Pulitzer High Offset By Low Newspaper Demand

It's been a tough year for the newspaper industry. Which makes this year's announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners a bittersweet moment. Even smaller newsrooms managed to find ways to do award-winning work.

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It's been a tough year for the newspaper industry, which made this year's announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners a bittersweet moment. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, even smaller newsrooms managed to find ways to do award-winning work.

ROBERT SMITH: When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced, Alexandra Berzon was covering a court hearing for her paper, the Las Vegas Sun.

Ms. ALEXANDRA BERZON (Las Vegas Sun): Terrible thing for a reporter, but my cell phone was in the car.

SMITH: So Berzon didn't know she was now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. She got the Public Service Award for revealing how fast track construction on the Las Vegas Strip had contributed to a high death rate among construction workers. But still she didn't check her messages as she drove back to the office.

Ms. BERZON: And I didn't actually find out until I walked into the newsroom here and everyone just started clapping. And I was just in complete, complete shock. Really didn't think of this as a possibility.

SMITH: Because the Las Vegas Sun is a relatively small publication. A few years ago, it was the afternoon paper in the city. But it's now down to eight pages, delivered as a single section inside the larger paper in Vegas, the Review Journal.

Berzon says in some ways it's been freeing for the journalists there.

Ms. BERZON: We don't tend to cover kind of just the normal daily news stories, because we figure the other paper's going to cover those. We sort of get a chance to dig in a little more on things sometimes.

SMITH: All the Pulitzer Prizes this year have that same underdog vibe. Sure, the New York Times won five awards, including investigative and breaking news. But they're bringing the prizes back to a newsroom they don't even own anymore. The Times recently had to sell part of their building to cover their massive debt.

The Detroit Free Press now only gets delivered three days a week, so home subscribers will have to wait till Thursday to see that the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. The Free Press discovered the explicit text messages that brought down Detroit's mayor.

If reporters want to see the future of their profession, it might be better to look at the Pulitzer winner for national reporting - PolitiFact, a Web site run by the St. Petersburg Times. PolitiFact is an online fact checker that takes politicians statements and rates them on the truth-o-meter.

Editor Bill Adair says it may be flashy, but it's just a new form of investigative reporting.

Mr. BILL ADAIR (PolitiFact Web site): Those long, long stories that we wrote in the past were so long and complicated that a lot of people didn't read them. And I think what we've done here is harness the power of the Web to present good solid journalism in a creative new way that is accessible.

SMITH: But change takes time. This was the first year that the Pulitzer has accepted submissions from Web-only publications. Still, every journalism prize was won by a newspaper. And old school reporters around the country can take heart that at least a few of their colleagues can still spend 15 months working on a big, juicy project.

Ms. JULIE CART (Los Angeles Times): There was jealousy.

SMITH: Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times says that sometimes people in the newsroom would wonder what she and her fellow reporter, Bettina Boxall, were doing for all those months. Turns out they were writing a major series on wildfires that really questioned the costs of fighting blazes that could be left to burn. It won the Pulitzer for explanatory journalism. And in the newsroom yesterday Cart told her colleagues…

Ms. CART: You really have to cut some slack to the people who do projects and do investigative work. They're not golfing all day or playing poker. They're working very hard. And they don't need any roadblocks or hindrances from within the office.

SMITH: Cart says in the end their work was protected by the top editors at the paper, even as the workforce at the L.A. Times was being slashed. But not every winner was so lucky. Paul Giblin shared the local reporting Pulitzer this year for his work at the East Valley Tribune in Arizona. He was laid off before the awards were announced. He now writes for a Web site.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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Correction April 21, 2009

In some broadcasts, we mistakenly identified the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting as "The Detroit News." It was actually the "Detroit Free Press."

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