By Seymour Topping with additional editing by Sig Gissler


click on photo for slide show of 2013 journalism jurors at work

More than 2,400 entries are submitted each year in the Pulitzer Prize competitions, and only 21 awards are normally made. The awards are the culmination of a year-long process that begins early in the year with the appointment of 102 distinguished judges who serve on 20 separate juries and are asked to make three nominations in each of the 21 categories.

By January 25, about 1,100 journalism entries have been submitted to the Pulitzer digital entry Website where they will be reviewed by jurors on computer screens. Those entries may be made by any individual based on material coming from a United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles. Magazines and broadcast media, and their respective Web sites, are not eligible. In late February or early March, 77 editors, publishers, writers, and educators gather in the School of Journalism to judge the entries in the 14 journalism categories.

Pulitzer and His Prizes

This guide to the administration of The Pulitzer Prizes – along with a linked history of The Prizes and biography of Joseph Pulitzer – was written by Seymour Topping, former Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and now professor emeritus at Columbia University. The three-part work was adapted from his forward to Who's Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners by Elizabeth A. Brennan and Elizabeth C. Clarage, © 1999 by The Oryx Press. Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700 Phoenix, AZ 85012.

From 1993 to 2002, Topping administered the Prizes and was Professor of International Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. After serving in World War II, Topping worked for The Associated Press as a correspondent in China, Indochina, London and Berlin. In 1959, he joined The New York Times, where he remained for 34 years, serving as a foreign correspondent, foreign editor, managing editor and editorial director of the company's regional newspapers.

Topping’s three-part work was updated in 2013 by Sig Gissler, current Administrator.

From 1964-1999 each journalism jury consisted of five members. Due to the growing number of entries in the public service, investigative reporting, beat reporting, feature writing and commentary categories, these juries were enlarged to seven members beginning in 1999. The jury members, working intensively for three days, examine every entry before making their nominations. Entries in the public service, cartoon, and photography categories are limited to 20 articles, cartoons, or pictures, and in the remaining categories, to 10 articles or editorials - except for feature writing, which has a maximum of five articles.

In photography, a single jury judges both the Breaking News category and the Feature category. Since the inception of the prizes the journalism categories have been expanded and repeatedly redefined by the board to keep abreast of the evolution of American journalism. The cartoons prize was created in 1922. The prize for photography was established in 1942, and in 1968 the category was divided into spot or breaking news and feature. With the development of computer-altered photos, the board stipulated in 1995 that "no entry whose content is manipulated or altered, apart from standard newspaper cropping and editing, will be deemed acceptable."


These are the current Pulitzer Prize category definitions for the journalism competition:

  • For a distinguished example of meritorious public service by a newspaper or news site through the use of its journalistic resources, including the use of stories, editorials, cartoons, photographs, graphics, videos, databases, multimedia or interactive presentations or other visual material.
  • For a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news that, as quickly as possible, captures events accurately as they occur, and, as time passes, illuminates, provides context and expands upon the initial coverage.
  • For a distinguished example of investigative reporting, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For a distinguished example of reporting on significant issues of local concern, demonstrating originality and community expertise, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For a distinguished example of reporting on national affairs, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For a distinguished example of reporting on international affairs, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For a distinguished example of feature writing giving prime consideration to quality of writing, originality and concision, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For distinguished commentary, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For distinguished criticism, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For distinguished editorial writing, the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, using any available journalistic tool.
  • For a distinguished cartoon or portfolio of cartoons, characterized by originality, editorial effectiveness, quality of drawing and pictorial effect, published as a still drawing, animation or both.
  • For a distinguished example of breaking news photography in black and white or color, which may consist of a photograph or photographs.
  • For a distinguished example of feature photography in black and white or color, which may consist of a photograph or photographs.


While the journalism process goes forward, shipments of books totaling some 1,000 titles are being sent to five letters juries for their judging in these categories:

  • For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.
  • For a distinguished and appropriately documented book upon the history of the United States.
  • For a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author.
  • For a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author.
  • For a distinguished and appropriately documented book of nonfiction by an American author that is not eligible for consideration in any other category.


The award in poetry was established in 1922 and that for nonfiction in 1962.

For the drama prize, a jury, usually composed of three critics, one academic and one playwright, attends plays both in New York and the regional theaters. The award in drama goes to a playwright but production of the play as well as script are taken into account.

The music jury, usually made up of three composers, one music critic and one presenter of musical work, meets in New York to listen to recordings and study the scores of pieces, which number more than 150. The category definition states: For distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.

The final act of the annual competition is enacted in early April when the board assembles for two days in the Pulitzer World Room of the Columbia School of Journalism. In prior weeks, the board had read the texts of the journalism entries and the 15 nominated books, listened to music recordings, read the scripts of the nominated plays, and attended the performances or seen videos where possible. By custom, it is incumbent on board members not to vote on any award under consideration unless they have reviewed the entries.

There are subcommittees for letters and music whose members usually lead the discussions. Beginning with letters and music, the board, in turn, reviews the nominations of each jury. Each jury is required to offer three nominations but in no order of preference, although the jury chair in a report accompanying the submission can broadly reflect the views of the members. Board discussions are animated and often hotly debated. Work done by individuals tends to be favored. In journalism, if more than five individuals are cited in an entry, the prize goes to the staff of the news organization.

Awards are made by majority vote, but the board is also empowered to vote 'no award,' or by three-fourths vote to select an entry that has not been nominated or to switch nominations among the categories. If the board is dissatisfied with the nominations of any jury, it can ask the Administrator to consult with the chair by telephone to ascertain if there are other worthy entries. Meanwhile, the deliberations continue.

Both the jury nominations and the awards voted by the board are held in strict confidence until the announcement of the prizes, which takes place several days after the meeting in the World Room. Towards three o'clock p.m. (Eastern Time) of the day of the announcement, in hundreds of newsrooms across the United States, journalists gather to wait for the bulletins that bring explosions of joy and celebrations to some and disappointment to others. The announcement is made precisely at three o'clock at a news conference held by the administrator in the World Room.

Apart from accounts carried prominently by newspapers, television, radio, and Internet sites, the details appear on the Pulitzer Web site. The announcement includes the name of the winner in each category as well as the names of the other two finalists. The three finalists in each category are the only entries in the competition that are recognized by the Pulitzer office as nominees. The announcement also lists the board members and the names of the jurors (which have previously been kept confidential to avoid lobbying.)

A gold medal is awarded to the winner in Public Service. Along with the certificates in the other categories, there are cash awards of $10,000, raised in 2002 from $7,500. Five Pulitzer fellowships of $7,500 each are also awarded annually on the recommendation of the faculty of the School of Journalism. They enable four of its outstanding graduates to travel, report, and study abroad and one fellowship is awarded to a graduate who wishes to specialize in drama, music, literary, film, or television criticism. For most recipients of the Pulitzer Prizes, the cash award is only incidental to the prestige accruing to them and their works. There are numerous competitions that bestow far larger cash awards, yet which do not rank in public perception on a level with the Pulitzers. The Pulitzer accolade on the cover of a book or on the marquee of a theater where a prize-winning play is being staged usually does translate into commercial gain.

The Pulitzer process initially was funded by investment income from the original endowment. But by the 1970s the program was suffering a loss each year. In 1978 the advisory board established a foundation for the creation of a supplementary endowment, and fund raising on its behalf continued through the 1980s. The program is now comfortably funded with investment income from the two endowments and the $50 fee charged for each entry into the competitions. The investment portfolios are administered by Columbia University.

Members of the Pulitzer Prize Board and journalism jurors receive no compensation. The jurors in letters, music, and drama, in appreciation of their year-long work, receive honoraria of $2,000, with jury chair getting $2,500.

Unlike the elaborate ceremonies and royal banquets attendant upon the presentation of the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm and Oslo, since 1984 Pulitzer winners have received their prizes from the president of Columbia University at a modest but mellow luncheon in May in the rotunda of the Low Library in the presence of family members, professional associates, board members, and the faculty of the School of Journalism. The board has declined offers to transform the occasion into a television extravaganza.