Essay: Pulitzer Prize's Effect on Journalism

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Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer and his Eponymous Prize: The Shaping and Stature of Modern American Journalism

Joseph Pulitzer is remembered variously as a pioneering voice and face in the newspaper industry and the field of journalism, and as a quasi-robber baron with more greed than conscience and a willing to sell principles if it meant selling papers. Neither view can be considered wholly incorrect, though both are highly oversimplified (as are all such one-dimensional views of any individual, of especial historical significance or not). Pulitzer, like many (if not most) men of great wealth and power, did both great and terrible things, and it is only fitting that he should be remembered for all of them. More than anything else, however, he deserves to be remembered for the way that he, and the prize bestowed by the Columbia School of Journalism that bears his name and is considered by most to be the top honor awarded in the field, continues to shape journalism and journalists.

The Pulitzer Prize does not, of course, directly affect the way the journalists do their jobs, but the principles inherent to the work produced that wins the award provide a clear set of standards and accomplishment to strive for in the industry. Under the guidance of Joseph Pulitzer and later of the Pulitzer Prize (and the board that selects its recipients), journalism has been hugely reshaped from its initial forms in modern society, becoming a profession of increasingly rigid and refined standards, and with a distinct sense of responsibility. This is something that, regardless of some of his past actions and politics that perhaps seem to suggest contrary, Joseph Pulitzer would undoubtedly be proud to see.

To understand Joseph Pulitzer and his often complex relationship with newspapers and with journalism as a whole, it is necessary to understand both the details of his life and what journalism looked like before he came into the picture. Both of these aspects will be explored in detail in the following pages, as will the effects of Pulitzer's legacy through the Columbia School of Journalism's awarding of the Pulitzer Prize. Due to the combined effects of his own life as a newspaperman and his continued legacy through Columbia and the Pulitzer Prize, Joseph Pulitzer could possibly be considered the single most influential man in the development of the newspaper and journalism industry. Whatever view is taken of the man as a whole, it must be acknowledged that through his influence on the media he has done an enormous amount to shape our world today.

Media and Newspapers Before Pulitzer

Modern celebrity tabloids, in print and on television, did not create the type of sensationalist news that they continue to cash in on in a large way, just as political radio hosts and bloggers were not the first to develop the rhetorical styles of extremism and invective. Both of these honors in fact -- as well as many others -- belong to the newspapers of the nineteenth century and even earlier. Unimportant though they usually were to the general populous, duels were a major focus of newspapers for several centuries (Holland). Newspapermen could also become more intimately involved with such stories for printing things, whether true or not, perceived as insulting by men with pistols (Holland).

The sense of objective truth, then, was not really an essential or a very secure aspect of the media of the time. Though these principles could never be wholly abandoned if a loyal readership was desired (which, for purely pragmatic if not for idealistic reasons, it was), it was more important for newspaper to be appealing. In the 1830s, the advent of the popular "penny papers" achieved just that, and Benjamin H. Day's New York Sun was the first paper to successfully mix a low subscription cost with enough advertising to make the venture profitable, and all by broadening the appeal of the paper (Douglas 5-6). Up until this point in time, newspaper subscriptions had been prohibitively expensive, and so consisted of stiff-necked and highbrow stories and writing that appealed to the elite upper classes who could afford the product being produced.

Day and his Sun changed this, however, by making the paper somewhat larger as advertising allowed for it (or demanded, in that much of the additional space was also occupied by advertisements) and including a greater variety of news stories presented in a more engaging manner (Douglas 6). In some ways, this can be seen as the beginning of modern American journalism. The popularity of newspapers that Day's innovations created also made them more effective mouthpieces for politicians, and thus many newspapers and their editors became little more than clearly biased means for political parties and machines to get their message out, leading to harsh rivalries and competition among editors and journalists (Douglas).

The Civil War and the invention and nation-wide implementation of the telegraph, which came at roughly the same time in American history, also did a great deal to change the face of journalism in the country, as people became more desperate for news, and as the news itself grew more urgent and more readily available (Douglas 55-7). At the same time, the prominence of the war and the fact that the nation had been divided in two increased the political importance of newspapers, and their editors and owners were far from oblivious to this fact. Regardless of which side of the Mason-Dixon line a newspaper was located, it could serve as a powerful proponent or critic of few, some, or all of either the Union's or the Confederacy's policies and practices (Douglas). This increasing clout, which was spurred on by the technological innovations that allowed for much speedier national and even international distribution of newspapers and their information, allowed newspapers to grow both politically and economically. This newfound stature and place of importance in American society did not diminish after the close of the war, either, but arguably has continued to grow almost uninterrupted ever since.

After the close of the war, national news faded in importance somewhat for many newspaper ventures, and regional and rural papers began sprouting up to publish the details of life and events in their specific communities (Smythe). Key in this endeavor was the ability to make money, as newspaper were not cheap to produce or distribute. Much of the credit can got to the changing roles of advertising agents, who previously made a lot of money through relationships with advertisers and newspapers that were fraught with conflicts of interest (Smythe 53). When these costs were limited and standardized, newspapers found more advertisers and were able to grow in distribution as more costs were covered.

All of this set the stage for several changes to newspaper journalism in the late nineteenth century, and Joseph Pulitzer was at the heart of many of these changes. Competition and political views became the most noticeable strains in journalistic and newspaper endeavors, and both of these can actually be seen as having a united goal -- the making of money. But before Pulitzer is judged on the merits of some of the changes he introduced to the practice and profession of journalism and newspaper publishing, it is only fair -- and entirely necessary -- that a basic overview of his life is provided and explored.

Joseph Pulitzer: A (Very) Brief Biography

Joseph Pulitzer's childhood was rather unremarkable in and of itself; He grew up in a fairly typical Hungarian family -- meaning that disposable income was not something easily come by or readily available -- and wanted to be a soldier throughout his teenage years but was consistently turned away due to his physical weakness and poor eyesight -- the latter of which would continue to plague him for the rest of his life, and more extremely in his later years (Seitz). At the age of eighteen, he joined a recruiter for the Union Army, sailing for the United States form Germany and jumping ship since it had reached harbor so that he could collect his own bounty -- the price paid for enlistees -- rather than having it go to the recruiter (Brian 5). With that, Pulitzer's ascension truly began.

After fighting in the Civil War for eight months, Pulitzer found that jobs were much harder to come by -- and to keep -- during peacetime. He remained in New York for a time, hoping to find employment, but was rebuffed at every turn. He was not one to forget a grudge, either -- he was denied a shoeshine by a porter at a certain hotel during this period, and over two decades later he had the hotel demolished and built his towering newspaper offices on the same site (Brian 7). First, however, he had to make his fortune, and he did this in St. Louis, where the German he spoke fluently was far more useful, and where he found enough employment to keep himself housed and fed (most of the time). He studied English in his spare… [END OF PREVIEW]

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