Pulitzer Prize chronicler vists CSUF

In Campus News, News

By Nicole Park
Daily Titan Staff Writer

Two creams, one sugar; that’s how Roy Harris, a veteran of acclaimed publications including the Wall Street Journal and the Economist Group’s CFO magazine remembers his first boss, Joseph Pulitzer III.

Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism, will re-release in Feb. 2010 Courtesy of Amazon.com
Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism, will re-release in Feb. 2010 Courtesy of Amazon.com

Harris began his bright career in the mid-1960s as a copy boy, whose duties included getting coffee for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch publisher, grandson of newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer.

Harris’ father worked as a reporter for the same newspaper for 42 years and earned recognition as a contributor to four Pulitzer Prize-winning articles.

Although he has yet to fulfill his lifelong dream of winning the coveted journalism prize, Harris recently wrote about those who have. In 2007, the seasoned reporter and editor became a first-time author with his book “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,” a work inspired by his father’s own prize-winning contributions.

“Pulitzer Prizes, by recognizing the best journalism nationally and by putting news writers on a par with artists like novelists and playwrights, elevated the profession and gave reporters and editors a goal to strive for. I believe journalism, without the prizes, would have had a harder time getting out of the politicized, money-grubbing rut it was in in the yellow journalism period,” Harris said after a presentation at Cal State Fullerton last Thursday.

Pulitzer Sr.’s influential legacy in print media has had both positive and negative effects. Of the positive contributions, Pulitzer is credited for establishing the entertainment section, reinventing the editorial page, popularizing the Sunday edition and creating for an independent advertising industry.

The period of yellow journalism in the late 1800s remains one of Pulitzer’s more distasteful developments. Yellow journalism is a term coined for salacious news that focuses on scandal and shock value, rather than up-front coverage. The trend grew with the circulation competition between Pulitzer and his foremost rival, publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Pulitzer created a series of prizes to recognize outstanding journalism in several categories. Harris believes this was well-received, as the prize remains the ultimate one within the industry today. He said the prize helps people notice “terrific reporting” they might otherwise miss.

Communications lecturer Mel Opotowsky was one of two professors to host the guest speaker last week and concurs about the prize’s lasting impact.

“Among journalists of all stripes, it is still No. 1, the gold standard,” Opotowsky said.

The prizes are arranged into 21 categories, but only the public service award is accompanied by the gold medal. Public service also stands alone as a category in which the entire publication is awarded, not the individual reporters. Winning stories are usually in-depth or investigative reporting and “courage is an underpinning for a lot of these awards,” Harris said.

“‘Pulitzer’s Gold’ is the first book to trace the 92-year history of the coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service,” Harris informed communications students during his speech. “It celebrates America’s top public service reporting over the past nine decades.”

The task was not a small one, and Harris didn’t downplay the responsibility of it.

“It’s a huge undertaking, and I don’t take it lightly,” the author said of the book-writing process, but added that it was “very, very rewarding.”

Harris went to work on his book in 2002 after he returned to St. Louis on what would have been his father’s hundredth birthday, where he spoke of the five Pulitzers won by the Post-Dispatch.

After researching the five awards the Post-Dispatch has won in its history, Harris decided to delve further into his research and write about other influential pieces.

“I cherry-picked the public service stories I thought best represented how journalism was changing,” Harris explained to students how he structured his book.

“The presentation made me see that the prize really means a lot. I knew it was for people who make great achievements in journalism, but I didn’t know the history of it or that it is still evolving in the ways it’s applied. The fact that the prize is trying to successfully move into the new century was surprising, and I appreciate it more because of that,” said Corinne Maurer, a public relations major and student of Opotowsky’s.

Harris discussed the newest modern advancement made by the prize organization. Entries are now open to Web-based publications, paving the way for recognition of virtual news.

Pulitzer.org states, “The eligibility rules for the Pulitzer Prizes in journalism have been revised, opening the door wider to entries from text-based online-only newspapers and news sites.”

One criticism the author writes about is the overlooking of the magazine medium as a news source.

“I’d like to see the prizes broadened even more so that all text-based journalism, including … magazines, would be included. As of now, magazine reporting can’t be submitted,” Harris said.

Opotowsky, a retired news editor himself, was happy to provide students with new source of industry information.

“(Guest speakers) bring to students another voice from the real world of journalism (and) a chance to hear a different perspective and different experiences,” Opotowsky said, who shared conversation with the author after the presentation. “We talked about mutual acquaintances, swapped war stories and talked shop, including how his book might be used in the classroom.”

When asked what he liked best about the speech, Opotowsky said, “The story behind the stories – his look into just how the prize-winning projects got launched.” Opotowsky said he appreciated the inside look behind the gold medal-awarded articles.

Maurer, 27, agreed with her professor, “He gave a lot of details to famous stories that I had never heard before. It was interesting to hear it from an insider.”

Harris’ book provides a detailed look behind influential American journalism that has been recognized as the best of its kind including written coverage of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Harris was able to provide detailed and accurate accounts of years passed with the help of many of the reporters themselves.

“Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee were so gracious with their time and their analysis of the events of 1972,” Harris said of two of the men responsible for exposing the Watergate scandal.

A resident of Massachusetts with a wealth of friends and family in California, Harris said, “I love talking to students about the things I learned in the five years of my life I spent on this research.”

This was Harris’ first visit to CSUF, though he also has plans to be a guest speaker at Cal State Northridge and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

“I wanted to make other contacts and asked an old (Wall Street) Journal friend to mention another school or to doing good things. CSUF was at the top of his list; also, the faculty is very impressive, starting with the professors I contacted: Tony Fellow, Mel Opotowsky, Jeff Brody and Jason Shepard,” he said.

Of his visit, Harris said, “Believe me, the honor was all mine.”

Harris retired from his position as editor of CFO in March and is spending his time freelancing, “keeping up with public service journalism,” considering the possibilities of another book and even beginning a teaching career.

The author returned to his roots on Saturday when his freelance holiday-inspired article was published in the Dec. 5 issue of the Wall Street Journal.

“Pulitzer’s Gold” will be re-released in paperback version in February of next year and will include an update with the two prizes awarded since the book was first published two years ago.

“After that, my book will become obsolete in another five months,” the author said.

More information about the author can be found on PulitzersGold.com.

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