One of the big questions leading up to this year's Pulitzer Prizes, which were announced Monday afternoon at Columbia University in New York, was whether the National Enquirer would win for breaking the story about John Edwards' extramarital affair. As it turned out, the answer was no. But the traditional media model did get shaken up when a Web site — ProPublica, a nonprofit funded by foundations — won the prize for investigative reporting. The winning story, about doctors in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina forced to choose whether their patients would live or die, was a collaboration with The New York Times Magazine.
The winning reporter, Sheri Fink, is also a medical doctor. She spent more than two years delving into the heartbreaking story, and she says that the way she went about it — first as a freelancer, then pulling in resources from a number of organizations — points to one of the ways good journalism is surviving.
"I think it really just validates this model, that we can look into different forms of journalism and different support for journalism going into the future" says Fink. "We need lots of different solutions for what's happening in journalism."
Excerpt: Paul Harding's debut novel Tinkers
Interview: Next to Normal's composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey on their musical about mental illness
Interview: Liaquat Ahamed, author of Lords of Finance, about four bankers who contributed to the Great Depression
Interview: T.J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon, about shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt
Interview: David E. Hoffman, author of The Dead Hand, about the Cold War arms race
Interview: Sheri Fink of ProPublica, in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine, on the "life-and-death decisions made by one hospital's exhausted doctors" in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina
Interview: Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post
Interview: Colleen McCain Nelson of The Dallas Morning News
Mark Fiore's animated cartoons on npr.org
Hank Williams' artist page on nprmusic.org
A more venerable news organization — The Washington Post — took four awards: the international reporting prize for Anthony Shadid, the feature writing prize for Gene Weingarten, the commentary prize for Kathleen Parker and the criticism prize for dance critic Sarah Kaufman.
Other big papers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, were shut out. The New York Times won two awards — not including its collaboration with ProPublica — for explanatory reporting and national reporting.
Most winners were small or midsize papers — like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which won a local reporting prize for its investigation into pension fraud.
The Seattle Times won the prize for breaking news by covering the story of four police officers murdered while taking a break in a coffeehouse, and the manhunt for the suspect. David Boardman, the newspaper's executive editor, says the win is a reminder of the crucial connections formed between newspapers and communities.
"The most meaningful part of it, I think for us, was how the community really turned to the daily newspaper in the modern age for its verified news," Boardman says. The Seattle Times, one of the few remaining family-owned newspapers in the country, is in some ways emblematic of the industry's upheaval.
"We went through as much financial turmoil and hardship as anybody," Boardman says, "but the Blethen family hung in there with us and really put all of their own personal assets at risk, and we're coming out of it."
The Bristol Herald Courier, in Virginia, won a public service Pulitzer for a story that uncovered the mismanagement of funds owed to local landowners for natural gas. The prize for editorial writing went to The Dallas Morning News.
Each Pulitzer, with the exception of the public service prize, comes with a $10,000 cash award.
In arts, first-time novelist Paul Harding won the fiction prize for his novel Tinkers, about a clock repairman on his deathbed. Next to Normal, a musical about a housewife's harrowing descent into mental illness, won for drama.
Last year, Brian Yorkey, who wrote the musical's book and lyrics, told NPR about choosing the unlikely subject for a musical.
"I actually saw a television news report on electroconvulsive therapy, which is, you know, commonly known as shock therapy," Yorkey said. "And I think I, like many people, was surprised to find out that it still was practiced and in fact was, I learned, was a very important, you know, element in the psychiatrist's sort of [arsenal] of treatments."
For the first time in more than a decade, the Pulitzer for music went to a woman. Jennifer Higdon, who taught herself the flute at age 15, has become one of America's most frequently performed composers. Last year, she told NPR that being thought of as accessible does not bother her a bit.
"I think of music as a communicative art," Higdon said. "Most art is, but there's something about music that just goes straight to a person's heart or has the ability to do that, so 'accessible' — to me — means you're doing your job as a composer."
The Pulitzers also recognized musician Hank Williams, who died more than 50 years ago, for his role in shaping country music.