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Each spring, a cabal of reporters, editors, and educators known as the Pulitzer Prize Board convenes in secret for a great cause: find, and reward, the previous year’s best journalism. Sifting through well over 1,000 submissions, the board ultimately settles upon 14 winners in a variety of categories. The president of Columbia University heralds the choices in April, solidifying the victors’ sacrosanctity in the edifice of American journalism.

This year, the board made the unusual decision of announcing its selections early. The rationale behind the accelerated schedule was simple: Board members believed they had in their hands the finest journalism ever published. There was simply no expectation that future submissions could approach the masterful, sensitive, pungent pieces of writing the board had already read. To add to the nontraditional nature of this year’s contest, all eight winning submissions happened to originate from one city: Washington, D.C. The remaining six categories remained empty, as the board chose to withhold awards for lack of worthy content.

Hence, the few—but first-class—2006 Pulitzer Prize winners.

Public Service

For a distinguished example of meritorious public service by a newspaper through the use of its journalistic resources, which, as well as reporting, may include editorials, cartoons, photographs,graphics, and online material

Winner:

The staff of Washingtonian, for “Great Hair”

Board’s Remarks: The board has long awarded the premier Pulitzer Prize, the public-service distinction, to institutions rather than individuals. This tradition recognizes that institutions alone—with their wide-ranging resources—can take on the bigger challenges in journalism. For instance, the public-service award in 2002 went to the New York Times for its special section called “A Nation Challenged,” recognizing the work of a whole team of reporters and editors on post–Sept. 11 stories. In 1999, the award went to a squad of investigative reporters at the Washington Post who delved into shootings by poorly trained D.C. police officers.

Washingtonian has furthered this hallowed Pulitzer lineage. In its August 2005 special titled “Great Hair,” this publication dispatched a team of 10 reporters to cover a crucial and controversial industry in Washington, D.C. Through the use of investigative techniques, databases, and personal anecdotes, Washingtonian writers told their readers all there was to know about getting their hair done.

Rarely has service journalism set out such an ambitious agenda. The package included everything from a testimonial on “Why thermal straightening was worth every penny” to a testimonial on “[H]ow thermal straightening ruined my hair.” Perhaps most admirably, Washingtonian showed courage in picking its stories for the hair special and never succumbed to the temptation of providing what is known as “advertorial” copy. Along these lines, the board commends Washingtonian for limiting its list of top salons to just 45 establishments.

An extensive polling operation rounded out the “Great Hair” presentation. Among the findings were that 39 percent of polled women felt that their hairstylists charged too much and 2 percent said they didn’t listen. The board feels confident that the hair industry will improve as a result of Washingtonian’s contributions.

Beat Reporting

For a distinguished example of beat reporting, characterized by sustained and knowledgeable coverage of a particular subject or activity, in print or in print and online

Winner:

Anne Hull, the Washington Post, for journalism about her neighborhood, including a two-part series on gentrification near Logan Circle, as well as pieces on a Logan Circle restaurant and a Logan Circle supermarket

Board’s Remarks: The board commends Hull and the Post for a groundbreaking approach to long-form feature journalism. The writer’s signature work of 2005 took a penetrating look at a single intersection—14th and T Streets NW—in a gentrifying neighborhood of Washington. With vivid writing and strong reporting, Hull captured key changes at the intersection just as they were happening: a church selling its building to make way for high-priced condos; a liquor store peddling its last bottles of booze; and a new, trendy restaurant trading on its urban cachet. As Hull wrote in the story’s summation paragraph: “Race and class are colliding on dozens of other blocks in a city where demographics are shifting by the month, but 14th and T represents something else: that split-second before the curtain drops on one era and rises on another.”

The curtain that Hull so eloquently invoked is visible from the window of her nearby town house. This proximity to her story enabled Hull to practice a form of immersion journalism rarely glimpsed on the pages of U.S. newspapers. Reporters who must travel to other neighborhoods—or even farther—can seldom achieve the level of intimacy with their subjects that Hull established with the people who do business a couple of hundred feet from her front gate.

Hull has compiled a noteworthy record in covering her neighborhood. In 2001, she wrote another compelling portrait of Logan Circle in the throes of change, this one on the opening of an upscale grocer near 15th and P Streets NW. At the time, Hull lived at 15th and O. She later did a piece on the lives of workers at a restaurant across the street from that grocer. To round out this in-depth portrait of her environs, Hull wrote a feature treatment of a D.C. police officer whose beat demanded frequent stops along 14th Street.

Never before has the board seen a journalist choose living quarters with such foresight.

International Reporting

For a distinguished example of reporting on international affairs, in print or in print and online

Winner:

Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post associate editor, for stories and commentary on Finland

Board’s Remarks: 2005 yielded a trove of great foreign reporting by U.S. newspapers. The board received many worthwhile offerings focusing on today’s loci of international intrigue and turmoil—chiefly Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan. These strife-ridden areas understandably preoccupy newspaper editors in such turbulent times.

The board, however, chose to reward Kaiser for his vision in singling out Finland, an often-overlooked country, for an in-depth reporting expedition. In what will undoubtedly become a paradigm in international news coverage, Kaiser and a Post photographer immersed themselves in a foreign culture and produced a virtual survey on the country; the Post displayed the results in both its print and online editions. Kaiser looked at Finland’s education system, its immigration policies, its technological prowess, and its culture. At each turn, Kaiser produced edgy, thought-provoking journalism on a peaceful and homogeneous country that has gotten little attention in the United States. For instance, the reporter managed to secure critical comments from a Lutheran Finnish bishop on the country’s immigration policy. And in a story on Finland-based cell-phone maker Nokia, he wrangled news-making comments from a top executive on corporate strategy: “‘Mobile TV, music, imaging applications [still and motion photography] and games—those are the horses we are betting on now,’ said Hannu Nieminen, Nokia’s vice president for user experience,” Kaiser wrote in the pages of the Post.

The Post and Kaiser also broke ground in conveying the more day-to-day aspects of life in Finland, an area of foreign reporting that newspapers, given their formal, news-driven leanings, have long neglected. Here, the reporter showed the courage to resist this formality. The following example from Kaiser’s Web log is characteristic. It narrates what took place when the reporter and photographer (Lucian Perkins) went to ladies’ night at the Karelia Hotel in Joensuu. “Lucian and I chatted up two attractive divorcees, Kirsti Kuskelin and Pirkko Kallinen. The band, known as The Trio Bravo had taken its first break, so these two were happy to talk for a bit. When I told them that there probably wasn’t a small city in America where you could find a hundred middle-aged people at a dance joint on a Tuesday night, Kuskelin and Kallinen looked surprised. ‘That’s too bad,’ Kuskelin said, looking as though she felt sorry for us.”

The board looks forward to more mold-breaking international coverage from Kaiser in the coming years.

Criticism

For distinguished criticism, in print or in print and online

Winner:

Mark Schlereth, football critic, Washington Examiner

Board’s Remarks: Schlereth faced a difficult situation when he took his position as columnist at the Examiner. A 12-year veteran of the NFL, Schlereth would be called upon to write about a former team—the Washington Redskins—and a former coach—Joe Gibbs. Many critics in this situation have set out to prove their independence and impartiality to the public. Toward that end, they often write “statement” columns taking an exceptionally critical look at their former employers and associates, and the result is often jaded and nasty criticism.

The board commends Schlereth and the Examiner for displaying the confidence to skirt this common pitfall in sports journalism. The columnist’s even hand came through clearly in an Aug. 17 piece that Schlereth penned on the career of Gibbs. At the time, sports pundits were raising doubts about the coach’s ability to return the Redskins to the championship form that he led them to in the ’80s and early ’90s. Schlereth used fresh language to craft a contrarian viewpoint in a column titled “Gibbs still the man for the job.” An excerpt:

The game definitely has not passed by Joe Gibbs, a Hall of Fame coach who laid the foundation for three Super Bowl titles. Brick-by-brick, this gifted mason erected an organization that would make any monument on the Mall green with envy.Whispers that the game has usurped Gibbs must have legends like George “Papa Bear” Halas and Vince Lombardi rolling over in their graves. These greats preached fundamentals: blocking, tackling, unselfishness and character. They don’t go out of style. They’re not in vogue one minute and out the next. They’re indefatigable truths, unwavering, never changing.Gibbs adheres to the same truths the forefathers of the game established at its inception. Execution, effort, and teamwork will always trump talent and individualism.

Two months later, Schlereth wrote another column on the team after it had reached a 4-2 win–loss record. Again with innovative language rarely glimpsed in the sports pages, Schlereth toasted key decisions by Gibbs with a piece titled “Turns out, Gibbs’ way is right way.” The piece concludes with this flourish: “The future looks bright under coach Gibbs’ leadership. If this trend continues, one might think of checking the availability of hotel rooms in Detroit around February.” (Detroit is the location of the 2006 Super Bowl.)

Breaking-News Photography

For a distinguished example of breaking news photography in black-and-white or color, which may consist of a photograph or photographs, a sequence, or an album, in print or online or both

Winner:

Keith Kreger, the InTowner, for a photograph of a façade

Board’s Remarks: The board had a difficult time this year in choosing a winner in the category of breaking-news photography. The winning publication had long been decided, but selecting the proper photograph was a daunting task.

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The problem was this: The InTowner, a monthly paper distributed in the Northwest center of the city, had filled every one of its 2005 issues with little, indigestible pictures of building façades. The board identified this singularity as another of the clever journalistic twists it had come to expect from the InTowner. The paper’s editors had evidently decided to lampoon the banality of the District’s housing explosion by presenting a montage of dead architectural images. It was a subversive act that turned the whole concept of breaking-news photography on its head.

But the board’s photography judges disagreed on which photograph was best. Save for the occasional historical plat the InTowner printed, they all looked the same. Each façade picture was ostensibly shot from a position on the far sidewalk, contained nearly identical framing, and was printed in miniscule black-and-white form. They all carried similar ironic captions, such as the one adorning a picture of a building in the July issue:

This winter 2005 view clearly shows the complex of buildings that are to be integrated into a unified whole. To the right can be seen the row of two-story houses starting west of the rear alley and extending to 15th Street. Not shown in this view are the larger townhouses and taller apartment buildings directly across on the north side of T Street.

The judges eventually turned their attention to the front page of the June issue, which featured an impressive six photographs, five of buildings and one of a concrete park with a building in the background. And that’s when one judge saw it: a shot of a town-house façade on Kalorama Road positioned in the lower-right-hand corner of the page. The title of the article it ran in was “Town House Reconstruction Projects Seen as Out-of-Scale Creating Neighborhood Angst,” and the depicted home was under construction and obviously hollow.

The effect reinforced the issue’s concept, and so the board was happy to award the prize to Keith Kreger, InTowner staff photographer.

Investigative Reporting

For a distinguished example of investigative reporting by an individual or team, presented as a single article or series, in print or in print and online

Winner:

Washington Post Style reporters for local weather coverage

Board’s Remarks: The board has long wondered why newspapers don’t devote more resources to covering the weather and its effects on people, a deficiency that the Washington Post moved to correct in 2005. A team of reporters from the paper’s Style section braved the raw elements in order to document the mercurial weather of Washington, D.C. The result, in an illustration of the kind of tenacity the board seeks to reward, was a series of articles that captured a year in change, from winter snow to summer shade to, ultimately, a fall general bleariness.

While the board received similar meteorological submissions from newspapers in the North, which wrote about blizzards, and papers in the South, which documented the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, it ultimately chose to award the prize to the Post for its ability to wring dramatic stories out of an undramatic Mid-Atlantic climate.

The sight of gently falling snowflakes has driven many a reporter to pen and paper. The board can recall such past Style entries as “The Crisp, Versatile Language of Snow,” “The Embracing, Crystalline Silence of Snowfall,” “A Clear Path: Shoveling Snow Leaves Time to Think Along Life’s Road,” and “Blanketed by Metaphor: The Literature of Snow, Deeper Than You Thought.” Yet none have surpassed DeNeen Brown’s Jan. 23 feature story, “A Gift From Above, Wrapped in White.” In this warm tale (considering its subject), Brown glorified a blizzard that apparently gave her “a good reason not to show up” for work. She regaled readers with memories of past snow days, cleverly avoiding what could have been a self-referential tone by using the second-person voice: “This Sabbath snow reminds you of the power of the elements and of the North, the far North, above the Arctic Circle where you once were taught patience by the Inuvialuit, a people who know about the power of snow…”

Indeed, the board could not forget the Inuvialuit.

The Style team showed extraordinary resourcefulness when the weather changed and all the snow melted. Neely Tucker looked past the issue of precipitation with his July 28 Page One feature, “Fading Into the Shade: Between Light and Dark Is the Irresistible Lure of Shadow.” The board admires Tucker’s dedication to chasing down the answer to why, in the dead of summer, he saw people gathering under trees. As one of Tucker’s sources told him, “Shade is a big-time thing these days.” In an example of the enterprise that imbues this series, Tucker, having learned all he could from people on the street, then turned the notepad on himself to find out what he knew. “So maybe we don’t just like shadow and shade,” he wrote. “Maybe we need them. Maybe they help explain our confused and difficult lives to us. Or, maybe, we’ve been sitting on this park bench for too long.”

When it’s not hot but not cold outside, what is it? A lesser writer would say “warm”—maybe even “cool.” But Philip Kennicott, a Style essayist, would say it was gray, as he did 79 times in his Dec. 15 feature, “The Bright Side of Gray.” The preponderance of the word caused the board to take Kennicott’s mission to make readers appreciate the concept of grayness with extreme seriousness. The writer’s acumen on this overlooked subject is astounding: With little discernible difficulty, he listed all known shades of gray (slate, pewter, woolen, ashen, salt-and-pepper, battleship) and also identified gray things (eyes, hair, Gray Davis, the moods of poets after awkward sexual encounters). He negated things that looked gray but were in fact not, such as Jackson Pollock paintings. Then Kennicott went the distance by finding a third source, the dictionary, which revealed that gray was “an achromatic color of any lightness between the extremes of black and white.” By the end of the article, Kennicott had indeed convinced the board that there was nothing more unbearable than the “cheap poetry of a rosy-fingered dawn.”

Editorial Writing

For distinguished editorial writing, the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, in print or in print and online

Winner:

Jerry Seper, Washington Times, for a series of articles on the Minuteman Project

Board’s Remarks: Newspapers found themselves facing a volatile story in April when several hundred anti-immigration activists traveled to Arizona to personally patrol the border. Many editors insisted on middle-of-the-road coverage, tempering the feisty quips of the so-called Minuteman Project volunteers with contrasting opinions from locals, experts, and Border Patrol officials.

For instance, in a March 30 article, Associated Press reporter Arthur Rotstein quoted Minuteman field-operations director Chris Simcox benevolently describing the project as “the nation’s largest neighborhood watch group,” but then followed with a negative remark from a university professor who called the group “domestic terrorists that represent a danger to the country.”

Thus the board was pleased to read the stories of Washington Times reporter Jerry Seper. In 21 dispatches filed from Arizona, Seper quoted an average of three-and-a-half pro-Minuteman sources for every one anti-Minuteman source. That small number discounts some of his greater efforts, such as a front-page May 1 feature in which he quoted nine pro-migrant-catching sources without providing a single dissenting voice. This sort of sourcing imbalance is exactly what the board looks for when deciding upon whom to bestow the prize for editorial writing.

Though Seper quoted an army of anti-immigration enthusiasts, he never allowed a mediocre quote to tarnish his writing. The board offers for proof this passage from Seper’s April 12 article, “Aliens Hide From Patrols in Canyons”: “Mrs. Kolb stood on the highway and applauded the agents and the Minuteman volunteers as the aliens were loaded into a Border Patrol truck. ‘Thank you, Border Patrol. Thank you, Minuteman volunteers,’ she shouted across the roadway, jumping with both hands in the air.”

The board admires Seper’s ability to stay on message. It no doubt must have been difficult, considering the negative stories about the Minutemen being published in other papers around the world. Seper admirably handled the job by picking only the most important stories. When New York Times reporter Timothy Egan came to town and quoted the mayor of Douglas, Ariz., as saying, “I’m afraid these people who are showing up for the Minuteman Project have a lynch mob attitude,” and a local actor as saying, “I think Chris Simcox and his group have left something of a bad taste around here,” Seper wrote that supporters brought the volunteers homemade cookies. When the Associated Press reported that protesters in California had thrown rocks and bricks during a Minuteman speaking engagement, Seper insinuated that Simcox had been unfairly banned from a government press conference.

Seper evinced a marvelous talent for digging up hard-to-find information to bolster his argument. After earning the confidence of a Minuteman organizer, Seper was told that the volunteers had caused the arrest of 60,000 illegal immigrants; at the time, government sources were claiming it was just over 1,300. Seper got the more accurate number into print in not one but two articles.

In pursuing the stories the way he did, Seper mustered the courage to tell the story the way most newspapers were afraid to: a gallant white minority fighting against a vast horde of brown. He has demonstrated a knack for advocacy that is on the level of any great editorial-page writer, and the board eagerly awaits entries from him in that capacity.CP

Feature Writing

For a distinguished example of feature writing giving prime consideration to quality of writing, originality and concision, in print or in print and online

Winner:

Rafael Valero, the InTowner, for “An Adams Morgan Essay: Four O’clock in the A.M. Friday, June 10, 2005”

Board’s Remarks: Newspaper editors around the world who want to create easy-to-read copy rely on a literary model known as the inverted pyramid. The graphical metaphor describes a story that places the “broadest,” most substantial news information at the top and proceeds into paragraphs of diminishing importance.

In late 2005, Rafael Valero, perhaps sensing that this style of writing allows readers an almost effortless understanding of a story—and thus a cheap read—took the bold authorial move of turning the inverted pyramid back to its real-world orientation. In stark contrast to most normal feature stories, Valero’s works begin with a sensuous flood of side observations and background. In his “An Adams Morgan Essay: Four O’clock in the A.M. Friday, June 10, 2005,” published in four monthly installments in the InTowner, Valero dropped readers into the heat of the action without a compass or map to determine where they were or what was going on. The board, frankly, was wowed by Valero’s thesis that many readers prefer to work through a story without assistance from the writer.

Here is how Valero began the September chapter of his story:

The four Latinos—relaxed and grinning—don’t really give a damn that I’m watching them. The tallest, the leader, drops a coin into the parking meter as my waitress offers the bill, wondering aloud if I don’t need just one more frozen margarita. “Oh, no thanks, no, just the check” I say, setting it aside. I look back to the construction workers. The day’s over for these men. With their hardhats tipped to the side, they are ever so casually pulling off their gloves. Even after the long hours and June’s brutal conditions, their black eyes light up and now sparkle like its [sic] oil and diamonds that swim around in their heads.

They know they are earning the right to become Americans.

And they are doing it the Old-School way, as they say, “up by their bootstraps.”

It’s 5:02 P.M.

Valero’s novel approach to the structure of feature stories was evident in every sentence he wrote. He enriched the narrative by adding multiple viewpoints and time shifts. In a truly original twist, the promised subject of the story, “Four O’clock in the A.M.,” was never addressed. Instead, readers who followed Valero as he walked around in a funky D.C. neighborhood were treated to a plethora of instantaneous observations: how hot it was, the theory of concentric systems of development, Carl Bernstein’s walk though Adams Morgan, the etymology of the word “gentrification,” a French philosopher’s thoughts on immigration, a summary of CIA covert actions in Central America, Valero’s memories of his parents, an actor delivering jokes on stage, a long rumination on the cross-dressing founder of Adams Morgan, a description of hasty pudding, thoughts on “gayborhoods,” Valero’s memories of working at a local bar where an insane man destroyed the band’s conga drum, and the many references Valero made to checking his watch, which instilled the piece with a real-time urgency. Throughout it all, Valero kept the sense of mystery alive by asking rhetorical questions, such as “What is going on here?” “What’s going on here?” “What was going on here?” “How did it all begin?” and “Does it matter?”

Though Valero attempted to provide his audience with as much challenge as possible, he did not hide things that needed to be said. As an example, the board has excerpted this portion of the writer’s November episode:

He lit a cigarette and eventually spelled it out, “The first change was when they took out the Ontario Theater, okay? That’s the beginning of what we call ‘The White Ghost Invasion’ in our neighborhood.”

Rene, leader of the house salsa band, started nodding, “That’s exactly what happened.”

“What year was that?” I asked.

Dennis tapped his cigarette, “I’m talking back in ’78, ’79.”

“’78, ’79,” Rene agreed. “They closed it before I moved when I went to college. That’s the year I left.”

“’78, okay,” I made a note of it.