5 Things You Can Learn from Pulitzer

Christmas Issue 1899 Featuring a story by Mark Twain

That headline alone is a modern version of the Pulitzer legacy. It’s a formula for selling, hence the “10 ways to flatten your abs” and “20 ways to lose 20 lbs in 20 days” headlines that are plastered on every magazine. This is a subtle form of yellow journalism.

Pultizer is famous for his founding role in the creation of yellow journalism and his relentless competition with Hearst. But he is better known for the founding of the Columbia School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize after his death.

Pultizer’s New Found Relevance

David Schneiderman put it succintly in a recent post on Techflash:

This new media world may sound eerily similar to the old media world—the very old media world of early 20th century newspapers. Tabloid journalism; opinion mixing with news; intense competition; a premium on speed—Hearst and Pulitzer would have been very comfortable and successful practicing web journalism.

There are more than five things to be learned from Pultizer, but here are five that I think are worthwhile:

1. Give ‘Em What They Want

David Nordfors recently distinguished journalism from PR by saying that journalism takes it’s mandate from the people while PR takes it’s mandate from the corporation.  Pulitzer reported on neighborhood news, the kind of news that people gossiped about, news considered scandalous at the time. He knew his community and he gave them what they wanted. He knew what was happening locally and reported on it.

2. If You Want To Stand Tall, Build a Pedestal

Pulitzer was an immigrant, selling to immigrants. When France gave the Statue of Liberty to the US, there was one problem: there was nothing to put it on. While the government fiddled around doing nothing, Pulitzer asked his readers to send him there spare change (pennies, nickels, dimes) and he would put it aside to fund the building of the foundation. They did (and many others did too) and it was built. He was the community.

3. Try Everything

In the New York World, Pulitzer provided full color pictures (in 1896!), he included games, sheet music, even dress patterns. Our modern equivalent is video, interactive graphics, podcasts and an endless number of designs and platforms. There is no silver bullet, get out the Gatling gun

4. Don’t Phone It In

In the end, Pulitzer tried to control his newspapers from his home and his boat rather than being on the scene. He literally tried to phone it in, although he used inferior communication technologies. It ended in the destruction of the New York World as he fought with editors on the scene.

5. Think About Your Legacy

Fast thinking is great, short-term thinking will kill you. If it does kill you, you won’t have left anything behind that will have made a difference. If you care about that, and hopefully if you have children you do, then be like Pulitzer and change the profession entirely. A man who was known for scandalous tabloids was critical in the founding of two schools of journalism and created the prize that is most coveted in journalism and beyond.

Finally, what was the Pulitzer Prize that was most important to Pulitzer himself?  The award for Public Service. What’s your verdict, was Pulitzer the beginning of the end of professional journalism or just the beginning of professional journalism?

If you’re interested in reading about Pulitzer, there’s a new book:  Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power by James Mcgrath Morris.


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