Eyes on the Prize

Paul Greenberg

4/22/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

The most satisfying thing about this year's Pulitzer Prizes, at least for some of us contrary types, is that one wasn't awarded for editorial writing.

Again. This makes the eighth time in the Pulitzers' history that no prize was presented for editorial writing. And it probably doesn't happen nearly often enough. Because these prestigious awards need to be reserved for extraordinary achievement, not handed out as a matter of annual course. By finding no editorials worthy of the prize, the committee has upheld the standards of American opinion writing, even raised them.

Far from being thanked for its service to the craft, the Pulitzer committee's decision attracted a chorus of criticism from editorial writers around the country who've been spoiled by our awards-happy culture. We don't seem to realize that, like grade inflation, handing out prizes for less than truly outstanding performance doesn't so much honor the recipient as devalue the prize.

Michael Ramirez, just about the best editorial cartoonist in the country, won his second well-deserved Pulitzer this year. He'd been let go some time back by the Los Angeles Times, which doesn't even have its own cartoonist any more - another sign of the sad decline of the American editorial page.

When the board of the National Conference of Editorial Writers last met, the dispiriting talk over dinner was all about tighter budgets, smaller staffs and less room for opinion in American newspapers. All I could do was talk about the difference a dedicated publisher makes, namely Walter Hussman of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the paper I work for.

To quote an e-mail one of our editorial writers sent me after that dinner: "Listening to those folks last night talk about their papers I kept thinking, 'Thank God for Walter. Thank God for Walter. Thank God for Walter.' We must be the envy of the industry."

The Democrat-Gazette is a happy exception to the dismaying national rule. Our circulation is up at a time when newspaper readership is falling; our publisher refuses to reduce the news hole (the percentage of the paper reserved for news and opinion rather than advertising); and we remain a statewide paper despite the temptation to cut back on the cost of distributing copies all over Arkansas.

Other once-statewide newspapers threw in the towel long ago and retreated to the bigger cities. But we added a separate Northwest Arkansas edition complete with its own publishing plant, news bureau and opinion editor - rather than hunker down in Little Rock. Meanwhile, we're reaching a phenomenal 85 percent of adults in Central Arkansas.

Walter Hussman has just been named Editor & Publisher's publisher of the year for good reason. Defying the conventional wisdom in this business, he's been offering readers more rather than less. He even refuses to follow the trend elsewhere and give away the paper's content on the Web. Instead, he treats it as a quality product well worth the modest price.

There aren't many newspapers like this one left: a solid, old-fashioned paper of record that gives its readers substance, not glitz. And strictly separates news from opinion. The conventional, self-defeating trend in this business has been to react to hard times by cutting back on the quality of the product, which only drives more readers away.

Not long ago one media whiz suggested that papers abandon their editorial pages altogether: Just turn 'em all into blogs in the latest electronic fashion.

In response, a respected old-timer named Frank Partsch, the retired editorial page editor of the Omaha World Herald, noted that there are still some editorial pages "that preserve the editorial qualities that made the institutional editorial the soul of the newspaper, the place where editorial readers expect to find clear thinking, elegant writing and, yes, occasional helpings of personal quirkiness and color. Maybe, rather than relinquishing the practices that contributed so much to the idea that a good newspaper has a soul, we should be trying to resuscitate them."

Second the motion, Mister Frank.

At another time when the country's newspaper editors had a bad case of the blues, one of the greats - the late Grover C. Hall Jr. of the old Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama - took a different tack. He came back from a convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers to report that most of us seemed "tired and unhappy."

Grover Hall couldn't understand the air of gloom that hung over his colleagues. And in an editorial titled "Dull Gulls," an editorial that still hangs on my office wall, he asked: "What's the matter with 'em anyway? - they've got the grandest job in the world."