Where’s My Pulitzer?

The winners of the Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week. As usual, I didn’t win one.

The Pulitzers are supposed to honor the best in journalism, but they actually honor just the best in newspapers. The University of Georgia offers the Peabody Awards for broadcast journalism, but the work I do has no place there, either.

Just for fun, I checked out some of the awards that are offered for work done online. There are the WebAwards, the Webby Awards, and the Best of the Web Awards. Most focus on design, most try to be hip, and most aren’t worth the plastic they’re made of.

When I began my freelance career, I was briefly president of the Computer Press Association, which offered prizes I nicknamed the “chippies.” The group is currently inactive and has no plans to renew the awards competition.

Every industry has awards, and they serve a useful purpose. They identify quality — even if you don’t agree with who won, it’s usually fairly good stuff. Awards teach the audience what good stuff is, what it costs to produce, and what elements go into making it. They educate both the audience and the industry.

Frankly, this industry has done a pretty horrid job of educating its audience. Instead, we’ve celebrated ourselves, congratulated ourselves, and thrown ourselves parties. We’ve cavorted among ourselves in ways that invited ridicule, and now that the punch bowl is dry, ridicule is here in abundance.

Turning that around won’t be easy. But it is a job that’s worth doing. This medium has been evolving so rapidly it has been hard to figure out exactly what it is. Only now, seven years since the Web was spun, are we starting to be aware of what it is.

It’s a lot of things — not just journalism. It’s writing, design, and video production. But it’s also moderation and community. We offer everything from the jungle telegraph of chat and instant messaging to elements of newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV. The medium is also being redefined constantly. An awards program would find ways to honor all of it.

The risk is that most awards (including the Pulitzer) serve mainly to enforce an existing economic order and existing professional definitions. If you want to win a Pulitzer, you work at The New York Times. If you want an Oscar, you work for a major American movie studio. The only question is, Who should run that risk?

That’s why a credible set of online awards should start with a respected sponsoring institution. I nominate the University of Southern California, home of the Online Journalism Review. Just as Columbia University hosts the Pulitzers and the University of Georgia hosts the Peabodys, the Web space deserves a home with people who know what they’re judging.

Of course it takes money to accept nominations, judge them, and pay for those little paperweights and press releases. (OK, a party would be nice, too.) That job I leave to you. After all, it’s your industry we’re building.

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