Times change

For the first time in 15 years, the New York Times fails to win a Pulitzer Prize.

By Sean Elder
Published April 12, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

On Monday, just as the 84th Pulitzer Prize winners were being announced, Joseph Lelyveld, the executive editor of the New York Times, called the paper's editorial staff together for an announcement.

Times staffers have become accustomed to office gatherings on the day the prizes are announced. After all, the paper has won 73 Pulitzers over the years and has been a recipient every year for the past 14 years -- a streak matched by no other paper.

But if that makes the Times the New York Yankees of newspapers, with champagne ordered long before the season ends, there was no joy in Muddville on Monday. For the first time since 1985, the Times struck out.

"I was surprised that he called it," said one reporter who attended the meeting. "It seemed like an odd thing to do. He said, 'My first temptation was to go in my office and sulk.' But it was actually a very charming speech."

If there is a sense of entitlement among some of the editors and writers at the Times, it may simply be a byproduct of familiarity. The paper itself takes great pride in its record of journalistic excellence. The 11th floor of the Times building features a "Pulitzer walk" that leads to the publisher's office. Framed there on the wall are photographs of all the paper's recipients throughout its history -- a gallery meant to impress advertisers as much as inspire employees.

"People had become so accustomed to seeing one or two of their number win the award," said one editor. (All the Times employees I spoke with chose to remain anonymous.) "I think people get accustomed to the idea that every year you get another picture put up there -- 'Well, who's it going to be this year?'"

But Lelyveld's speech was not meant as an excoriation of the troops, nor a mea culpa. (Lelyveld was traveling on Tuesday and unavailable for comment.) "He said we should just celebrate today that there's never been a run like this in the Pulitzers," said the reporter, "in the history of the Times or the Pulitzers. And then he ended by saying, as they used to say when there was still Ebbetts Field, 'Wait till next year.'"

The Pulitzer judging process is painstaking, and it is subject to the same trends and changes as those of any other awards. "You can look at this year's awards and see all kinds of interesting trends," said the Times editor I spoke with. "This was clearly the year they wanted to reward people who were doing work against odds, without all the resources all the big papers had, and that's laudable."

Eric Newhouse of the Great Falls Tribune in Montana beat out the Times' finalist, Michael Winerip, in the explanatory reporting category, for instance. (Newhouse's piece was on the effects of alcoholism in a community, while Winerip profiled a mentally ill New Yorker who pushed a woman in front of a subway.) And a little closer to home, the Village Voice won the international reporting prize with its series on AIDS in Africa.

"I'm not going to sit here and say 'poor little rich boys,'" continued the Times editor. "We work hard, we earn it, but it is easier for us. We work in the greatest conditions at the Times you can imagine: supportive publisher, decent amount of money, ambitious paper, great editors. That makes it a lot easier."

Alex S. Jones, co-author (with wife Susan E. Tifft) of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times," marked the Times' absence from the winner's circle with a different sentiment.

"I regret it deeply because when they win they run all the names of the former Pulitzer Prize winners, and I'm one of them and I love to relive that day," he said. (His articles about the Bingham family, of the Louisville Courier-Journal, won a Pulitzer in 1987.) He sees no significance in the end of the Times' enviable streak.

"I don't think it means anything, frankly. I know there have been years when the Washington Post didn't win any and years when the Journal didn't win any and when the L.A. Times didn't." All three of those papers won awards this year. "I think these things sort of wax and wane. I'm prejudiced, I'm sure, but I don't think the Times has ever been better."

Jones, who worked for the paper covering the media from 1983 to 1992, also served as a judge on Pulitzer juries twice. "The jury is supposed to choose three finalists, any of which would be a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize. And the New York Times was a finalist in a number of categories [four, to be exact]. Contrary to what a lot of people think, the New York Times doesn't have the whole thing fixed."

In the end, the Pulitzers may be more analogous to the Academy Awards -- except that, arguably, more bad films have been awarded Oscars than bad stories have been given Pulitzer Prizes.

"Look at a movie like 'The Insider,'" said the Times editor I spoke to. "It got seven Oscar nominations and zero awards. Does that mean it's a bad movie? No. On the other hand, would Michael Mann have liked to win the best director award? Sure."

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

The New York Times