The Pulitzers: Does Great Journalism Pay?

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Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Detroit Free Press Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Jim Schaefer (L) and M.L. Elrick

The Detroit Free Press, one of the old city dailies, on the brink of extinction and in the shadow of the failing car industry, won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting. Last year, the paper published text messages between the city's mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and his female chief of staff. The mayor went to jail.

The Free Press did something that very few metro dailies can. It devoted two reporters to the developing story and obviously gave them the time and resources that they needed to bring the whole package of investigating and writing articles home. Newspapers cannot afford this kind of effort the way that they could when two Washington Post (WPO) reporters broke the Watergate story after months of work in 1972 and 1973. The newspaper business was profitable then, very profitable. Some large dailies made margins of over 30%. The Internet as we know it would not be invented for nearly 25 years. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

The Pulitzer announcement must have brightened an otherwise dreary newsroom. If any regional economy is at risk for completely collapsing, it is the one around Detroit, where in some parts of that city unemployment is already close to 20%.

Over the last several weeks the rhetoric about whether newspapers can charge for content online has heated up again. The publisher of The New York Times (NYT), which had charged for some of its stories and then stopped, said that he would be climbing back on the bandwagon. This helped trigger more public sparring over how valuable content is when it comes from the pens of real reporters and not off the pages of news aggregators like Google News and The Huffington Post who, according to their sworn enemies in traditional media, live off the effort, expense, and ingenuity of institutions like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press.

Unfortunately, most newspaper readers will never pay for content online, and the Detroit Pulitzer reveals some of the problems of old world print publications. The Kilpatrick story was about scandal, betrayal, and the abuse of power. In those departments, it was a match for some of Shakespeare's best work. But the series of articles probably did not get the Free Press more than a few new subscribers, and no one would have paid for it online. Just after the story broke, the most important and interesting parts of the information were on the local Detroit TV and radio stations and on the Associated Press feed to newspapers and other media outlets around the world. The core of the story was not just taken from the Free Press by the news aggregation service at Google. It was taken from the Free Press by the mainline media whose editors understood that the mayor's behavior was too good to be true. It was better than fiction. And, traditional media were digesting it and putting it on the internet, the airwaves, and the presses as quickly as they could.

Newspapers are dying and other media may follow because even the very best information is easily transportable to other media and it is done so legitimately and by other content providers who have the best of intentions. They do not want to hurt their peers, but they cannot be without content covering the hottest topics of the day. What a reader cannot find one place, he will find somewhere else. The exceptions to these rules have fallen mostly into the financial news and pornography categories, but news services like Reuters now run summaries of the content of The Wall Street Journal (NWS), even though the paper's readers, many of those who get the Journal online, have to pay for it.

The best papers, the ones that win the most Pulitzers, the big metro dailies, are in as much trouble as any medium in the country. They are in trouble because the CBS (CBS) affiliate in Detroit will run an excellent summary of the Kilpatrick story, even though CBS is under siege from the Internet. The New York Times will run a summary of the story as well, or take it from its Associated Press feed.

The best thing about a newspaper was always that it could be read, saved, and passed around to other readers. No one seems to want to pay for those privileges any more.

Douglas A. McIntyre

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