Far from Las Vegas, did Gannett claim Pulitzer Prize credit for papers it didn’t own?

GannettOn Monday, Columbia University announced the awarding of the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes for 2020. These haven’t been good times for print media, so the winners understandably were quick to proclaim their triumphs.

In barely an hour, USA Today, flagship of the Gannett chain, now the largest in the country by total circulation, put online a story about how a Gannett paper, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, won the breaking news Pulitzer for its coverage of questionable last-minute pardons issued by Kentucky’s governor.

All well and good. But the story contained this sentence: “Gannett … has won at least 56 Pulitzer Prizes.”

“At least?” In my half-century as a journalist starting long before becoming New To Las Vegas, I never have encountered a news organization that didn’t know exactly how many Pulitzers it has won. Something is up here.

The current Gannett is the product of a reverse merger just last year with New Media Investment Group, whose media affiliate, GateHouse Media, has distinguished itself more by budget-cutting and layoffs (including a top editor who promptly became homeless) than journalistic prowess. The publicly traded company says on its website it now owns 262 daily newspapers.

But by my unofficial count, properties owned by Gannett or GateHouse won only 26 Pulitzers during the time they were owned by Gannett or GateHouse, including this week’s Pulitzer to the The Courier-Journal. Even allowing for a margin of error in my count, this is a lot fewer than “at least 56.” By more than half.

On the other hand, also by my count, properties owned by Gannett or Gatehouse won 78 Pulitzers before they were owned by Gannett or GateHouse.

So when that Gannett publication wrote that Gannett “has won at least 56 Pulitzer Prizes,” was it adding the 78 Pulitzers the company had absolutely nothing to do with to the 26 it did have something to do with? Sure looks that way.

As one retired journalist suggested to me, this would sort of be like buying a military medal at a yard sale, wearing it in public and saying it was yours. Obviously (at least to me), those 78 Pulitzers shouldn’t be claimed by Gannett, or at least not without a giant asterisk leading to a giant disclaimer.

Just four Gannett properties–the Des Moines Register (purchased in 1985), the Detroit Free Press (acquired in 2005), the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (purchased in 2016) and The Courier-Journal (bought in 1986)–account for more than half of those 78 priors, as well of nine of the 26 won on Gannett’s watch. The Courier-Journal in fact won its first Pulitzer way back in 1918, the second year of judging, and the Milwaukee paper its first in 1919, both years before there even was a Gannett Co.

The truth is that the old Gannett long had a day-to-day reputation for solid but don’t-rock-the-boat journalism, exactly the kind that doesn’t win a lot of Pulitzers. (Full disclosure: I worked as a summer intern for a Gannett paper in the early 1970s.)

This followed the persona of its founder, Frank E. Gannett. Born in New York’s Finger Lakes region, he bought a half-interest in an Elmira, N.Y. newspaper in 1906, eventually adding five other upstate papers. In 1923 he founded Gannett Co. and continued to acquire newspapers (sometimes with secret financing from corporations trying to sway public opinion). Where possible, he sought monopoly markets in which he was the only newspaper operator so he could jack up advertising rates and profits. (This was long before the Internet and Craigs List put the kibosh on that strategy.)

While admirably imposing no politics on his papers’ editorial pages, Gannett personally was a card-carrying Republican who unsuccessfully ran for governor of New York in 1936 and in 1940 considered a run for president of the U.S. By the time of his death in 1957 at age 81, Gannett Co. owned 22 newspapers and several broadcast properties centered in New York state.

But as best I can see, Frank Gannett’s many papers won just one Pulitzer during the half-century he personally practiced journalism. That was in 1930 for editorial cartooning during his brief, three-year ownership of the Brooklyn Eagle. The second came two years after his death when the two Gannett papers in Utica, N.Y. shared the 1959 Pulitzer for public service, the top one, for coverage of local corruption. After Gannett’s death, Gannett Co. started buying bigger newspapers, some with better journalistic traditions and more resources. Ergo the 24 additional Pulitzers over the next 61 years.

GateHouse Media is much younger; its corporate predecessors date back only to 1989. As far as I know, none of the papers it acquired before the Gannett merger won a Pulitzer on its watch. This probably is not surprising given its management’s morale-killing propensity to not spend money.

I have emailed requests for comment about my counting and notions to several official folks at Gannett (now run despite its name by the old GateHouse management) asking for a list of the “at least 56” winners and help with the math. I’ll update this post if I hear back. Of course, they (and you, dear reader) are free to comment below. At least.

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