Monday, April 04, 2005

PD Breaks 52-Year Pulitzer Dry Spell

We've just learned this morning that Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz (click here for her online column archive) has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, only the second Pulitzer in the newspaper's history. The foundation that oversees the awards, housed at Columbia University, is expected to make a formal announcement later today. Contrary to general belief, the PD has won one Pulitzer already, way back in 1953, in the editorial cartoon category. But that hasn't prevented dozens of commentators and journalists over the years from routinely repeating the erroneous information that the paper is without a Pulitzer in its history.

Schultz is a special writer. After divorcing her one-time law professor, she subsequently raised her daughter mostly alone, while pursuing a freelance writing career. She joined the PD as a reporter in 1993, becoming a columnist nearly three years ago. The last couple of years have been busy for her: she married Congressman Sherrod Brown, won a Batten prize for her feature writing and a Robert F. Kennedy prize for social justice reporting, and also became a Pulitzer finalist. Raised in a blue collar family in Ashtabula, she has written often and well about the challenges of those at the lower reaches of the economy. Her campaign against restaurants and other service institutions that divert tips from the wait staff caused a special stir, and led many embarrassed establishments to reform their practices. She became the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Kent State University with a journalism degree.

Over the years, her outspoken feminism and unabashed bleeding-heart liberalism has made her something of a target among conservatives. She's written occasionally about the mounds of hate mail she receives. Earlier this year, Ch. 19 "news" mistakenly reported that she was among several PD columnists to be fired from the paper. But she's not without her detractors even among those in journalism. In a Cleveland Magazine profile a couple of years ago, written by PD contributor Kathleen Murphy Colan (a piece which itself subsequently won a journalism award), Schultz was described as an often difficult, occasionally intimidating newsroom figure who was known to sometimes throw her weight around to get what she wanted.

But mostly, this Pulitzer represents a recognition by the national journalism fraternity that the PD and other Newhouse-owned papers have turned something of a corner. Reviled and dismissed for years by their counterparts in the industry for a lack of quality and a heavy-handed domination of the newsroom by the business side (once an especially chronic problem in Cleveland), the Newhouse chain in recent years has won grudging respect for a change of attitude without which this Pulitzer would never have been awarded (the chain now even has a representative on the Pulitzer selection board, the editor of the Times-Picayune, Jim Amoss). Even as publicly owned chains such as the once-respected Knight-Ridder have gone through several rounds of painful cost-cutting, the privately owned Newhouse chain has gone in the other direction, steadily recruiting to its major papers (in Cleveland, Portland, Oregon and New Orleans) nationally respected top editors from elsewhere, who have slowly but unmistakably raised the respect level of these properties by gaining additional independence from the business side. The PD recruited Doug Clifton to the top job from Knight-Ridder's well-regarded Miami Herald, and he in turn recruited Stuart Warner from K-R's Akron Beacon Journal, where he had been part of a Pulitzer-winning team. Warner subsequently became Schultz's editor. The Portland Oregonian even added an ombudsman some time ago, and only yesterday, the PD announced it was doing the same (even though the choice of Ted Diadiun was unusual insofar as he is a longtime member of the top editorial staff, rather than someone with a degree of independence).

Many of these changes can be attributed to Steve Newhouse, the 40ish, Yale-educated son of Donald (the brother who has historically overseen the chain's newspapers, while his brother S.I. oversaw its more glamorous magazine properties). If one person (other than Connie, of course) can be said to have helped win this award, which is the clubby journalism world's top honor and chief method for signalling its collective approval, it is he. He is said to have steadily gained increasing management responsibilities in recent years, and he has pushed for the kinds of operational changes at the family-owned papers that would make the Newhouse name something other than a synonym for poor-quality newspapering. In that, he has begun to make real headway, and this Pulitzer is high-profile proof of that.

I say, congratulations all around.


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