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Regarding Media

Bigger Was Indeed Better for Pulitzers This Year

April 12, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sept. 11 and its aftermath dominated this year's Pulitzer Prize competition, as they have nearly every aspect of American life over the past seven months.

Of the 14 Pulitzers awarded this week for journalism, eight went for coverage connected to the terrorist atrocities. While that seems natural enough, other concentrations in this year's awards have attracted a good deal of uneasy attention. Only one of the prizes--the Christian Science Monitor's award for editorial cartooning--went to a newspaper not numbered among the nation's 10 largest. Twelve of the Pulitzers went to just four papers--the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The New York Times won a record seven.

To some, this accumulation signifies a new dominance by America's largest--and wealthiest--papers and a growing gap between their journalism and that of other newspapers. And indeed, something fundamental was at work this year: Over the past decade, four of the winning papers have been among the handful of American newspapers and broadcast outlets that have maintained strong national and international reporting staffs and resisted mindless cost-cutting in pursuit of unsustainable profit margins.

When the United States confronted its greatest physical challenge since Pearl Harbor, those papers had the resources and experience to cover the story. "At the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, there has been a continuing commitment to the sophisticated national and international reporting that readers do, in fact, want," said former Times Editor Michael Parks, who directs the journalism school at USC's Annenberg School of Communications.

According to Parks, who won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1987, every credible study done over the past decade "has shown a continuing strong appetite among readers and viewers for coverage of international events. Those editors and publishers who argue otherwise simply are rationalizing decisions made largely on account of cost and the pursuit of profits."

Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a veteran foreign reporter, sees "a truth hidden behind the performance of these larger papers, and that is that all but one of them have stock arrangements where the voting shares are owned by a single family. This has protected them against the cyclical massacres of newsroom staffs that the [newspaper] chains have carried out over the past 10 years."

The exception--the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by Tribune Co.--"came of age as a great newspaper under family ownership," Schell said, "and it has the memory of wanting to be great imprinted on its genetic code."

Generating Buzz

Before Publication

Charles Frazier's second novel, which currently exists only as a one-page proposal, may someday make good reading. The sums Frazier will receive for publishing and film rights to the still-untitled book already are making for good buzz.

According to sources who participated in the sealed-bid auction for the publishing rights, Random House will pay Frazier--whose best-selling first novel, "Cold Mountain," won a National Book Award--more than $8 million for the hardcover and paperback rights. Scott Rudin, who produces movies for Paramount, has acquired the film rights for $3 million.

The runner-up in the publishing auction, according to participants, was an unusual joint bid of $5 million by Morgan Entrekin, whose independent Grove Atlantic published "Cold Mountain," and Sonny Mehta, who runs Knopf and Vintage.

Variety put the price Rudin paid for the film option "among the highest ever for a work of literary fiction." Similarly, Random House's advance is thought to be among the richest deals ever struck for a single serious novel.

Several people who have read the proposal say it seems rich with possibility.

"Charles intends to fictionally re-create an actual historical person and series of events he uncovered while researching 'Cold Mountain,'" said one reader, who asked not to be named. "It involves a white man who was adopted and raised by the Cherokees, represented them in Washington as a lawyer and raised and led an all-Cherokee unit in the Confederate Army. He ended his life as a 100-year-old patient in an asylum, where he was thought to be mad because he spoke only Cherokee. It's a story that's got everything--the Trail of Tears, the Civil War and a compelling human drama. Sure the prices were high, but 'Cold Mountain' was the best-selling literary first novel in publishing history (2 million copies), and Frazier has a demonstrated ability to handle just this sort of material."

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