Should Tweets Be Eligible For Pulitzers?

Should Tweets Be Eligible For Pulitzers? image caprese e1335208771733I’m a sucker for a good meal. Living in Washington, D.C., such an affliction can be a recipe for financial ruin. Nary a day goes by without another restaurant from yet another up-and-coming, as-seen-on-TV celebrity chef.

My girlfriend, bless her heart, keeps a running tab of all the places she can’t wait for me to spend my paycheck. This from the girl who, two weeks after the most extravagant meal of her life, couldn’t tell you whether she ordered tournedos of filet over a bed of wild mushrooms or Chilean sea bass with celery risotto.

But she could tell you what type of cocktails we had. And whether the server was on his game. Oh, and the crème brûlée? Like she could forget that.

It’s more than a meal she tells me one night over a bed of seared diver scallops and a Bourbon Rickey (yes, I said bourbon). Dinner is “an experience.”

Translation: The main course is important, but it’s hardly the only ingredient that matters. For a dinner to be truly magnificent, it’s got to hit on every note, from the first sip to that final bite.

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It’s possible I was just hungry, but that was the thought that occurred to me when I read that the editors of The Tuscaloosa News cited reporters’ use of Twitter as one of the reasons the Alabama daily won a breaking news Pulitzer for its coverage of a spate of deadly tornadoes that touched down there last year.

Initially, the news gave me a bit of indigestion. From a journalist’s or an editor’s perspective, the Pulitzers have always been the gold standard of content. As magazines and newspapers shutter international bureaus and nickel and dime investigative units, cutting copy and nixing columns in pursuit of the almighty dollar, the annual recognition is one of the last remaining places on Earth where content wins for being what it should be: eloquent, emotional, effective, good. Often damn good. I’ve never been a big supporter of awards programs. I’ve expressed my disdain for our obsession with them on this blog. But, for an industry whose sweater seems to forever be unraveling, the Pulitzers are more than just a shameless plug.

I’d heard rumors that the selection committee was considering adding a category for social media, perhaps even a subcategory for tweeting. It’s not something I’m ready to embrace—and I use Twitter. A lot. I’m probably writing a tweet about this column as you’re reading this. It’s just that the Pulitzers, in my mind, are supposed to better than that—to hold high the most exceptional works of a dying art (the long-form feature, the investigative report, even the celebrity profile—do we even have Style sections anymore). Creating a Pulitzer category for social media would be a little like offering a blanket to the guy who tried to burn down your house, wouldn’t it?

That’s obviously not how the prize committee sees it. And, after reading more about how the story unfolded in Tuscaloosa, I began to realize it’s not how the reporters there saw it either.

To them, Twitter became simply another tool to report one of the year’s most compelling stories. With mainline power out across much of the affected area, Tuscaloosa City Editor Katherine Lee told Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman that mobile devices were among the only tools her reporters had at their disposal.

“Calls couldn’t get through,” Lee said to Sonderman, “but texts and tweets could.”

It was Twitter that carried some of the initial reports of the tornadoes’ destruction. In its article about Tuscaloosa’s big win, Poynter featured a tweet from education reporter Jamon Smith. “I’m watching fireman trying to dig a girl out of the rubble of my apartments right now,” Smith posted.

Twitter wasn’t the sole reason the committee awarded Tuscaloosa a Pulitzer for its efforts—editors and reporters filed a week’s worth of news and feature stories about the destruction and published more than 300 photographs, according to Poynter—but judges weren’t shy about how heavily the paper’s use of social media played into their decision.

The selection committee “made it clear to all of us who were judges this year for Breaking News that we needed to look very hard at real-time reporting,” Pulitzer jury member Kathy Best told Sonderman. “Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all of the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on.”

I’m not sure I’ll ever embrace the idea of a standalone category for social media where the Pulitzers are concerned. But Tuscaloosa’s win harbors a valuable lesson about how social media, when used effectively, can enrich and enliven the editorial experience. It might not ever be as good as the main course, but as an appetizer or dessert, it’s certainly good enough to eat.

Bon appe-tweet.

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