Can traffic-chasing sensationalism and society-changing journalism co-exist under the same roof? The decision by the Pulitzer Committee to award this year’s prize for national reporting to the Huffington Post’s David Wood for his series on wounded veterans is a pretty good sign that they can, at least for now. Editor in chief Arianna Huffington and executive editor Tim O’Brien took a few minutes out from the staff’s champagne toast to talk about what it means for the seven-year-old news organization and where it’s headed from here.
FORBES: What’s the mood like over there today?
Tim O’Brien: It was electrifying. People in the newsroom were ecstatic. It was a gratifying recognition of David’s hard work, and of a yearlong commitment to a deeply personal story that we put a lot of editing and reporting resources against. And it’s an affirmation that this kind of work can thrive on the web.
The HuffPo (full disclosure: I've blogged over there often, prior to joining KPCC) went from being a new-media traffic colossus during the 2008 election to becoming a magnet for criticism, especially after it was purchased by AOL last year for $315 million. As websites go, the HuffPo represents the definitive current formula for success, one that's been emulated by newer sites, like Business Insider. Former New York Times top editor Bill Keller has disparaged the House that Arianna Built for shameless aggregation. But then they go and set up a 66-year-old journalistic veteran for a swan song. Schizophrenic, huh?
Of course, this is exactly what the Pulitzer jury needed to give the prize — in a serious, hard-news-type category — to one of the most visible and most controversial players in new media. Find an extremely serious and experienced journalist who's been close on a Pulitzer before and who has (from his bio):
...lived and worked with the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne Divisions, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, the 82nd Airborne Division’s special troops battalion, the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry, in RC-East and, most recently, with the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade in Kunduz, Faryab and Kandahar provinces.
He has flown on B-52 and B-1 bombers, slogged through Army Ranger School, accompanied Rangers on night airborne maneuvers and Marines on amphibious and air assault operations, flown off aircraft carriers and sailed on battleships, cruisers, minesweepers and amphibs, and has submerged aboard attack and strategic missile submarines.
He has been scared much of his professional life.
Definitely not a guy putting together slide shows on embarrassing celebrity gaffes or scanning Google News for trending stories to repurpose for SEO.
So, in the end, the Pulitzer folks don't wind up looking like they're pulling some kind of stunt, but they do acknowledge the massive shift that's taking place in media. As a venture capitalist reminded me recently, journalism is one of the businesses that's being most "disrupted" by the shift from an offline to an online life. Good to see the Pulitzers figuring out a way to recognize that, without going too far out of the box.