including an ultra-competitive news environment where newspapers compete with broadcasters, online sites, blogs and social media to get news out first.
“It’s always shocking when it happens,” Harris said. “The first thing a reporter says is, `Can there really not have been one great piece of breaking news?'”
The Pulitzer Board gave awards in 13 out of 14 categories for journalism and in seven categories for the arts.
Chicago native Jennifer Egan’s novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” won the prize for fiction, honored for its “big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed.”
Bruce Norris won the drama prize for “Clybourne Park,” which imagines what might have happened to the family that moved out of the house in the fictitious Chicago neighborhood where Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger clan is headed by the end of her 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun.”
The Pulitzer for history as awarded to “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” by Eric Foner, while the biography prize went to “Washington: A Life,” by Ron Chernow, “a sweeping, authoritative portrait” of George Washington. Kay Ryan’s “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems” won the poetry prize.
In other journalism awards, the nonprofit ProPublica won its first outright Pulitzer for national reporting. Reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein were cited for exposing questionable Wall Street practices that contributed to the economic meltdown. The judges cited their use of digital media to help explain the complex subject.
(Last year, ProPublica won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine.)
Eisinger said he and Bernstein spent about a year and a half on the series.
“This is what we’re here for, to write deep stories that are complex, that other people don’t want to take on,” he said. “We get the time to do it, we’re not afraid of stories and we want to do stuff with real impact. … This is the kind of thing that the mainstream media’s doing less and less of. We’re deeply grateful that it’s being recognized.”
ProPublica is a 3-year-old organization bankrolled by charitable foundations and staffed by distinguished veteran journalists. It pursues the kind of big investigative projects that many newspapers can no longer afford, and it offers many of its stories to traditional news organizations.
Graphics and videos also accompanied The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s winning entry in explanatory reporting, an account of the use of genetic technology to save a 4-year-old boy from a mysterious disease.
The competition’s rules were changed this year to allow digital media to be considered along with text entries. Media were allowed to enter “any available journalistic tool,” including videos, databases and multimedia presentations. In the past, most entries were print-only.
Many entries made use of online tools, Gissler said. Tennessean Editor Mark Silverman said the newspaper used Twitter and Facebook accounts to solicit reader reports for its flood coverage, then created an online map based on Google Maps to let readers track the flood’s progress.
“We really provided some leadership and lot of that was in digital space,” Silverman said.
Paige St. John of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune won for investigative reporting for her examination of the property insurance system for Florida homeowners, which led to regulatory action.
Frank Main, Mark Konkol and John J. Kim of the Chicago Sun-Times received the award in the local reporting category for their documentation of crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods.
Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., won for feature writing for her story of the sinking of a commercial fishing boat that drowned six men in the Atlantic Ocean.
The prize for international reporting went to Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry of The New York Times for their coverage of the Russian justice system.
The newspaper’s David Leonhardt won in commentary for his columns on the economy. Leonhardt said he loves calling economists and other sources and “asking what do you mean, again and again” until he can grasp a complex issue and make it clear to readers.
“I feel like we have a very well-informed, very intelligent audience, but many of our readers feel flummoxed by the economy,” Leonhardt said. “It’s mainly because too many of the descriptions are filled with jargon.”
Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe received the award for criticism for his writing about art. Joseph Rago of The Wall Street Journal was honored in the editorial writing category for his editorials challenging health care reform bills.
The Washington Post won in breaking news photography for its portraits from the Haiti earthquake. Carol Guzy, who was honored along with Post colleagues Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti, became the first journalist to win four Pulitzers.
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said the photographers were “determined to make the world understand Haiti’s tragedy,” and their “dedication, courage and resourcefulness never wavered.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Davidson received the award for feature news photography for her portraits of Los Angeles gang violence.
Mike Keefe of The Denver Post won for editorial cartooning.
Pulitzer Prize winners
Fiction: “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (Alfred A. Knopf)
Drama: “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris
History: “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” by Eric Foner (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Biography: “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow (The Penguin Press)
Poetry: “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems” by Kay Ryan (Grove Press)
General nonfiction: “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner)
Music: “Madame White Snake” by Zhou Long, premiered Feb. 26, 2010, by the Boston Opera at the Cutler Majestic Theatre
Public service: Los Angeles Times
Breaking news reporting: No award
Investigative reporting: Paige St. John, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Explanatory reporting: Mark Johnson, Kathleen Gallagher, Gary Porter, Lou Saldivar and Alison Sherwood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Local reporting: Frank Main, Mark Konkol and John J. Kim, Chicago Sun-Times
National reporting: Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein of ProPublica
International reporting: Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry, The New York Times
Feature writing: Amy Ellis Nutt, The Star-Ledger,
Commentary: David Leonhardt of The New York Times
Criticism: Sebastian Smee, The Boston Globe
Editorial writing: Joseph Rago of The Wall Street Journal
Editorial cartooning: Mike Keefe, The Denver Post
Breaking news photography: Carol Guzy, Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti, The Washington Post
Feature photography: Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles Times