What Is the Pulitzer Prize?

The Pulitzer Prize is to journalists and writers what The Academy Awards are to actors and directors. The Pulitzer is a yearly U.S. award that is given out to outstanding journalism, literature, and musical composition. The ceremony is held every April and is awarded by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York. Every aspiring journalist and writer hopes and dreams of one day being awarded a Pulitzer Prize. It signifies the years best in U.S. literature and brings with it a substantial amount of publishing clout. But how did the Pulitzer get started? What does it take to get nominated? What are some famous Pulitzer winners? If you are thinking about a career in literature, this is the ultimate recognition.

History of the Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize was started by the famous newspaper publisher of the 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer. Joseph Pulitzer was a brilliant at marketing newspapers and was a crusader against corruption in government. He always knew how to create a good story for print. His two newspapers that set an example for other printed material were the New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He was a fierce competitor with other famed newspaper mogul, William Randall Hearst.


Pulitzer helped to found many of today’s journalistic traditions. He was the first person to suggest training for journalists in colleges. At his death in 1911, he willed a portion of funds to Columbia University to start their first journalism school. But his greatest contribution was the founding of a set of awards that were later named the Pulitzer Prizes. The Pulitzer Prizes were originally supposed to be incentives for excellence in the field. The original Pulitzers gave awards for journalism, letters and drama, one award for education, and four traveling scholarships. But Joseph Pulitzer also saw changes in the industry so he created an advisory board for the awards. It would be their task to make changes as needed to accommodate the evolving industry. Sic years after his death, the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 and since then have grown to 21 different categories.


The Pulitzer Prizes are divided up into 21 different categories along with several Special Citations and awards. The only eligible material that may be considered for journalism are articles that have been published by U.S.-based newspapers, either in print or online. Here are the current Pulitzer Prize categories:

  • Public Service – This award is the most desired by all newspapers. It is awarded for exceptional public service by a newspaper through journalistic reporting, photgraphy, and editorial cartoons. It is only given out to newspaper organizations, not individual journalists.
  • Breaking News Reporting – Given to recipients for distinguished reporting of the latest breaking news.
  • Investigative Reporting – This award is given to individual journalists or journalistic teams for distinguished investigative reporting in a single article or series.
  • Explanatory Reporting – This is given out to an individual journalist or journalistic team for reporting on a complex subject where it is described in a clear and concise manner that is easy to understand.
  • Local Reporting – The award for local newspaper reporting that covers local issues and concerns within a community.
  • National Reporting – The award given to an individual for reporting on national affairs.
  • International Reporting – This is given out for reporting on issues and concerns on an international level.
  • Feature Writing – For a newspaper’s feature articles, this award is given out for articles written with a high level of quality.
  • Commentary – This award is given out for exceptional commentary.
  • Criticism – This award ios given out for exceptional journalistic criticism.
  • Editorial Writing – This is awarded to newspapers and individuals for editorial writing that displays high moral expressions, sound reasoning, and is written in a way that can affect public opinion.
  • Editorial Cartooning – The award for cartoonist, it is given out for cartoons that display originality, quality of art, and ability to create an effect.
  • Breaking News Photography – Award given to breaking news photography in either black and white or color and may be single photos or a series.
  • Feature Photography – Award given for feature article photography which may be in black and white or color and may be a single photo or a series.

The Following Pulitzers are in the category of Letters and Drama:

  • Fiction – Given to a work of fiction by an American author that deals with American society and culture.
  • Drama – Given to a theatrical play by an American author that deals with American society and culture.
  • History – This prize is awarded to book dealing with American  history.
  • Biography or Autobiography – This prize is awarded to a biography or autobiography written by an American author.
  • Poetry – Awarded to a volume of original poetry by an American author.
  • General Non-Fiction – This award is given to an American author for their work in non-fiction.

The Pulitzer Prize gives one award for music:

  • Pulitzer Prize for Music – Given out to an American composer or songwriter for their musical composition that was recorded in the U.S.

How To Get Nominated

The advisory board for the Pulitzer Prize does not automaticvally choose material from the past year. All entires must be submitted along with an entry fee of $50 per entry. Each entry must fit within the specific Pulitzer categories. Otherwise, they will not be accepted, even if they are considered to have literary merit.  Applicants can enter each work in  up to two different categories but no more.

When an applicant submits material for consideration, the material is called an ‘entry’. The advisory board then reviews all entries and chooses the finalists. These are known as the ‘nominees’ and the title Pulitzer Prize nominee may be used by the authors for their credentials. There are usually several nominees in each category.

The Pulitzer Prize Medal

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal is given out to the winning American newspaper in the category of Public Service. Throughout the years, the Pulitzer medal has become a symbol of the awards program, even though it is not given out for any other catergory. The medal was designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French and his partner Henry Augustus Lukeman in 1918. French is the same sculptor who, years later, designe dand sculpted the famous statue of Lincoln Seated at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

The medal is crafted in silver and covered in 24 carat gold plate. One side of the medal displays the profile of Benjamin Franklin and the other side shows an early printer working at his printing press. The words “For the most disinterested and meritorious public service rendered by an American newspaper during the year….” wrap around the image of the printer.

The name of the winning newspaper is Engraved on the Franklin side of the medal is the name of the winning newspaper. On the opposite side is the year the award was received.

Famous Pulitzer Prize Winners

There have been many famous Pulitzer Prize winners since the inception of the awards. Some of them include Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, and Margaret Mitchell for Fiction. President John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer for Biography. Robert Frost received a Pulitzer for Poetry and Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim have won for Drama.

Some winners have received more than one Pulitzer Prize. David McCullough won two Pulitzers for Biography; Robert Frost has won four times for Poetry; Margaret Leech has won twice for History; and William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Booth Tarkington all have won twice for Fiction


As prestigious as the Pulitzer is, it has seen its share of controversy over the years. One of the most common complaints is by critics who argue that some material should or should not have won. Most of that criticism centers on the Pultizer’s advisory board who sometimes make decisions that are the opposite from what a selection of juries advises. The reason for most of these arguments is that the most notable literary works are not always on the best-sellers list or popular by public standards. Many works are only appreciated by members of the literary or theatrical field.

The Pulitzer Prizes in journalism usually are awarded to the major newspapers in the country like  The New York Times and  The Washington Post. However, the advisory board has also recognized smaller newspapers for their works and contributions to the field. Some of the smaller newspapers that have been recognized have been The Virgin Islands Daily News which won the Public Service award for its reporting on the area’s rising crime rate and how it was linked to a corrupted local criminal justice system. The newspaper Willamette Week in Oregan won the award for Investigative Reporting in 2005 for its coverage of a former governor’s sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl.

Despite the controversies and criticisms, the board remains firm in its decisions that it has made over the years. The Pulitzer Prize is still the highest prestigious award in the United States and its Pulitzer Prize winners are widely recognized for their successful work in the areas of journalism, fiction, drama, history, and music. Just being nominated is a high recognition for one’s craft and is an incentive for the pursuit of better and more challenging literary and journalistic works.