How does the Pulitzer Prize Board pick Pulitzer Prize winners every year?

Pulitzer prizes are awarded annually for distinguished work in twenty-two categories of journalism, arts and letters, and music.

The fourteen prizes in journalism are meritorious public service, spot news reporting, beat reporting, national reporting, international reporting, investigative reporting, explanatory journalism, editorials, editorial cartoons, spot news photography, feature photography, commentary, criticism, and feature writing.

The six arts and letters categories are fiction, drama, general nonfiction, history, biography, and poetry. One prize is awarded in the music category, for a “distinguished musical composition, which had its debut in the United States during the year.”

The meritorious public service prize is given to an outstanding newspaper; all other prizes go to individuals who have distinguished themselves in their various fields during the year. Unlike Nobel Prizes in literature, which are awarded to writers on the basis of their whole body of work, Pulitzers recognize specific works. John Steinbeck, for example, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940, for The Grapes of Wrath; in 1962 he won a Nobel Prize in literature for his achievements over the course of a lifetime.

The prizes are administered by Columbia University, which relies on the Pulitzer Prize Board, an eighteen-member body composed of publishing executives and academicians, to select the prize recipients. Because of the huge volume of submissions, the board depends on prize juries to screen the entries.

Members of the juries, there is one jury for each prize category, sift through all the entries in their category until they come up with three finalists. Each jury submits its list of finalists to special three-member subcommittees of the board, again, one subcommittee for each prize category.

The subcommittees then recommend winners to the full board, which passes the recommendations on to the president of Columbia, who announces the winners. The board rarely rejects a recommendation from one of its subcommittees; the subcommittees rarely overturn the findings of the prize juries. Since 1975, when the trustees of Columbia University withdrew from the Pulitzer process, the president of the university has accepted all of the board’s recommendations.

The Pulitzer Prize competition is open to anyone willing to fill out an entry form and remit the $20 entry fee. In journalism, the vast majority of entries are submitted by newspapers, which relish the prestige that comes with winning a Pulitzer.

There is no limit to the number of entries a single newspaper can submit; in fact, most large dailies make multiple submissions: in 1990 New York Newsday led all corners with forty-one entries, followed by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, each with forty. The New York Times had thirty-five. A total of 1,770 entries were made that year. The same rules apply to the book awards. Not surprisingly, entries are dominated by large publishing houses. In 1990, 590 different books were submitted: 181 in general nonfiction, 123 in poetry, 115 in fiction, 92 in biography, and 79 in history.

The president of Columbia announces Pulitzer Prize winners at a press conference in early April; the actual judging begins long before that.

For books, the process begins on December 31, the entry deadline. A copy of each entered book is sent by the Pulitzer Prize administrator, a Columbia University official, to each member of the five different book juries. Each book category has its own three-member jury, composed of college professors and writers with expertise in the category they oversee. History professors, for example, serve on the history book jury, and novelists serve on the fiction jury.

Jurists for each category have until January to compare notes, usually over the phone, and come up with three finalists to submit to the Pulitzer board. That means a total of fifteen books, three in each of the five book categories, is nominated for judging by the Pulitzer board. Rather than having every board member read all fifteen finalists between January and April, the board breaks down into seven subcommittees of three, with some members serving on more than one panel. There is one subcommittee for each of the five book categories.

Members of the subcommittees have until April to read the books and formulate their opinions. That way, by the time the whole board convenes at Columbia for two days in early April to judge the finalists, the subcommittees will be ready to recommend winners in their respective bailiwicks.

The drama and music juries, each composed of three individuals with expertise in the field they are judging, theater critics in the drama category, composers and music critics in the music category, submit three finalists apiece to the board on March 1. Members of the board’s drama subcommittee then have a month to see the plays performed, or, if that is not possible, to read them; the music subcommittee listens to tape recordings of the three nominated compositions to reach its decision. Final recommendations are made to the board as a whole when it assembles in April.

The journalism awards work slightly differently. Each of the thirteen journalism juries has five members rather than three. The thirteen juries (one jury covers both photography categories) gather at Columbia for two days in early March to sift through all of the 1,770 or so entries in fourteen categories and come up with three finalists in each category.

The sixty-five jurists, primarily working journalists, editors, publishers, and former Pulitzer winners, are not paid anything for their labor. (Book jurists receive a $1,000 stipend.) At the end of the two-day judgment period each jury nominates three finalists, which will then be submitted to the Pulitzer board for final judgment. Juries list their nominations in alphabetical order and do not indicate any preference among the three finalists. A total of forty-two nominations in fourteen journalism categories are made to the Pulitzer board.

When deciding among the journalism finalists, the board does not divide into subcommittees. Each final entry is read by all eighteen board members during the two-day judgment period in April.

Winners are picked by a vote of the board. Since the board is composed of editors and publishers, many of whose newspapers are involved in the competition, rules have been adopted to prevent a conflict of interest. A board member must leave the room when entries from his newspaper are being discussed. A board member is not allowed to vote in any category that includes an entry from his newspaper.

The Pulitzer Prizes have been called the Academy Awards of journalism, and like the Academy Awards they have suffered their share of controversy. Since 1917, when the prizes were first given from a trust established by newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer in his will, many dubious choices have been made.

In 1941 for example, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was rejected on the grounds that it was “offensive and lascivious.” The board awarded no fiction prize that year. More recently, in 1981, Janet Cooke of The Washington Post received the prize for feature writing for “Jimmy’s World,” a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict living in Washington, D.C., which included eyewitness accounts of “Jimmy” shooting up. It turned out that the reporter had completely made up the story, and the Post had to give up the award.

Despite the Pulitzers’ long history of controversy, only two winners have ever refused their prizes: Sinclair Lewis, who won for his novel Arrowsmith, in 1926, and William Saroyan, who won for his play The Time of Your Life, in 1940. “All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous,” Lewis wrote in rejecting his Pulitzer.

Even so, he had no problem accepting a Nobel four years later.