A Pulitzer Prize is an award regarded as the highest national honor for outstanding achievement in print journalism, literature, and musical composition; Pulitzer fellowships are also awarded. The Prizes were established by Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-American journalist and newspaper publisher, who left a gift of $500,000 to Columbia University upon his death in 1911; a portion of his bequest was used to found the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. Administered by Columbia University, Pulitzer prizes are awarded each year in twenty-one different categories pertaining to journalism, arts, and letters. Recipients of the awards in twenty categories receive a cash reward of $10,000; the winner of the Pulitzer in public service journalism, always a newspaper, receives a gold metal. Recipients are chosen by an independent Pulitzer Prize Board appointed by Columbia University. The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded on June 4, 1917, and are now awarded each May.
Pulitzer established these prizes as his legacy, his effort to establish and maintain the highest standards in the profession to which he had given his whole life. Although for a while he had focused on increasing sales by any means possible, later in life Pulitzer had abandoned this approach, investing instead in quality journalism, particularly investigative reporting to reveal social problems. He thus sought to establish the school of journalism at Columbia University and the prizes that bear his name to ensure excellence in his profession.
The Pulitzer Prizes were established by the Hungarian-born American journalist, Joseph Pulitzer, who emerged as a prominent and skillful newspaper publisher in the latter half of the nineteenth century. During his career, Pulitzer was known for his relentless investigatory attacks on government corruption; he was also the publisher of both the New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In forming his will in 1904, Pulitzer left a large endowment to Columbia University for the establishment of a School of Journalism. Part of this endowment was to be "applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public, service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education." He established four awards to be given by Columbia University for excellence in journalism, four awards to be given in letters and drama, one award for excellence in education, and four awards of traveling scholarships. In doing so, Pulitzer stated:
I am deeply interested in the progress and elevation of journalism, having spent my life in that profession, regarding it as a noble profession and one of unequaled importance for its influence upon the minds and morals of the people. I desire to assist in attracting to this profession young men of character and ability, also to help those already engaged in the profession to acquire the highest moral and intellectual training.
Pulitzer established an advisory board to instill and manage changes in the structure of the literary awards as society, and literary arts, progressed. He also empowered the board and its members to withhold any prize for which the entries were substandard. Following the death of Pulitzer in 1912, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded in 1913, followed by the awarding of the first Pulitzer Prizes in 1917. Members of the first Pulitzer advisory board included various newspaper publishers, the President of Columbia University, Columbia University scholars, and other persons of various distinctions. Sanctioned by the advisory board, posthumous changes to Pulitzer’s Prizes include the creation of awards in poetry, music and photography, and the expansion of the advisory board to include leading editors, news executives, and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
In 1997, upon the 150th anniversary of Pulitzer’s birth, the Pulitzer Prize Board exercised its discretion in recognizing excellence in online journalism. Beginning in 1999, the Board officially sanctioned online submissions as a supplement to the Public Service category. As of 2006, the Board officially recognized excellence in online achievements in fourteen of their journalism categories.
A similar amendment was allowed for in the field of music, first recognized in 1943, and intended solely for composers of classical music. Beginning in 1998, the Pulitzer Prize Board has recognized musical submissions of a broader range of American music, including jazz. In 1998, the Board also opted to posthumously award a Pulitzer Prize in music to George Gershwin on the 100th anniversary of his birth; a similar citation was awarded in 1999, to musician Duke Ellington. In 2006, the board again recognized a musician of prominence, awarding a posthumous citation to jazz composer Thelonious Monk.
Each year the Pulitzer Prize Board receives more than 2,000 submissions to be considered for just 21 awards. The awards are chosen by a board of 100 judges, serving on 20 separate juries, who work to make three nominations in each prize category. The entire process runs for one year. Jurors specializing in the drama prize, often just five members, attend numerous plays both in New York and in regional theaters to judge nominees. Music jurors, also numbering just five, meet throughout the year in New York to listen to recordings and study the scores of more than 150 pieces of music.
Voting board members serve a total of three terms of three years each; the induction of new members is voted upon by existing board members. Members of the Board receive no compensation, though jurors in letters, music, and drama are recognized for their year-long work by receiving small stipends of compensation.
After voting, jury nominations and award winners are held in strict confidence until the announcement of the prizes in May. Following a news conference held by the Prize administrator, the awards are announced precisely at three o’clock. Prize details are also listed on the Pulitzer Prize website. The announcement includes all winners of the Prizes, the two finalists in each category, and the names of the Board members and jurors, which were previously undisclosed to avoid lobbying.
The awards are presented to the winners at a small library luncheon in the presence of family members, professional associates, board members, and faculty members of the Columbia University School of Journalism. The board has repeatedly declined offers to transform the ceremony into an elaborate, televised event such as the ceremonies accompanying the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm and Oslo.
The Pulitzer Prize for Music is awarded for a distinguished musical contribution by an American that had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.
There have also been a number of Special Citations and Awards. In addition to the prizes, Pulitzer traveling fellowships are awarded to four outstanding students of the Graduate School of Journalism as selected by the faculty. These scholarships allow for the School’s top graduates to travel, report, and study abroad. One fellowship is awarded to a graduate specializing in drama, music, literary, film, or television criticism.
Various Pulitzer Prize recipients, among fiction, have included Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea, 1953), William Faulkner (A Fable, 1955, The Reivers, 1963), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mocking Bird, 1961), John Updike (Rabbit is Rich, 1982) and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1983). Among poetry, noteworthy recipients include Robert Frost (New Hampshire, 1924, Collected Poems, 1931, A Further Range, 1937, A Witness Tree, 1943), Gwendolyn Brooks (Annie Allen, 1950), and Theodore Roethke (The Waking, 1954). Numerous Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service have gone to The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, though various regional newspapers have also received the award.
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