Rattled Journal Staff Renew Pursuit of Pulitzers

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last week, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal tried to take his battle with the New York Times into the streets — and sometimes the gutters — with the launch of the Journal’s "Greater New York" section. "Let the battles begin," Murdoch wrote to Sulzberger in a note, and begin they have, but there is one place that the Times continues to win in a rout, and that is the Pulitzer prizes. Last month, fears that the Journal is being marginalized were exacerbated after the paper failed for the third consecutive year to win a Pulitzer Prize. Shockingly, the paper didn’t even earn a single nomination. "That’s never happened before," Deb Hoffman, the Journal’s awards coordinator for the past twenty years, told me. "We've never gone more than one year without winning while I've been here." [Update: The Journal did experience similar droughts in the 1980s.] The Times did not hesitate to rub their faces in it. "We are focused on the high-quality journalism that we produce every day and that’s why we won three Pulitzers on Monday,” wrote Times spokesperson Robert Christie in a press release responding to some sniping from Journal editor Robert Thomson. "The readers and employees of the Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief."

As much as the Murdochian high command claims not to value awards, some in the ranks question their strategy of open disdain for the journalism establishment. No staffers would speak on the record to discuss internal conversations, but off the record, they describe tension over the paper's shift to breaking news and away from groundbreaking long-form articles. "Last year, I don't know if we necessarily even deserved a Pulitzer," one senior reporter told me. Added another senior editor: "To be honest with you, the bigger issue is that the Journal's factory for megastories has been broken. That's the fundamental thing. This isn't Thomson's intent, but it's a result of their desire to make the paper into more of a general-interest newspaper. The ambitious journalism at the Journal is somewhat in disarray." In a year when the financial crisis was a major story, Journal editors believed the paper’s strongest chances for a Pulitzer win were not for their business coverage but in the international category, for Iran correspondent Farnaz Fassihi’s coverage of the Tehran uprising last year. Fassihi's entry didn't make it into the finalists. (On April 21, Fassihi won an Overseas Press Club award for her reporting.)

In particular, standards editor Alix Freedman, a Pulitzer winner herself, is said to be upset at Thomson’s rhetoric and has expressed this in private conversations at the paper. Freedman, along with some other senior editors, is said to worry that the anti-Pulitzer dogma could drive ambitious reporters to leave the Journal. Freedman declined to comment. [Update: Freedman “categorically denies” this characterization of her views.] Other Journal staffers believe they are victims of the Pulitzer board's anti-Murdoch bias. "There’s a feeling there was a conservative effort to snub them," one insider told me. "It's about the highly publicized war with the New York Times. When you walk into seventh floor of Columbia Journalism School, there's a big portrait of Sulzberger on the wall. It's fueling the Journal's larger paranoia."

Under this theory, staffers point to the prize awarded to ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism outfit run by former Journal editor Paul Steiger, as proof the Pulitzer board wanted to stick it to Murdoch’s Journal. "ProPublica's win reminded me of Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. It was like [the Pulitzer board] wanted to send a message to the world that online journalism has come of age," one senior reporter said. Amanda Bennett, an executive editor for Bloomberg News who now co-chairs the Pulitzer board, declined to comment on the board's selection process. One person close to the Pulitzer board disputed the anti-Murdoch assertion. "These people don't have a bug up their ass about Rupert Murdoch. Truth is, when it gets to the board, it's a coin flip."

Whatever the high command believes, rank-and-file editors see it as a morale issue, and are signaling to staff that they do intend to publish high-profile articles. On a conference call with domestic bureau chiefs a couple of weeks before the Pulitzers were announced, Matt Murray, the Journal’s deputy managing editor for U.S news, and "Page One" editor Mike Williams told the chiefs that big stories are still valued at the paper. "It was a call to arms," one participant on the call said.

Thomson declined to comment on the Pulitzers when I reached him last week. In an earlier interview this winter, he made it clear that ultimately he cares what readers, not award committees, think of the new Journal. "The feedback we get is they find the paper much more engaging on every level," he told me. "It is literally people in the rubber room at Columbia University who think it isn't so."