Cyber can be Pulitzer, too

Via CBSNews.com’s Public Eye blog, I read the Pulitzer committee is going to finally start accepting online material in all of its journalism categories. From the press release:

The Pulitzer Prize Board announced today that newspapers may submit online material as well as print content in all 14 of its journalism categories, starting with the 2006 competition.

In the Public Service category, which has allowed an online presentation since 1999, a range of online material, such as databases and interactive graphics, will continue to be permitted.

In other categories, the online submissions will be limited to stories and images.

In two categories — Breaking News Reporting and Breaking News Photography — an entry consisting entirely of material published online will be permitted. In other categories, an entry may contain online material, but it must also contain material published in the newspaper’s print edition.

The new rules, adopted after a study that began a year ago, will apply to work done in 2005 for prizes awarded in 2006.

I know there was plenty of discussion on journalism sites like the Online Journalism Review about this post-Hurricane Katrina. And it seems, just in time, nola.com, and other online-only journalists, will finally get a chance at that prize that every news reporter desires.

It’s hard to explain why this is so encouraging for online journalists like myself. We all know what the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune had to endure when Hurricane Katrina hit harder than expected and the levees broke – flooded, destroyed homes, a breakdown in society, anarchy, no ready water, food, dry clothes – the list goes on and on. But not only did they jump into the melee to help keep us informed, the website nola.com helped save scores of people. From the OJR article:

And it wasn’t just about newsgathering. NOLA.com editor Jon Donley turned over his NOLA View blog to his readers, who sent in dozens of calls for help. Those calls were relayed onto the blog, which was monitored constantly by rescuers, who then sent in teams to save them.

“The site has been fantastic — and quite a life saver — and I truly mean a life saver,” said Eliza Schneller via e-mail. “I listed a friend’s mother, who needed rescuing, on the site and between me and the numerous caring people who responded — she and her daughter where picked up by the National Guard. Bless everyone that had a hand in keeping that site up and running!”

According to Donley, the calls for help came via text messaging, since cellular voice services and landlines were down.

“It was weird because we couldn’t figure out where these pleas were coming from,” Donley told me. “We’d get e-mails from Idaho, there’s a guy at this address and he’s in the upstairs bedroom of his place in New Orleans. And then we figured out that even in the poorest part of town, people have a cell phone. And it’s a text-enabled cell phone. And they were sending out text messages to friends or family, and they were putting it in our forums or sending it in e-mails to us.”

Donley said that an aide of Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the commander of the relief efforts, had tasked a group of people with monitoring the NOLA View blog, and were taking notes and sending out rescue missions based on the postings. “In fact, one time we had some server issues,” Donley said, “and [the aide] wrote us frantically saying, ‘Get this up as soon as you can, people’s lives depend on it. We’ve already saved a number of lives because of it.'”

My God. My God. I have to be honest and confess – if I had been in that situation, I don’t know what I would or could have done. I don’t know if I could have done my job in spite of being worried about my family, in spite of wondering where I could go to the bathroom next, in spite of the fear of being raped as I roamed the streets, trying to report a story.

And I might never know, because of the new direction my career has taken. But see, this really wasn’t a new direction for myself – I always knew someday that the Internet would change mass media dramatically and drastically, and that change is already happening. The choices I’ve made in my life – teaching myself HTML, blogging all these years, paying my dues at a community newspaper – positioned me for what I’m doing now.

I know journalism, at its most idealistic, is not supposed to be about the prizes, but let’s be honest. Journalism, even at its best, is about ego and its also about find that one, shattering, amazing, mind-boggling story that will ripple across even the biggest ponds. So, yes – I can’t think of another reporter who wouldn’t love to be part of that kind of a story, then be recognized with a Pulitzer Prize. So it’s nice to know that one day, if either the Pulitzer board decides to also include broadcast websites or I return to newspapers, that there is the possibility of doing great things and being recognized for them.

Wow. What a thought.