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Eyes on the prize

Pride in Reuters’ achievement in becoming a finalist in the annual Pulitzer Prizes for text journalism for the first time in the 95-year history of the US awards is justified. Many people contributed to the agency’s domination of the Libyan revolution story across all media, some at great risk to their safety and security. Top editorial management has praised them for working “tirelessly on these stories, often at personal peril”.

The revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi and the Arab Spring uprisings of which it was part were arguably the most significant and far-reaching international news story of 2011. Reuters’ coverage demonstrated “war correspondence and business journalism of the highest order,” in the words of editor-in-chief Stephen Adler in his nomination of ten stories to the Pulitzer advisory panel.

That coverage was both broad and deep. As Adler pointed out to the Pulitzer judges, it comprised “a mixture of extraordinary exclusives, a stream of breaking-news articles and longer, carefully crafted Special Reports. They span politics, war, business and diplomacy. It’s an exemplary body of work, one that shows how Reuters can lead the coverage of the world’s most important stories along the time curve - winning the moment with snaps and urgents, winning the day with scoops and smart trunk stories, and winning the year with definitive long-form journalism”.

The denial that Reuters' eyes are on the prize is baffling

Columbia University in New York, which administers the Pulitzers, cited “Thomson Reuters Staff for its well-crafted reports on the momentous revolution in Libya that went beyond battlefield dispatches to tell the wider story of discontent, conflict and the role of outside powers”. It denied Reuters the ultimate prize, however.

Privately, Reuters’ senior editorial team might feel aggrieved at the award of the prize “for a distinguished example of reporting on international affairs, using any available journalistic tool” to a New York Times journalist for his stories on famine and conflict in East Africa. That story made far fewer broadcast bulletins and front pages and moved fewer markets. Reuters’ disappointment at missing the prize will have been made harder to bear by the award of Pulitzers to both the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, the former for investigative reporting, the latter for breaking news photography.

The absence of the $10,000 prize from Reuters’ list of plaudits over nearly a century of Pulitzers is in large part due to the fact that Reuters rarely submitted entries for this or any other prizes. With few exceptions, the agency has traditionally stood back from jockeying for peer appraisal. That has now changed. Over the past year or so Reuters has recruited a raft of high-profile American editors and writers with a host of Pulitzers and other US journalism awards to their credit. 

Two months ago The Baron reported that Reuters was adopting a new editorial approach of running more long, in-depth, investigative special reports with the aim of winning Pulitzers. Weeks later, editorial executives told staff that this was not so. It would be foolish to make Pulitzer Prizes a goal, given the slight chance of winning one, said Paul Ingrassia, deputy editor-in-chief. We now know that Reuters had already prepared its package for the Pulitzer panel. The Baron is informed that Reuters lobbied the judges assiduously.

The denial that Reuters’ eyes are on the prize is baffling. In rigorous appraisals called Performance Improvement Plans Reuters journalists are being told forcefully that mere achievement will not be tolerated; only excellence is acceptable. The Newspaper Guild of New York describes these plans as “disciplinary” and says the threat of termination hangs over those who are subject to them. Many journalists of long service to the Baron have suddenly found themselves at the sharp end of this process, described by the Guild as “managing out”.

In such an atmosphere it’s only reasonable to assume that journalists would be encouraged to produce even better work – more scoops, more investigations, more in-depth reports - in text, pictures or video if they knew they had a chance not only of seeing it measured against rivals in daily competition for broadcast, print and markets usage but also of being rated against the best in the business and considered for recognition by their peers.

Time alone will tell whether the stream of exclusives, breaking-news articles and long-form special reports that are now integral to Reuters’ daily editorial production will be judged good enough to merit journalism’s highest accolade.

Until then, bravo Team Reuters Libya, bravo Reuters. ■