Bloggers and the Pulitzers

April 5, 2004
By

Dan Gillmor on the Pulitzer Prizes:

It’s nearly inconceivable that a blogger or even a group of bloggers, lacking the resources of a major news organization (including First Amendment lawyers), would have produced any of these projects.

It’s inconceiveable only because it hasn’t happened — yet.

Unlike Dan, I think it’s entirely possible that bloggers could produce Pulitzer-quality work.

For the sake of argument, let’s say a dozen people do most of the work on a project that earns a Pulitzer. Couldn’t 12 bloggers who had a fanatical devotion to a topic collaborate to report, edit and write a package of stories good enough to win a Pulitzer?

What would stand in their way? Lack of reporting skills? They could pick those up along the way, and pick the brains of working journalists in areas where they’re stuck.

Geographical distance? If their homes were scattered across the country, most locales would be within a day’s drive.

Lack of money? Heck, if they can afford PCs and high-speed Internet, let’s assume they’ve got disposable income.

Lack of legal expertise? Most likely they could get an attorney to do some pro bono work for them.

I wonder if the open-source software model could be adapted to create a kind of collaborative public journalism reported via weblogs. Seems entirely possible.

Dan’s correct that large institutions have a huge leg up in resources they can throw at a story, but time, money and warm bodies do not win Pulitzers. Talent, ambition and determination do win Pulitzers, and those things are just as plentiful outside our newspapers.

Journalists on the payroll of large news organs have another huge advantage over everybody else: access to the powerful. No CEO or police chief is going to take your calls if you say, “I’m Joe Blow and I’m reporting for my blog.”

But blogging is a ground-up medium — all sorts of regular folks who’d never speak to a reporter might well talk to a blogger.

I’d love to see some bloggers take Dan’s doubts as a challenge — I’m sure he’d love to be proved wrong.

8 Responses to Bloggers and the Pulitzers

  1. Dave Winer on April 6, 2004 at 2:54 am

    >>No CEO or police chief is going to take your calls if you say, “I’m Joe Blow and I’m reporting for my blog.”
    I don’t necessarily agree with that, stranger things have happened, I imagine they said that about television news when it was starting up, but never mind that — what if the police chief or CEO have their own blog so they can talk to us without having to go through the reporters (who may have conflicts of interest, or may be just too dumb to understand the story). Or perhaps more likely, if an underling blows the whistle on a CEO or police chief through a blog. The change in economics of publishing will change a lot of things in the rest of our society.
    I wrote about this yesterday.
    http://archive.scripting.com/2004/04/05#When:10:10:21PM
    Dave

  2. Dave Winer on April 6, 2004 at 2:57 am

    Also, why assume they don’t already have reporting skills? Are they that hard to attain? How many unemployed reporters are there? How many former reporters in other trades (where they might see something newsworthy).

  3. Derek on April 6, 2004 at 7:32 am

    Sure, there is no absolute reason why a group of bloggers couldn’t produce work of a very high quality, but it’s difficult to do. First, quality journalism costs money, something that I think Dave overlooks constantly (his arguments invariably rest on assertions that reporters either can’t do their jobs fairly or are “too dumb”). Both are problems that do exist in journalism, as in every other job, but neither is the greatest barrier to producing the kind of work Dan Gillmor cites.
    The distinction Tom cites about a police chief returning calls is real; there are people who won’t talk to certain individuals or organizations, and relying primarily on internal whistleblowers is a risk no free society can afford to take. We need to have people digging into the workings of government, industry and society.
    The organization I work for is neither a newspaper nor a magazine; it’s a non-profit doing investigative reporting. Our fundraisers are constantly seeking grants and donations to support our work, which is costly. To produce the kind of work cited this week requires a financial commitment that goes beyond equipment but extends to time (often deemed unproductive by editors), travel and even legal assistance. We exist primarily because other news organizations don’t have the resources or will to devote to in-depth reporting, and it’s hard to imagine a group of individuals with a limited funding base repeating the work of the Toledo Blade or Anthony Shahid of the Washington Post.

  4. Seth Finkelstein on April 6, 2004 at 7:32 am

    Time. Time is the big problem. Most people have lives :-)
    I think Dan G’s comment is being misread as a intrinsic comment, as if journalism were like law or medicine, where it’s more of an extrinsic comment, that it’s like gardening.
    Most journalists are very lazy anyway (anyone who reads this excepted, of course!), and don’t go beyond the official story, so lack of “access” is very rarely the bottleneck.
    By the way, _pro bono_ legal help is NOT easy to obtain, beyond the first-aid libel-avoidance type, so don’t blithely volunteer it.
    I was part of an open model. Long story, but ironically, one guy decided to use the group’s work to get a “professional” *journalism* *job*, then used that position to trash the rest of the group :-(. Very ironic. But things like that are an extremely real risk – you never know when someone’s going to try to steal the group work product.

  5. Dave Winer on April 6, 2004 at 7:44 am

    Derek, I wonder what you’re saying. Does it cost a lot to send a reporter somewhere? I guess so. But what if the reporter is already there, then it costs nothing.
    Rather put words in my mouth, why not get concrete. Show me a report that cost a lot of money and let’s see how much of it made a difference in the quality of the end product. If you’re willing to do that, I’m certainly willing to listen and learn.
    BTW, I usually don’t say reporters are dumb. But they often infer that when I say bloggers can be smart. It’s not a logical inference.

  6. tom on April 6, 2004 at 8:27 am

    My original response to Dan’s comment was essentially that just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
    However: everything about the blogosphere has been an essentially organic reaction to the world around us. Nobody guided it or created it… it just grew up in response to a new catalyst — software than enabled newbies to become bloggers — in the environment.
    If hardcore investigative reporting were an organic reaction to the introduction of blogging software, we’d have seen a lot more of it by now.
    Maybe there’s another technical fix on the horizon that could remove some of the barriers to regular folks becoming investigative reporters.
    And let’s not forget: the pulitzers are not all throw-the-rascals-out muckracking. There are categories like editorial writing and photography that are readily viable categories for bloggers.

  7. Derek on April 6, 2004 at 8:27 am

    What I’m saying, Dave, is that there are many costs of doing high-quality journalism. Travel is indeed one, but it’s certainly not the only one, and having people in place is an advantage of a blogging network, I suppose.
    Here’s a project that cost a lot of money: Windfalls of War by my employer, the Center for Public Integrity (I did not work on this project, by the way). It recently won a Polk Award and can be seen at http://www.publicintegrity.org/wow/. The methodology alone is an indication of the amount of work involved, which included a lawsuit filed against the Army Corps of Engineers, dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests and follow-ups and the compilation and analysis of two large datasets (federal contracts and campaign contributions). The manpower is the largest expense in nearly every one of our projects, and I’m sure you know how costly lawyers can be (although we sometimes benefit from pro bono work). What was the difference to the quality of the report? No one else, not any other source, has been able to assemble the information on contracting that the Center did, simply because we were able to put the effort and money into doing so.
    Or look at the Pulitzer-winning pieces on McWane Inc. and workplace safety done by the New York Times, Frontline and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during a nine-month investigation (http://www.nytimes.com/ref/national/WORK_INDEX.html). It involved trips to far-flung places by the main writers – an important fact, since it helps to have the same people involved in every aspect of the story – and the analysis of federal databases, state regulations and industry practices. What difference did it make? Despite the fact that McWane has operations in a number of places, no single entity had put together the complete story of a company that is “one of the most dangerous employers in America,” according to the report. That’s the difference between a daily reporter writing about a single workplace accident at the local plant and an organization or organizations spending months trying to find out what’s really going on.
    My point is that quality journalism requires an infrastructure that goes beyond simply hiring a reporter or stationing him or her someplace. If this were not the case, then many newspapers would not be as bad as they are. Some publishers choose not to invest in staffing, training or costly investigative projects. It’s not just a matter of skills; many of the bloggers I read would probably make excellent journalists. It’s also about the support and infrastructure that make high-quality journalism possible.

  8. douglas on April 18, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    I’ve just returned from Cambodia, and I was doing reporting for my blog. I have not put up all the stories yet, but one of them involves me getting toughed up by some gangsters.
    Freedom of the press exists de facto anywhere there is a story that needs public awareness or support.
    I think this in itself is a justifying reason for saying you can report for your blog or someone else’s.
    And, my two cents. We are not far away from a blogger getting a pulitzer. It only takes work, research, dedication, honesty and good writing. And who’s going to go for it?