How the Pulitzers Promote a News Oligopoly

The prestigious prizes show how news is being consolidated among a small number of big players

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Good editors exhort their writers to keep it fresh, yet journalism awards these days have a certain repetitive quality: A few big newspaper names get repeated over and over.

This year’s Pulitzer Prizes, for example, represent a kind of sweep for the New York Times, which won 5 out of 15 journalism prizes (two prizes were granted in the single category of local reporting). Last year, the Washington Post won 6 Pulitzers. In other contests, like the Gerald R. Loeb awards for business writing or the Overseas Press Club awards for international reporting, the Wall Street Journal and some of the TV news networks grab a slice of the glory. But less-heralded winners like the Las Vegas Sun or the Post-Star of Glens Falls, New York – which both won Pulitzers this year – are increasingly rare.

It’s obvious why: Newspapers are an endangered species, threatened by free info on the Web, outdated business models, and a nasty recession that’s cut deeply into advertising revenue. That leaves fewer journalists and often no monetary incentive to produce the kind of costly work that merits a Pulitzer.

[See why optimism over the economy is premature.]

To measure the trend, I did a quick spot analysis of the Pulitzers during certain years going back to 1960, to gauge how journalism in general – especially quality journalism – is being consolidated among a small number of organizations. It’s clearly happening. In 1960, for example, there were 7 journalism prizes, won by 7 different news organizations. Only one of the awards went to the Big 3, which I define as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The story was similar in 1990, when 14 prizes went to 14 different news outlets. But in 2000, 36 percent of the prizes went to the Big 3, and this year it was 40 percent. Here’s the spread:

Year Number of Pulitzer Prizes awarded Number of winning news organizations Most prizes won by a single organization Number won by the Big 3 Pctg. won by the Big 3
2009 15 10 5 6 40%
2000 14 11 3 5 36%
1990 14 14 1 2 14%
1980 12 9 3 2 17%
1970 11 10 2 2 18%
1960 7 7 1 1 14%

Is this a terrible trend? Not necessarily. Journalists bemoan the turmoil in their industry, but it’s not so different from the restructuring that’s occurred in music, travel, retail, electronics, and even automobiles. There’s a familiar pattern, and journalism isn’t immune to it: Something like the Internet comes along and dramatically changes the rules, smart new competitors take advantage of it, laggards refuse to change, and the weakest, most stagnant players go out of business. A new Old Guard emerges sooner or later, and everybody who’s left adjusts. But for awhile, the creative destruction feels a lot more destructive than creative.

[See why more companies are likely to fail this year.]

There are obvious hazards, though. We’re seeing a kind of oligopoly form in the market for high-quality journalism. The danger isn’t that the New York Times or Wall Street Journal will corner the market and raise prices so much that they have consumers over a barrel. (Times or Journal editors would guffaw at the notion, since they can barely get readers to pay a buck for a newspaper or a dime for an online article.) The first problem is that fewer providers simply means there will be less high-quality news, at least for awhile, since big news organizations can’t scale up to meet demand nationwide, the way some manufacturers can. There will also be less competition, which always cuts down on innovation. That means there will be an even higher proportion of stories on what East Coast editors think is important, which tends to be political infighting, policy to-and-fro, economic debate, and urban cocktail-party chatter.

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Yawn. And that’s the point. Consolidation produces efficiencies but also leaves holes where it's not worth the cost or the trouble to meet certain market demand. That's where entrepreneurial journalists (let’s hope it’s not an oxymoron) have a chance to reach abandoned news consumers through blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or other still-nascent technologies. The Pulitzer committee and others like it should help by opening their contests to a broad range of non-traditional entrants, while keeping quality standards high. If one or two upstarts can notch a win, more investors will fund them, talent will follow, and there will be more high-quality journalism to compete with the Times and its ilk. The news might even get better.