At a little after 3 p.m. on Monday, April 7, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller grabbed a microphone and took to a landing on one of the floating red-walled staircases that climb up into his brand-new newsroom’s skylit clerestory. It was Pulitzer day, and the first time this kind of stand-up-in-the-newsroom ceremony was being observed in the new Renzo Piano-designed tower the newspaper moved into last May.
Hundreds of reporters and editors were gathered in the massive space, some leaning over the rails of the newsroom’s suspended fourth floor, the rest sandwiched between cubicles and looking up from the newsroom’s third.
Mr. Keller’s opening remarks were reserved for 2002 Pulitzer-winner Barry Bearak, the Times reporter facing a court date in Zimbabwe later this week; prolonged applause followed to pay tribute.
“The custom on this day has been, for many years, to gather around Al Siegal’s computer terminal, awaiting the A.P. report on the Pulitzer winners…” he said. “Al is retired, we have this lovely new space, and some of us have long wondered about the disproportionate fuss we make over this particular award.”
If there was a day for new traditions, this was it. The Washington Post had had its biggest payday ever—six Pulitzers, one shy of the Times record in 2002. The Times picked up two.
“We’re disappointed,” a senior newsroom source later told The Observer. “We thought we deserved at least a couple more finalists and maybe a prize or two more.”
And so Mr. Keller’s speech, “with all due respect to Columbia University,” had to recourse to the art of consolation. He would detail other accomplishments at the paper—Polk Awards and ASME awards and almost every other kind of award—which perhaps only served to show that a consoling tone was required.
“Prizes are not why we do what we do, and prizes are not how we measure what we do,” he said. “Prize juries are human. They can be arbitrary. They can be political. They can be sentimental. They can miss the point. There are countless examples of truly great reporters who will not have a Pulitzer in the lede of their obituaries — and of profoundly important work that never gets a trophy.”
He continued: “How the Baghdad Bureau of The New York Times has not won every award on the planet—up to and including the Nobel—is a continuing mystery and frustration to me, and that alone makes me take journalistic awards with a grain of salt.”
Among staff, particular grimaces were exchanged over the fact that former Off the Record columnist Warren St. John wasn’t a finalist for a Pulitzer for feature writing for his piece on refugee soccer players in Atlanta, which is being made into a book and has been optioned in Hollywood.
“I think this year was more surprising than in past years,” said a source.
At the same time in Washington, D.C., employees at The Washington Post practiced straightforward excitement about the Pulitzers.
“It was the coolest thing ever!” said one reporter.
On Pulitzer day at The Post, work dependably stops for a few minutes while people trade high-fives. On Monday, it took two hours for everyone, and many more for some.
The staff came to the newsroom that morning prepared. A Reliable Source-worthy rumor mill had already pegged the six winners, and everyone showed up, said a reporter, “dressed to the nines,” streaming-video-ready.
Metro bureaus cleared out and did early-afternoon work from their main 1150 15th Street N.W. newsroom, all gleefully waiting for the news to come across the AP wire next to executive editor Leonard Downie’s desk at the appointed hour of 3 p.m.
When the prizes had been announced, Mr. Downie gave introductory remarks to the newsroom. The ringing phones in nearby cubicles rang on; no one cared, no one picked up. “No one was getting work done at all! Like zero!” said one reporter.
It was around 5 p.m. before people finally sat back down at their desks, but that was quickly interrupted by another party.
The newsroom gathered up on the ninth floor in the paper’s executive offices and partied in an even more crowded space, portraits of Katharine Graham and Eugene Meyer chaperoning. Two open bars served champagne, beer and wine; wontons, egg rolls, shrimp cocktail and chocolate-dipped strawberries were handed out to sop up the grog. Three more hours. And then! A special few headed out for an after-party at newly anointed publisher Katharine Weymouth’s house.
When did all the partying end?
“Can’t remember,” said one.