The announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes usually provoke yawns -- or even sneers -- from media critics. The biggest of the American journalism prizes, the Pulitzers annually ratify conventional wisdom with overwhelmingly safe selections. Prizes are often given to the pooh-bahs from the top daily newspapers, allowing them to burnish their resumes and giving their employers free rein to promote the notion, however committed they are to profit, that they also serve the public good.
And that's largely what happened earlier this week, when the Pulitzer board announced this year's winners. The usual suspects -- the L.A Times, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal -- were named, with one exception. For only the fifth time in the history of the prizes, an alternative weekly was named a winner. The paper, Willamette Week, in Portland, Ore., won the investigative reporting category for an astonishing series of reports on a former governor's long cover-up of sexual misconduct with a teenage girl.
The Willamette Week's report on former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, written by Nigel Jaquiss, was explosive. Goldschmidt, until the story broke, was considered the most powerful man in the state. Even more astonishing than Goldschmidt's misbehaviors was the cover-up. In a separate article, published last December, Jaquiss describes a tight-knit group of elite Oregonians who knew enough about Goldschmidt's problem to have done something about it. But they didn't.
As one person told the reporter, you could argue that he had an ethical responsibility to act against Goldschmidt but other people had an even greater responsibility to act and didn't, so why should he?
One of those other non-actors, as it turned out, was Oregon's largest daily newspaper, the Oregonian, which had a chance to reveal the cover-up but inexplicably did not. In November 2003, after Goldschmidt was appointed to the Oregon State Board for Higher Education, one of his former staffers met with the Oregonian's senior political writer and gave him the name of Goldschmidt's victim, a chronology of the cover-up and the names of others who could confirm the story.
There's no evidence that the Oregonian ever looked into the tip -- until Willamette Week prepared its own expose. Then on the eve of publication, the daily and the former governor worked together to blunt the charges -- a strategy that ultimately failed to protect his reputation or deny the Willamette Week credit for its scoop.
The prize won by Jaquiss -- a former crude oil trader who took up journalism when he moved to Oregon seven years ago -- is a reminder of the importance of alternative weekly newspapers -- and the continuing tendency for monopoly newspapers to ignore the values of good journalism in pursuit of profit or behind-the-scenes influence. A disclosure: 25 years ago, when I got my start in journalism, I worked for a series of alternative weeklies, including the Willamette Week. It is hard to recapture the spirit that animated these pioneering alternative papers, which worked in the face of open hostility from daily newspapers and the power elites of their cities. In the 1970s and 1980s, when alternative weeklies took firm root, there was no internet and daily newspaper conglomerates routinely excluded entire segments of the community from its pages. Alternative weeklies -- such as the Village Voice, New Times and the Boston Phoenix -- broadened the media landscape against sizeable odds. Ultimately, many daily newspapers revitalized themselves by borrowing forms, methods and even staff from alternative papers -- without giving those papers much, if any, credit.
In a sense, alternative weeklies became a victim of their own success. By the 1990s, it was often hard to tell the difference -- in tone and content -- between alternative weeklies and daily newspapers that increasingly presented lifestyle and cultural coverage over hard news and serious political analysis.
Then came the internet explosion. In recent years, we've all watched with excitement as the web has revolutionized media, making the content of newspapers all over the country (and the world) available to us with a few strokes. And of course, the same forces opening up newspapers are unleashing powerful new forms of citizen journalism. The most celebrated of these, blogs, may not prove to have the stamina and force that its practitioners hope, but unquestionably the proliferation of bloggers has undercut the special role that alternative weeklies have long played in the media landscape.
But Willamette Week's Pulitzer is a reminder that alternative weeklies still have a special role to play. Bloggers may express "alternative" viewpoints with pizzazz but virtually none of them have the resources and skills to do the kind of patient investigative reporting that was required in order to strip a former governor of his apparent immunity from both law and morality. That took the concerted effort, over many months, of a reporter at an alternative paper with a circulation of a mere 90,000 a week. Internet or no, alternative newspapers remain special, and they are needed as much, maybe even more, than ever.