This year’s Pulitzer Prizes, announced Monday, broke with tradition by honoring two primarily online publications, Politico and the Huffington Post. The prizes were restricted to print newspapers until 2008 and now include text-based “online news sites,” as opposed to "online news magazines" or websites for TV or radio stations. Politico is an easy call, because it publishes a print version. But what makes the Huffington Post an online news site and not, say, an online magazine?
It's up to the publication to decide. The prizes have a few basic criteria for what constitutes an online news site: It must put out content at least weekly and adhere “to the highest journalistic principles.” But if the Huffington Post meets these requirements, so do thousands of other websites that aren’t assumed to be eligible for Pulitzers, such as the Atlantic Wire, FoxNews.com, Salon, and Slate. The main distinction is that the latter either call themselves "online magazines" or are affiliated with established print magazines or broadcast media. The Huffington Post may look similar, but it has never referred to itself as a magazine. In fact, its tagline is “The Internet Newspaper.” Voila: It’s an online news site.
Each year the Pulitzer Prize Board, which is affiliated with Columbia University, receives a handful of nominations for which prize eligibility is in doubt, and evaluates them individually. The number of borderline cases has grown since 2008, when the board limited the pool of online contestants to those “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing events.” That opened the door to quibbles about what constituted "original reporting," and the board dropped the requirement the following year, on the grounds that it “excluded possibly promising entries—notably by online columnists, critics, and bloggers—because of the nature of their web affiliation.”
Online affiliation isn’t the only potential source of confusion. In 2010, blogs lit up with discussion of whether the National Enquirer, a tabloid, should be eligible for a Pulitzer for its scoop on former Sen. John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter. The board initially said no, noting that the National Enquirer’s own website said it was a celebrity magazine. National Enquirer officials insisted that was false advertising, however, and the prize board ultimately allowed the submission. (It didn’t win.)
Don’t feel too bad for magazine and broadcast websites: They have their own awards, albeit lesser-known ones, such as the National Magazine Awards for Digital Media and the Edward R. Murrow Awards. The Huffington Post’s case for the Pulitzers is bolstered by the fact that it has never applied for those awards. The Murrow Awards, for their part, are less rigid about limiting submissions to radio and TV websites: The website of the Boston Globe, a newspaper, was a big winner this year.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks Mike Cavender of the Radio Television Digital News Association, Sig Gissler of the Pulitzer Prize Board and Mario Ruiz of the Huffington Post.