Every year I enjoy finding who wins the Pulitzer prizes. For journalists, it’s like our own mini-Oscars. Last year I even got to cover the Pulitzer announcement at Columbia University for Playbill.com, and stuck around until the very end bombarding Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler with questions about how “Rabbit Hole” could have won despite not being nominated (the Pulitzer board overruled the smaller drama prize nominating committee).
While I was at Princeton, Princeton alums and faculty members were getting recognized all over the place. One Monday, during my class with the poet C.K. Williams, he was called out of the room, then came back a few minutes later and announced, “I’ve just won the Pulitzer Prize.”
I’m especially interested in the drama prize, since I’ve usually seen many of the contenders. Plus, a friend and I bet on the prize each year — we have a draft where we make our picks, and the winner buys the other dinner. The year’s recipient — “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts — is completely deserving, though I do feel for Chris Shinn, who in most other years would have won for “Dying City,” though I was glad to see that play get recognized as a finalist. The other finalist was David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” — I also enjoyed it when I saw it at the Mark Taper Forum (though not as much as the other two), and I was glad to see the committee recognize a comedy.
But this year, the prize that really caught my attention was the feature writing category. Gene Weingarten won for his piece in The Washington Post in which he asked world famous violinist Joshua Bell to play in a DC Metro station and see who would notice, just as an experiment. Bell normally performs in front of sold-out crowds paying $100 a ticket. But in the Metro station, very few people stopped to see him for free. It was a brilliant idea: not quite an academic experiment, but an experiment perfectly tailored towards journalism: it’s a celebrity, it’s fleeting, it’s current, it’s a slice of life, it's funny. But it also — in a not-completely-scientific but still very convincing way — proved a larger point: that most people can’t recognize good classical music. It's even rather moving, compelling you to feel that larger point on an emotional level: in the Metro, even the best violinist in the world is just a sad street performer. And I'm sure it pleased the Post's online multimedia side, since the entire performance was filmed.
I read the article a year ago, but it wasn’t until now that I feel compelled to try to think up article ideas like it, ideas that might be a bit outside the box in a similar way. What are other ways in which the journalist might create an experiment that might prove — or at least suggest — a larger point? What’s a way to report on someone of note in a way that isn’t just a traditional profile, that has them out doing something that you think up, or interacting with someone else or some other people in a meaningful, revealing way? How can journalists create or invent a story — but in a good way?