You know you’re a journalism nerd if—when you read that your hometown newspaper has won a Pulitzer—you jump off the couch and start cheering as though your team just won the World Series. That was me after I saw the headline on Google News. My dog jumped off the couch and ran away, and my boyfriend came out of the other room. “What’s going on?” he said, watching me do my celebratory Irish/Jewish jig. “The Inky won a Pulitzer! The public service Pulitzer! Take that, motherfuckers!” He reminded me that I don’t work for the Inquirer, which was helpful, but it really wasn’t the point.
It hasn’t been an easy time for our daily newspaper employees these days. In the past few months alone, Inquirer and Daily News staffers have had to deal with an editorial ethics scandal that went national to humiliating effect; another sale of the company, this time for an embarrassingly low price tag; some kind of Inky/DN content merger that’s still mysterious; and layoffs and buyouts. The cherry on top? Developer Bart Blatstein is planning to put a casino complex in their old building. I mean, come on.
So this is a triumph. It’s especially sweet that it’s the public service medal, which is the award every dyed-in-the-wool reporter wants to win. Very few people get into journalism dispassionately. Most reporters and photographers I know are willing to go to dangerous places and suffer extreme physical discomfort if it means telling a story that won’t otherwise get told. They have such a determination to make the world a better place with their reporting. The public service Pulitzer says, “You did it. You changed things. And we noticed.”
In the case of the Inquirer, the award is for a seven-part series about violence in the public schools. It’s the kind of topic you’d bring up at a party and start to talk about earnestly … and then find yourself alone, a drink in your hand, thinking, “But it’s a really important issue.” The Inquirer took that issue and made readers understand why it matters. More than that, the paper made it engaging. To understand how vast the effort was, here’s how it’s described on the multimedia section of the project:
Five Inquirer reporters devoted a year to examining violence in the Philadelphia public schools, conducting more than 300 interviews with teachers, administrators, students and their families, district officials, police officers, court officials, and school violence experts.
The Inquirer created a database to analyze more than 30,000 serious incidents—from assaults to robberies to rapes—that occurred during the last five years. That information was supplemented by district and state data on suspensions, intervention and 9-1-1 calls. Reporters also examined police reports, court records, transcripts, contracts and school security video.
The Inquirer also enlisted Temple University to conduct an independent survey of the district’s 13,000 teachers and aides. …
The newspaper also obtained internal district documents detailing violent incidents during the past five years. On specific cases, reporters interviewed victims, perpetrators, police, attorneys, witnesses, and attended court hearings.
That’s to say nothing of the project editing, photography, page design, copyediting, multimedia… In total, the team consisted of 17 people, if I’m doing the math right—people who had to have time to devote to this project.
Former Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, who’s coming back, knows what this award means: The series was initiated under his watch. In light of the win, he told Inquirer writer Mike Armstrong, “To me, a public-service Pulitzer also is a sign of sustained excellence over the ages. There are only two other newspapers in America—the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times—that have had three Pulitzer Prizes for public service in the last 35 years. So we’re up there where the air is rare.”
What worries me is that Marimow won’t be able to keep them there. The new ownership group, which is keeping vilified CEO Greg Osberg in place, has fought rumors of more layoffs in the future. “We really don’t know until we get into the nuts and bolts whether there will be any more cuts,” Lewis Katz told Poynter recently. “It’s not our intent to start cutting.”
Let’s hope not. Because as Marimow knows and as the Inquirer has just effectively demonstrated, good news work takes flesh-and-blood journalists—teams of them. There are plenty of Pulitzer-caliber journalists at the Inquirer now. If the new owners are smart, they’ll keep them around.