The Pulitzer judges’ decision* not to award a prize in Features Writing on Monday was disappointing but not unprecedented.** The last (and only other) gap occurred 10 years ago, when stories by Robert Lee Hotz (Los Angeles Times), Anne Hull and Tamara Jones (the Washington Post) and Patricia Wen (the Boston Globe) stalled out as finalists. This year’s finalists wrote stories about a Los Angeles manhunt, a child abuse survivor and a year in the life of students of gross anatomy. The honorees:
1) Scott Farwell, the Dallas Morning News, for his story about “a young woman’s struggle to live a normal life after years of ghastly child abuse, an examination of human resilience in the face of depravity.” Of “The Girl in the Closet,” which ran as an eight-day series, Farwell has said, “(I) don’t think I’ve ever worked on a story that’s inspired this kind of emotion.”
—His opening sentence:
Lauren is alone in the dark.
He recorded every interview and then listened to each one. Though time-consuming, the exercise helped him determine how to structure the story; he wanted the dialogue, character development and scenes to fit together seamlessly. Farwell equated the experience to carpentry.
“You cut all your pieces of wood, lay them all out, and have a plan,” he said. “It’s a creative journey for sure, but at the end you want it to be like a dresser, where it’s all square and the drawers slide like butter back and forth. No jiggling.” — from Poynter.org
—Live chat: One reader said, “It’s not only the facts, it is the manner in which the facts are presented. Very, very well done.”
2) Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times, for “The Manhunt for Christopher Dorner,” a beautifully designed chapter-based “account of an ex-police officer’s nine-day killing spree in Southern California, notable for its pacing, character development and rich detail.” Goffard was also a Pulitzer finalist, in features writing, in 2007, for St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) stories about a public defender.
—His opening sentence:
The man emerged from a charcoal-gray pickup and approached the hotel check-in counter.
—Story coverage (KTLA):
Q: Why did editors want reporters to spend the energy and time delving deeper into this narrative?
Goffard: Even as the Dorner manhunt was unfolding we thought it would be worth trying to get the deeper story, which we knew wouldn’t be possible in the frenzy of the daily news. So we started gathering material.
3) Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for “The Course of Their Lives,” his “meticulously told tale about a group of first-year medical students in their gross anatomy class and the relationships they develop with one another and the nameless corpse on the table, an account enhanced by multimedia elements.” Johnson, an acclaimed science writer, was on the team of reporters that won the 2011 Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting, for “One in a Billion: A Boy’s Life, a Medical Mystery.” He was also a finalist in 2006, for a story about a teenager’s recovery from rabies. For a meta moment, have a look at Johnson’s Storyboard essay on a favorite Goffard piece, from our “Why’s this so good?” series.
—His opening sentence:
The noisy, first-day-of-school chatter subsides.
“The reporting itself was so much fun. I cover health and science so I figured this would be useful stuff to know. But the best part was sitting down with the students (I interviewed each one separately at the beginning and then at the very end). The interviews were amazing, not because of anything I did but because the students were so thoughtful. I felt like they were making some profound observations. Sometimes the interviews veered off into discussions about life and death and why we’re here. It was like being back at college, but without all the drunken staggering around.” — Johnson, on Gangrey.com
“My grandfather was a writer, he was a biographer. He wrote a biography of Charles Dickens. When we were kids, he would read Dickens to us. All of us, all the grandkids, we just fell in love with writing and reading. He did that. So I just wanted to go someplace where I’d get to really focus on it. I knew there were a lot of things I wasn’t good at — I wasn’t good at math, I wasn’t good at science. I wanted to focus on literature and writing. I took some creative writing courses just to learn how to write short stories.”
In other categories:
Eli Saslow, who was a 2013 finalist for a piece on a swimming pool salesman struggling to survive the poor economy, won in Explanatory Reporting, for a series on food stamps. As in the swimming pool piece, he took a narrative approach. The opening sentence of the first story:
The economy of Woonsocket was about to stir to life.
Dan Fagin, a science journalism professor at NYU, won in the General Nonfiction category for Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, “a book that deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town’s cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution.” The finalists were The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass, for “a disquieting exploration of the role played by the American president and his national security adviser in the 1971 Pakistani civil war, a bloodbath that killed hundreds of thousands and created millions of refugees;” and The Insurgents: David Patraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, by Fred Kaplan, for “an engrossing look at how a tenacious general became the ringleader of efforts to reshape America’s military strategy in the post-Cold War age.”
The staff of the Boston Globe won for Breaking News, for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, with work by Steve Silva, Mark Arsenault, Shelley Murphy, Wesley Lowery, Patricia Wen, Billy Baker and many, many more. They worked breaking narrative into the mix, as with an Eric Moskowitz piece on “Danny and the carjackers,” about a bystander whose quick thinking led to the capture of one suspect. Kevin Cullen, a Nieman alum, was also a finalist this year, for his columns about Boston, including moving accounts of the bombing and its aftermath. Later this week, we’ll have a conversation with another Nieman alum, David Abel, who was on the breaking news team and whose anniversary story, about a family of survivors, is our latest Notable Narrative.
Read the full list of the 2014 winners and finalists here.
Congratulations to all, and thank you for your work.
*The features jury, via Pulitzer.org: Jill Williams (chair), deputy managing editor, features, entertainment and new products, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Buffy Andrews, assistant managing editor of features and niche publications and social media coordinator, York Daily Record, in Pennsylvania; Bill Church, executive editor, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; George Getschow, writer-in-residence and director, the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, University of Texas, Denton; Mark Lorando, director, metro news and entertainment coverage, NOLA Media Group/Times-Picayune; Carolyn Callison Murray, editor and vice president, the Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Joyce Terhaar, executive editor, the Sacramento Bee.
**Failure to award a prize has happened more often than you may think. The category of Drama holds the record for number of years in which no prize was awarded — 14 — followed by Editorial Writing (nine), and Fiction (seven — or 11 if you count the category by its original name, Novel). Here are all the categories that have had gap years:
Breaking News Reporting: 2011
Editorial cartooning: 1973, 1965, 1960, 1936, 1923
Editorial writing: 2012, 2008, 1993, 1981, 1935, 1932, 1930, 1921, 1919
International Reporting: 1977
Public Service: 1930, 1925, 1920, 1917
Reporting: 1928, 1919
Telegraphic Reporting (National; defunct): 1943
Biography or Autobiography: 1962
Drama: 2006, 1997, 1986, 1974, 1972, 1968, 1966, 1964, 1951, 1947, 1944, 1942, 1919, 1917
Fiction: 2012, 1977, 1974, 1971, 1964, 1957, 1954
History: 1994, 1984, 1919
Music: 1981, 1965, 1953
Novel (defunct): 1946, 1941, 1920, 1917