By Jean Latz Griffin
For the first time this year, the Pulitzer committee gave one of its awards for Journalism to an entry that exists completely online. This isn’t online content that is part of a print project. It isn’t an online version of what could have been printed. This is a journalistic creation so completely native to the digital world and its interactivity that it couldn’t exist elsewhere.
In the words of the Pulitzer committee, the National Reporting Award was given to the staff of the St. Petersburg Times for “‘PolitiFact,’ its fact-checking initiative during the 2008 presidential campaign that used probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine more than 750 political claims, separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters.”
Enlighten indeed. The project has continued and is now watching the Obama administration, Congress, and assorted pundits. Want to know whether columnists or government officials are accurately representing reality? Check out the trademarked Truth-O-Meter. Hunting for an objective look at how President Obama is doing on his promises? Look at the Obamameter. Confused by the latest political chain email? See if PolitiFact says “True” or “Pants on Fire.” Yes, with flames.
Some say this is a welcome sign that traditional print newspapers will be able to not only survive the emergence of the Internet but to thrive on it. Neil Brown, executive editor of the Times, which launched PolitiFact in August 2007, said the award was “proof that the Web is not a death sentence for newspapers. In fact, PolitiFact marries the power of old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism with an extraordinarily powerful way to present it.”
But to others, the Pulitzer-winning website may be the exception that proves the rule. Newspapers, with their roots in watchdog journalism, are essential to the kind of investigative reporting that a healthy democracy needs, whether it ends up on paper or the web, they say. And a newspaper has to be strong and healthy to be able to continue to do that kind of reporting. Most online commentary and flash just doesn’t cut it. And decimated newspapers can’t afford it.
A few months before the Pulitzer went to PolitiFact, a New York Times opinion piece by Eduardo Porter detailed evidence of “the importance of an independent press — mostly newspapers — in disseminating hard-to-get information, mobilizing the public and putting pressure on government and businesses in favor of the public good.” If newspapers wither and/or die, Porter said, “there will be nobody covering city hall.”
The withering and dying, of course, is already in full swing.
So many newspapers have folded or cut back that the world’s largest newsprint provider sought bankrupty protection this month. The Chicago Tribune has declared bankruptcy and gone all gaudy tabloid. The paper that once truly tried to live up to its billing as the World’s Greatest Newspaper didn’t get around to saying that Sen. Arlen Specter had switched parties, probably giving the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority, until page 23 on Wednesday. They probably figured that everyone who really cared had already seen the Tweets.
I did get a second email, however, advising me that the Trib’s “new hyper-local [online] publication” was now available for my town and I could upload pictures and stories about my community. The best might make it into a weekly insert. Oh, joy.
Part of me wants to save quality newspapers ON PAPER at all costs, especially the NYT without which I cannot start my day. But another part of me has Slate, Salon, Wired and Doonesbury on my homepage, and a few RSS feeds from political blogs in my live bookmarks.
My hope is that newspapers will be more like the radio than the telegraph. Not the same kind of main show as in the day, but still major players in our increasingly complex world.