The final session of the 2015 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference served as a preview of next year’s theme.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes, the conference will focus on the awards and award-winners. Sunday’s final session featured The Dallas Morning News editorial page editor and Pulitzer Board member Keven Ann Willey, Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida, Los Angeles Times reporter and Pulitzer-winner Ruben Vives and Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer-winner Carol Leonning.
The group talked about what it takes to win the prize and the effect of winning it on their work and their sources. Vives said that he’s still early in his career and hopes winning the award – for the Times’ Homicide Report – will lead to more big stories.
“The impact, the ripple effect, for our reputation is just astonishing,” Vives said. “People come to me. They trust me.”
Leonning said her sources in the Secret Service were just as thrilled about the award. They had wanted the story told for a long time, and “really believed President Obama was going to get killed.”
While she was still working on a story about a 2011 assassination attempt, a man jumped the White House fence, forcing her to publish her narrative project quickly and work with those same sources on deadline. She said if she hadn’t built those sources early, they wouldn’t have come to her during breaking news.
“It was so great luck, I had sources when I needed them,” Leonning said. “I know they were delighted to be heard.”
Merida and Willey talked about the behind-the-scenes process that happens between publication and the prize. Merida said his staff has a de-facto “contest wrangler” who goes through each department to find entry-worthy work. Editors debate which three pieces to enter in each contest.
The entries then go to the various juries for each category, which select the three finalists sent to the Pulitzer Board for final judging.
“It’s great to win the prize because it’s energizing to the newsroom,” Merida said. “It inspires people. It motivates them.”