Summary:

The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize Monday, an important prize from a group that not too long ago thought the medium was the message — and has since learned that the work is the message.

Arianna Huffington Close Up

The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize Monday. The world didn’t end.

Put another way, a publication that had the smarts to hire some very good journalists and let them do what they do best won an important prize from a group that not too long ago thought the medium was the message — and has since learned that the work is the message.

Veteran reporter David Wood won the HuffPo’s (and AOL’s) first Pulitzer for:

“his riveting exploration of the physical and emotional challenges facing American soldiers severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan during a decade of war.”

The 10-part series Beyond the Battlefield by the HuffPo’s senior military correspondent used a traditional article format supported by video, infographics, strong photography, and the site’s trademark social media.

It’s particularly fitting that Wood’s win comes as Doonesbury’s Rick Redfern, still struggling after being laid off by the Washington Post, wrestles with whether to work as an unpaid blogger for HuffPo. Garry Trudreau’s version of HuffPo doesn’t pay journalists; it offers prestige instead. It is the image many cling to.

(Doonesbury lives online at Slate, owned by the Washington Post Co.)

HuffPo does rely on unpaid bloggers for much of its content, but it also has a staff of paid professionals — many of them poached, like Woods’ editor Tim O’Brien, from top media outlets like the NYT.

The conventional wisdom in the wake of the win is that the Pulitzer brings HuffPo credibility. (Those at the site prefer to call it HuffPost.) It’s had credibility for much of its seven years. What is hasn’t had is recognition for serious journalism. The Pulitzer doesn’t mean Tim Armstrong bought the online-only equivalent of the The Economist or The Atlantic. But it does serve as a reminder that HuffPo, which has called itself an “Internet newspaper” all along, can — and does — produce a lot of good work.

Luckily for most entrants, including Arianna Huffington’s site, their work isn’t judged by its surroundings. For every joke I’ve seen today about the company Wood’s fine work keeps, I’ll see you an absurd New York Times Style story and raise you any number of articles that don’t hit the level of the winning entry from most publications. (Ok, it’s fair to sigh as a HuffPo headline like Brazil cannibal empanadas streams through your Twitter timeline.)

The Huffington Post wasn’t the only online winner in 2012, or the only upstart, but it was the lone online-only outlet. Matt Wuerker won for editorial cartooning in Politico, which publishes a print edition along with the site that gives it a 24/7 pulse. Wuerker’s award-winning portfolio doesn’t owe much to online as far as I can tell, but Politico provides just the right setting for incisive political satire.

(Steve Myers did a great job chronicling the day .)

Online journalism awards

Back in the late 90s when I helped craft the rules to include online journalism in the Sigma Delta Chi awards, it was a hard sell in many respects — but a relatively simple solution. SPJ’s awards already separated achievements by media: newspapers, radio, television, magazines, even newsletters. We argued that certain categories could be — must be — expanded to add recognition for online media.

We didn’t win them all, but we were able to set an important example, starting with public service in 1998. Excellence in online journalism deserved to be acknowledged. (The first SDX award for an online news outlet without print or broadcast origins went to now-defunct APB Online: the 1998 SDX award for Online Journalism Deadline Reporting.)

The Pulitzer board reached out as part of its deliberations over how to manage the digital age and the growing clamor for inclusion. I thought the Pulitzers should continue to be linked to newspapers and wires but, following Joseph Pulitzer’s own visionary ideas, should expand to recognize outstanding online efforts of those outlets. I didn’t believe online needed to compete with newspapers to be taken seriously. In a way, that both diminished online and altered the concept of the Pulitzers too much. They weren’t designed for TV or radio. Why should they be for online-only outlets?

During this time, the Online News Association was founded and started its own awards.

In 1997 the Pulitzer board allowed online presentations to be included as supplements to print exhibits in the Public Service category. It was nearly impossible to gauge the impact, even in 2002 when 9/11 coverage was recognized. More than a decade later, in 2008, the Pulitzer board took a much bigger step, including text-based online new organizations but limited it to those “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing events.”

A year later, the board acknowledged that limit wasn’t fair and expanded eligibility in some areas to “material coming from a text-based United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles.”

Pro Publica broke the barrier in 2010 with a investigative reporting Pulitzer for Sheri Fink “in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine.” The nonprofit was not exactly the Jackie Robinson of online journalism, but it was the perfect online org to break through — staffed by highly respected newspaper vets, including Pulitzer jurors and winners, with a belief that online publication should be amplified through other media for the greatest impact. Pro Publica won again in 2011 for national reporting.

Other digital-first or digital-only efforts were singled out and the lines between print and online continued to blur. Newspapers were doing award-winning video and increasingly using online assets to break and publish news, not only as a supplement for the print edition. Online outlets were producing print sections. The blurring lines erased my own concerns although I still think online-only journalism doesn’t need the Pulitzers for credibility.

HuffPo alum Jose Antonio Vargas got it half-right when he tweeted that

Now the medium should matter primarily in this respect: did you make the most of it?

Update: Speaking of blurred lines, my colleague Mathew Ingram says the Huffington Post Pulitzer shows it’s time to stop the blog vs. journalists debate. His take.

We’ll be talking with leaders in tech, media and investing about how to make the most of today’s opportunities, blurred lines and all, at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads, May 23, at The TimesCenter in New York. Join us.

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