Tampa Bay Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash got a phone call on a Sunday afternoon.
“Are you Paul Tash?” is an ominous question for a proprietor of a newspaper that delivers to hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday. Did they miss someone?
On the other end of the line was Henry Louis Gates from Harvard University, inviting Tash to join the Pulitzer Prize Board.
“I’ve gotten to do a lot of great things because of my career in journalism, which Indiana University launched,” Tash said, “But being on the Pulitzer Prize board, besides my day job, was right there at the top.”
Tash visited professor of practice Tom French’s MSCH-C204: Behind the Prize class on Monday night to give the students a taste of the kind of decision making he and about 18 other board members undertake to choose Pulitzers. The class hosts prize-winning professional journalists as weekly lecturers, with an emphasis on the Pulitzer Prize.
Tash served on the board for nine years and is a former board chairman. Pulitzers have the greatest prestige in journalism, and a great deal of thought, care and work goes into their selection, Tash explained to the students.
“Your decision to give someone a Pulitzer Prize will likely change the arc of their career for the better,” Tash said. “You are honoring their work, and that is your highest obligation, but you are also making a huge statement.”
Tash told the students that the conversation to choose what work should receive a Pulitzer was always robust, in part because of the people he served on the board with. He has worked alongside Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times; Danielle Allen, a political theorist from Harvard University; and Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor and vice president of The Wall Street Journal, among others.
“It was a really rich discussion, because people came to it with open minds,” Tash said. “They had done their own reading, they had formed pretty good views themselves, but they kept their minds open.”
Tash then walked the students through an example of choosing which of three articles would win the Pulitzer for investigative journalism. They choose between last year’s finalists: “Suffering in Secret” from the Chicago Tribune, “Broken discipline tracking systems let teachers flee troubled pasts” from USA Today and “Drug firms poured 780M painkillers into WV amid rise of overdoses” from the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
The class ultimately chose the Chicago Tribune story about corruption in group homes for the Pulitzer because of its powerful anecdotes and their strong emotional response to it. The choice differed from the board’s. The Charleston Gazette-Mail opioid story took the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017 because of its deep investigation that traced the West Virginia opioid problem “all the way upstream.”
“I’m congratulating you on making the decision irrespective of that, because again that goes back to making a decision for yourself on the board rather than being swayed by others on it,” said Tash, who admitted he has been on the short end of an 18:1 vote at least once.
It is really, really difficult to get a Pulitzer, Tash said. A reporter not only has to be truly excellent, but also lucky. He told the students it isn’t impossible, however.
“These are things that you can do. It will not be easy, but if you have the right idea and can follow it well, it could be you — you could win a Pulitzer Prize.” Tash said. “It’s tough work, but it can be done. For the rest of you who will not go into journalism, just think about how important this kind of work is to you.”
And that is exactly what Tash left the board every year thinking: There is so much we would not know as a country but for journalists.