On New York magazine’s clever Approval Matrix last week, at the uppermost intersection of Highbrow and Brilliant was this accolade: “NSA leaks! GWB closure! Governor Bob McDonnell’s graft! This year’s George Polk Award winners show the truth-telling legacy of the legacy print press.” (Here is the full list of the Polk winners and a description of the stories that earned the prizes.) For all the continuing focus on journalism’s upheavals, with excitement and investment in the ascendency of digital based reporting, it is time—again—to recognize how much superb work is being done at venerable publications as they adapt to the evolution of delivery in which any publication with an attachment to print is considered déclassé.
Yes, there is inevitability to the dominance of the web in all its platforms, but the prodigious reporting tradition of print journalists in investigative and narrative stories is showing impressive resilience.
Praising the extraordinary quality of The New York Times, which won three of this year’s Polk awards, is often seen as evidence of what amounts to its unique position at the pinnacle of time-honored newsgathering, while the prevailing assumption is that most other newspapers are in irreversible decline. But the Polk judges at Long Island University also gave The Washington Post three awards (including one for my colleague, TCF senior fellow Barton Gellman, for national security reporting), recognition that while the Graham family has ceded ownership to Jeff Bezos, the newsroom still generates terrific pieces with national and local impact on a par with those of the paper’s glory days. Among news aficionados, the Post’s executive editor Marty Baron is earning a reputation after more than a year at the helm for successfully motivating a smaller staff with fewer resources to show just how good they are. One feature of great editors is their inspiring leadership under any circumstance, including times of uncertainty—which at the Post now means waiting for the Bezos era to truly begin.
Most encouraging in the awards roster were the prizes that went to regional or local newspapers and a national magazine that are somehow withstanding the downdrafts of business pressures and producing outstanding journalism. The cost of web access varies for each of the award-winning publications (freebies are now mostly a thing of the past), except for Miami New Times, which is a giveaway weekly.
Of particular note this year, at least to those of us in the New York area, is the work of The Record of northern New Jersey (aka The Bergen Record). Shawn Boburg, who covers the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the Record, was honored for his coverage of the still-unfolding saga about the involvement of Governor Chris Christie’s administration in horrendous traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge last September that were, from all accounts, a case-study of political dirty tricks. While it may have started as a traffic story, the momentum of coverage has already cost Christie his stature as a frontrunner among potential GOP presidential candidates in 2016. The editor of The Record since 2011 has been Martin Gottlieb, a former stalwart of The New York Times, whose energy has apparently buoyed the metabolism of this locally owned daily with a publisher, Stephen Borg, who is the fourth generation of his family to lead the enterprise. It was Borg who got the first word of unusual tie-ups at the bridge, which soon had Boburg in the classic mold of an intrepid reporter receiving a tip and, with the support of colleagues, digging deep and unearthing a full-fledged scandal.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, owned by the Milwaukee-based Journal Communications Inc., has shown consistent strength in local investigations. The Journal Sentinel won local Pulitzers in 2008 and 2010 and the prize for explanatory reporting in 2011. The Sacramento Bee, which is owned by the McClatchy Company, is another of the regional newspapers with a proud, prizewinning history that it can trace back to origins 157 years ago. Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone is a boomer-era periodical—its cultural roots are in the 1960s—yet apparently stays in tune with ever changing music styles and fads while also featuring exposes such as the late Michael Hastings takedown of General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in 2010, and this year’s expose of executions of civilians by an American Special Forces unit and their Afghan translators by another freelancer, Matthieu Atkins. Giveaway papers like the Voice Media Group–owned Miami New Times are rarely considered these days as investigative leaders, but Tim Elfrink’s reporting on Biogenisis, an anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables, finally demolished Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez’s denials that he had used performance-enhancing drugs and permanently trashed his reputation as he sits out the 2014 season.
When it comes to prestige, the George Polk awards (named for a CBS correspondent killed covering the civil war in Greece in 1948)—while lacking the cachet of the Pulitzers, which are to be announced on April 14—are known for being especially good at recognizing stories that took particular effort to uncover. As my friend John Darnton, curator of the Polks, and himself the winner of many top journalism awards in his career, said in announcing this year’s list: “They heightened public awareness with perceptive detection and dogged pursuit of stories that would not otherwise have seen the light of day.” And I would choose to add that they did so at news organizations (and nonprofits founded in the 1980s, such as the Center for Public Integrity and PBS’ Frontline) that endure in an age when the glamor and many millions in smart money is going to newer outfits with all the benefits of today’s technology. We can only hope that, over time, they can do as well—or even better—than these analog old-timers.