THIS IS the golden age of journalism, Sig Gissler says, in contrast with the usual grim picture painted of the media business. Gissler is a purveyor of good news. Journalism is alive and well, and the stories entered into the Pulitzer Prize competition, which Gissler administers, prove it.
Gissler says future journalists will need to combine traditional journalism skills with digital knowledge. He visited Slovakia in early October and amid lectures and workshops for Slovak students, he sat down to take questions from The Slovak Spectator about the Pulitzer Prize, the future of journalism and the challenges facing contemporary journalists.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What does a story need to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning story?
Sig Gissler (SG): It takes great reporting, terrific writing and some good luck. Because it has to go through a very rigorous process, and there are subjective judgments that come into play. The judges may like one story more than another for subjective reasons. But in the final analysis all these stories have a common characteristic, and that is: the reporting is very strong, it’s very detailed, in-depth, and the writing is very strong.
TSS: Why is the Pulitzer Prize so prestigious?
SG: It’s America’s greatest prize for several reasons. One is that Joseph Pulitzer, who created it at the turn of the 20th century, was creating probably the first prize for journalists, so it has that standing as being the first journalism prize. The other thing about it is that very high standards have been maintained through the years, so the prize is associated with integrity, with very strong, careful, judicious analysing of the entries. And the journalism winners are participating in a competition that also gives prizes to books and music and drama. So when you win a Pulitzer Prize, you’re in the company of great authors, playwrights and composers; Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, people like that. We sometimes say you’re sent into the aristocracy of excellence of America when you win a Pulitzer Prize.
TSS: Have changes in the media industry in recent years impacted the quality of entries?
SG: It’s remarkable that the quality of the work that we receive has not been greatly influenced. I think that the volume of stories being done has decreased. Ten or 15 years ago we might have had more investigative projects than we have today. But I would say the work is as good as has ever been. So despite the pressures on newsrooms, economic pressures among others, they’re still able to produce remarkably strong work.
TSS: Does that mean that financial resources are not that important for writing a good story?
SG: Financial resources are important, no doubt about that. Newspapers are doing fewer projects than they used to do, but they still have enough resources, and they have enough commitment to produce high-quality work on a consistent basis. A lot of newspapers have eliminated some parts of their news operations, but they’ve concentrated on investigative reporting, what we call watchdog journalism. The watchdog still barks, and still bites.
TSS: What qualities do journalists need to have nowadays that they perhaps did not need to have before?
SG: They have to be much more multi-talented. I sometimes say that what we’re trying to produce at Columbia University is tradigital journalists, meaning that they have the traditional skills of deep reporting and good writing, but they also have the digital capabilities, digital sensibilities and techniques. A good journalist today has to have a variety of skills that they probably didn’t have 15 years ago: to shoot and edit video, to do database reporting. But the positive side of all this is that while there’s pressure on newsrooms, we also have more tools for telling stories than we ever had before. In many ways this is the golden age of journalism. There are opportunities to tell stories in fabulously powerful ways.
TSS: Those tools are available to people outside the newsrooms too. Everybody can be a journalist, and in Slovakia you often see little weight given to journalism education. Can you be a good journalist without proper education?
SG: It is possible to be a good journalist without going to journalism school, but I think the need for journalism school education has probably increased because the world of journalism is so complicated and challenging, and also because the old system of mentoring in newsrooms has declined because of the economic pressures. In the past you could come in as a young reporter without a journalism degree and there would be older editors who would take you under their wing and help you learn the craft. It is less true today. More and more it’s sink or swim. And that’s where journalism school education can be very useful. Bloggers and citizen journalists are fine, they make some very valuable contributions. But there’s no substitute for a deeply trained journalist who can speak different languages, who knows the ethical requirements of the job, who has the experience, who knows how to dig for stories and then produce very a fair, well-balanced account. A lot of bloggers tend to do opinion pieces rather than reporting. There’s a joke in the United States that citizen journalists are fine, but it’s like saying citizen surgeons or doctors. You want doctors who have training in their particular craft.
TSS: In 1990s you started your race and ethnicity course at Columbia Journalism School. Why did you focus on diversity issues?
SG: It’s a lifelong interest of mine, race relations in the United States, because we have struggled with the issue of black versus white. It has now become much more complex with the influx of more immigrants from different parts of the world – particularly the Latin and Hispanic population is exploding in the United States. I was interested in this all my life. When I was editor at a newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal, we devoted a lot of our time and attention to diversity issues. When I had the opportunity to create a course at Columbia, I was very happy to do that, because we could use New York City, probably the most diverse city in the world, as our laboratory.
TSS: What are the challenges journalists are facing today when covering diversity issues, compared to the time when you worked as a journalist?
SG: When I first started in journalism, there was the black-white bipolar situation with race in the United States. Now it’s become much more complicated. You need to figure out what’s going on inside the Hispanic community. Inside the community there is a great deal of diversity too. In New York City there’s probably 17 different subgroups: Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Brazilians, it goes on and on. So the complexity of ethnicity is a great challenge. The Asian community is the same thing and they don’t even speak the same language. The complexity of American diversity is remarkably challenging. The United States is trying to do what no nation has ever done in history, which is to build such a large multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multicultural society.
TSS: Not long ago we heard voices here in Europe, including in Slovakia, saying that multicultural societies had failed.
SG: I’m not sure what they mean by that. But I can say that the face of America is changing dramatically and in most instances it’s a very positive force. It brings new people, new energy, new motivation to the country. There are whole neighbourhoods in New York City that were renewed by immigrants that have moved in. They’re hard-working people with families, committed to growth and development. Immigration has its problems, but on the whole it’s a great plus for the United States.
TSS: Various extremist movements with just the opposite opinions are now gaining popularity in this country. How should journalists respond to this?
SG: They should respond with good journalism, which means to go out to the field, figure out what’s going on, tell the stories with context, provide history and statistical information, provide perspective that is sometimes missing from these stories. Reporting controversies is a legitimate thing to do, but you need to go beyond that and explain what are the factors and forces that are at work in that particular story.
TSS: Is it important to have diversity in the newsroom in order to cover diversity issues properly?
SG: As an editor I always felt it was very important, because you get different viewpoints and it helps you make sure that you’re not treating issues superficially. Diverse voices in the newsroom can help produce more balanced stories, can produce stories that go into greater depth, and they can also generate ideas for stories that would never occur to a white editor. A black reporter or a Hispanic reporter might offer ideas for stories that a white editor might not even think of.
TSS: Are American newspapers paying enough attention to having newsroom diversity?
SG: There’s a genuine effort to keep newsrooms as diverse as possible in the United States. It’s difficult with the economic squeezes because journalism jobs in many papers are not growing, sometimes they’ve had to cut back staff. Generally I think editors are trying to preserve a diverse mix in their newsrooms when they’re making staff reductions because they feel it’s valuable to have a variety of perspectives.
TSS: Are you optimistic about the future of newspapers as we know them today?
SG: I would say a qualified optimism. I don’t want to try to predict the future because things can change so rapidly in just a few years time, but when you look out there right now newspapers still have very significant print editions of the paper, and meanwhile they’re growing huge audiences online. So they’re moving forward with two legs. One is the print edition, still significant and often quite profitable, and at the same time they have the online edition, which gives them a chance to court younger people, who are more inclined to read online rather than in print.
TSS: Do you think there are many people in the United States who don’t read the online editions at all?
SG: Particularly older Americans still like to read a paper they can hold in their hands. The youngest Americans, 20-year-olds, are much more inclined to getting their news on their cell phone. But newspapers have made some amazing adaptations to the digital revolution. They have really transformed the way they operate. They have very strong websites. They also developed very strong programmes to reach readers on mobile devices. If the challenge was just journalistic, I think newspapers have met the challenge. The problem is it is not just journalistic. It’s also economic, which is to generate enough revenue to pay for high-quality journalism. That’s where it’s a little cloudy. There are a lot of different experiments going on right now to see if they can come up with a way to produce revenue.
Who is Sig Gissler?
Sig Gissler, award-winning journalist and former editor of The Milwaukee Journal, is the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and a special faculty member of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, which he joined in 1994. In 1999 he founded the school’s Workshops on Journalism, Race & Ethnicity for news media professionals. In 2002, he was named to his Pulitzer post and also received a Presidential Teaching Award, one of five out of 300 Columbia professors nominated.