a Brief History and Overview

a Brief History and Overview

The Pulitzer Prize: a Brief History and Overview

The Pulitzer Prize (pronounced PULL-it-sir) is awarded annually for outstanding public service and achievement in American journalism, literature, and music. Presented each year since 1917, it’s considered the country’s most prestigious award in these fields.

The prize’s fascinating history begins with its namesake, Joseph Pulitzer, born in what is now Hungary in 1847 to a wealthy Magyar-Jewish grain merchant. After a privileged upbringing in Budapest, at the age of 17 the gangly 6’2” teenager decided to make the military his career. Unfortunately, the young man had very poor eyesight and was rejected by the Austrian Army, the French Foreign Legion, and finally by the British Army. He persisted, however, and was finally accepted into the U.S. Army to fight for the Union during the American Civil War. Already fluent in French and German, he knew very little English when he enlisted.

After the war Pulitzer made his way to St. Louis, Missouri, doing odd jobs while studying English and law. While in the library he impressed two Germans, the publishers of a local German daily newspaper, who hired him as a reporter in 1868. He earned enough by 1871 to purchase a controlling share of the nearly bankrupt paper. Employing a keen business sense and a sensationalist journalism style that would become his hallmark, he turned the paper around and sold it for a profit. He repeated this pattern many times over the ensuing years – purchasing a newspaper, improving it, and then selling it. By 1883 he was wealthy enough to move to New York and purchase The World for $386,000 (worth something like $12 million in today’s dollars). It ultimately became the largest circulating newspaper in the United States, with sales of over 600,000 copies a day. He was an innovator as well, adding features such as cartoons, women’s fashion, gossip columns, and expanded sports coverage.

Fun fact: Pulitzer lobbied for the Statue of Liberty, then still in France awaiting shipment, to be located in New York City. In 1885 he started a fundraising campaign to finance the statue’s pedestal, promising to list every donor’s name on the front page of The World regardless of the amount they gave to the project. Over six months he raised $100,000 – more than enough to complete the installation.

Pulitzer’s eyesight continued to deteriorate, and by 1890 he was nearly completely blind, forcing him to step down from the newspaper business. In addition, he developed a condition that made him sensitive to sound. He spent his retirement sailing aboard a private yacht in what he referred to as a soundproof vault, dying on his vessel in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina in 1911.

In his will, he stipulated a $2 million grant be given to New York’s Columbia University for the establishment of a school of journalism, with a quarter of the money reserved for annual prizes or scholarships that would encourage “public, service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education.” The Columbia School of Journalism opened just a year after Pulitzer’s death, with the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded in 1917.

According to PulitzerPrize.org just four prizes were given that inaugural year. The two journalism awards both went to writers at New York newspapers: Herbert Bayard of The World won the Reporting award for a series of pieces entitled “Inside the German Empire;” and The Tribune won the Editorial Writing prize for an uncredited article on the one-year anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. His Excellency J.J. Jusserand earned the History Pulitzer for With Americans of Past and Present Days. Interestingly, a trio of women – Laura E. Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall – garnered the first Biography prize for Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910.

One of the most remarkable things about Pulitzer’s will was that he granted the prize’s overseeing Board an amazing amount of flexibility, allowing them to change the categories, add or remove them, or even refuse to give out a prize if they didn’t feel the entries were of high enough quality. The Board, comprised of ten men (the president of Columbia University plus nine well-regarded newspaper editors and publishers) quickly went about making changes, so that by the following year there were four journalism prizes awarded (Public Service, Reporting, Editorial Writing and Newspaper History – the only year the latter category was honored) and five in letters (Novel, Drama, History, Biography and Poetry). The Plan of Award – the rules that govern each year’s Pulitzers – has been modified many times over the ensuing decades.

There are now 23 categories – fifteen journalism-related and eight for the arts. Some of the more recent additions to the journalism awards are for audio reporting and photography. These categories are administered by juries, each usually comprised of five people who review all entries in their area of expertise. The process can be lengthy; the five drama jurors, for example, must attend all the nominated plays, and while many are in New York, a fair number come from regional theaters. Juries aren’t compensated for their time, although those that have to travel are granted a small stipend. Once a jury has reviewed all submissions, they select the top three entries and decide on a winner in the category. Their list then goes to the Pulitzer Prize Board (currently 17 individuals plus Columbia’s president), who may or may not agree with the jury’s assessment. In one notable case, the Board overturned the jury’s selection of Edward Albee’s 1962 drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because they didn’t find it “uplifting” enough.

There is no set criteria for the judging of the prizes and the definitions of each category (posted online) are the only guidelines. For example, the Journalism guidelines only state:

Entries may be made by any individual based on material coming from a United States newspaper, magazine or news site (now including the sites of broadcast news organizations in most categories) that publishes regularly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles. United States citizenship is not a prerequisite for the Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism.

It’s up to the jury and the Board to decide if a piece has the “highest journalistic principles” – so the awards are rather subjective. The committee receives around 2500 entries each year.

Final decisions about the year’s Pulitzer Prizes are made in the spring, and the results are closely held secrets. Historically the Board and juries have refused to debate or defend their decisions. The awards are announced in early May, at exactly 3:00 PM (Eastern time) in a ceremony at Columbia. They do stream the awards but have proudly resisted the temptation of making the event the type of entertainment extravaganza other award ceremonies have become (they specifically mention the annual Nobel Prize ceremony). Each recipient is awarded $15,000 with the exception of the Public Service in Journalism award, which always goes to a newspaper rather than an individual. That prize comes with a gold medal instead of a check. Formal awards are made at a dinner the following October, which coincides with Columbia’s annual Board Meeting.

For a complete list of Pulitzer Prize winners by year click here.

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