Pulitzer Prize Makes Nice With The Web As Print Media Stumbles

The Pulitzer Prize Board, the governing body behind American journalism’s highest honor, has announced that online-only newspapers will now be eligible for the Prize. The announcement comes as many traditional media outlets are struggling – the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy today and The New York Times is borrowing against its Manhattan headquarters – and affirms the increasingly important role that online news outlets are playing in today’s news cycle.

The new requirements stipulate that entries come from:

“a text-based United States newspaper or news organization that publishes—in print or online—at least weekly during the calendar year; that is primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories; and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles. Printed magazines and broadcast media, and their respective Web sites, are not eligible.”

But what exactly is an “Online-Only Publication Primarily Devoted to Original News Reporting”? The release and relevant FAQ section shed little light on the matter, offering the following:

Q: Can you give examples of online-only newspapers that would qualify?
A. A growing number of sites, such as MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, St. Louis Beacon and Washington Independent, do original reporting. But it is premature to discuss eligibility before an entry has actually been submitted.

These broad guidelines give the Pulitzer’s governing Board some flexibility for judging entries as it tests the muddy waters of online content. But it leaves the doors open to seemingly absurd possibilities. Among the first to come to mind: what if someone won a prize for a Tweet?

Given the growing importance of Twitter during breaking news events, it is becoming increasingly possible that we will one day have a “Tweet heard round the world” – a 140 character message that breaks a news story of global significance. One that will be repeated ad nauseam across cable news networks and major newspapers – perhaps emerging as a candidate for the Pulitzer under the new rules. Far fetched? Sure. But not impossible. How about a series of Tweets?

One potential obstacle that will face online publishers is the requirement that a submission “depict its original publication on the Web, not its subsequent update or alteration” (submissions must also be sent along with any corrections, updates, and dissenting letters, but these don’t appear as part of the main body of text). One of the benefits of online journalism is that it allows for instant updates – editors will often post the most important facts of a breaking story as they gradually flesh out the details. If the Pulitzer Board views these updates as appendices to a post rather than part of its main content, the value of these timely updates will be lost.

The deadline for submissions is February 1, 2009, but all submissions must have been published by December 31, 2008. We’ll find out the winners this spring.