Why It’s So Hard to Give a Pulitzer for Breaking News? Twitter Clearly Trumps Them All

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During Monday’s Pulitzer announcement, the Internet was a frenzied mix of Google searches for “Goon Squad,” links to moving photos and “WTF?” remarks about the vacant spot in the winners list in the Breaking News category, the first time in history the award wasn’t given.

That night, Poynter revealed the Pulitzer Board’s reason for the decision not to name a winner: Apparently, no consensus could be reached among Pulitzer jurors, though three finalists were up for consideration. The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald in partnership with El Nuevo Herald and the The Tennessean were all nominated for the award, but none of the entries could be selected as a stand out in accordance of the new rules of consideration.

Why is it that in a year that included breaking news stories of the earthquake in Haiti and the Gulf oil spill, that no recipient could be named? Because our breaking news appetites have evolved past traditional coverage of live events. By design, only newspapers and their web sites are eligible for the Pulitzer Prize.

The specifications of the award, as noted by the Pulitzer Organization:

“For a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news, with special emphasis on the speed and accuracy of the initial coverage, using any available journalistic tool, including text reporting, videos, databases, multimedia or interactive presentations or any combination of those formats, in print or online or both, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).”

This means even media credentialed reporters like NPR’s Andy Carvin, who has been tweeting news and updates relentlessly since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, are glossed over in favor of traditional newspaper coverage. (Good for the continued spotlight on newspapers, but bad for the fast changing landscape of news.) It’s this antiquated rule book that will lessen the value of the award over time.

So why is it just so hard for the Pulitzer Board to determine a winner in the breaking news category? Because most of the time, the people breaking news aren’t using newsprint to deliver.

After the earthquake struck Haiti in January, 2010, photojournalist Daniel Morel uploaded the first images of the chaotic aftermath via Twitpic. Born in Haiti in 1951, Morel moved to the U.S. when he was 18, only to return as a photographer in 1982. When the earthquake struck, Morel took to the streets of Port-au-Prince and took those first iconic images of the quake delivered by Twitter. “People were panicked, really. They were all over the place. I started taking pictures. And I walk all the way to the end of the avenue. And I shot eight gigs of photos. I shot until the night,” he told the New York Times later in an interview.

No, there were no written articles to accompany Morel’s images – another Pulitzer guideline broken – but in the face of disaster, what more did we really need but to see it? Journalism experts caution the unchecked, raw nature of social media and its “Tweet now, think later” reputation, but the reality of these events won’t wait. When major world events can be brought to us in real time, how can count them as ineligible?

To preserve its status as journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer organization must reexamine its criteria for gold star reporting. And next year, let’s all hope due attention is paid to men and women reporting live via Twitter and Facebook from the revolutions in the East, including the efforts of SayNow (owned by Google) who teamed with Twitter to bring the world the @speak2tweet Twitter account that first allowed the people of Egypt to leave voice messages that would be pushed out as tweets during the country’s Internet blackout. Hey Pulitzer, these are the people changing the landscape of news. I hear you’re in need of some suggestions.