Tuesday, April 13, 2010

All hail small newspapers and web sites

A small newspaper about one-quarter larger than the Post Register has won this year's most prized of the Pulitzer Prizes -- the one for public service.

The 33,000-circulation Bristol Herald Courier, which employs seven full-time news reporters (the PR has five, in addition to our features and sports writers) beat out newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post. It was one of two prizes of note, the other being one won by a non-profit investigative journalism web site, ProPublica.

Here's what I love about the Courier Journal -- when I went to its web site the day the Pulitzer was announced, the lead story was about a road closure caused by a traffic accident, not the newspaper's historic Pulitzer Prize, and the story elsewhere on the site about the prize was provided by the Associated Press. That is a local newspaper doing its thing.

The winning series documented how Virginia homeowners are being routinely ripped off by the state of natural gas royalties they should be earning. The coverage included a complete and sophisticated database that accounts for the money.

ProPublica won for its coverage of the unimaginable life-and-death choices that doctors had to make at a New Orleans hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This, too, represents journalism at its finest.

If nothing else, this shows that journalism isn't about the medium -- it's about the quality of the work. A small-town newspaper in the coalfields of Virginia and a non-profit web site each won recognition in the nation's top journalism competition. There are those who think that investigative journalism among newspapers, especially small ones, is in real trouble. While the resources required to do this sort of journalism are undoubtedly shrinking, real journalism continues to happen at newspapers large and small.

And speaking of coalfields, of note in the coverage of the recent mining disaster in Virginia and its aftermath is the hard-nosed and comprehensive reporting of the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette, particularly that of staff writer Ken Ward Jr. The best reporting on the disaster and its aftermath is coming from the small newspapers of Appalachia, not the big papers or TV stations. A year from now, 60 Minutes or another national TV news magazine will do a comprehensive report on the disaster. Rest assured, that report will be based largely on the reporting being done now in small newsrooms committed to serving their local communities.

Journalism is journalism, regardless of how it is disseminated.

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