At City Club 04.27.05 Connie Schultz makes history, knowing "well behaved women rarely make history"

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Thu, 04/28/2005 - 02:02.
The story of Connie Schultz winning the Pulitzer Prize is big news for
Connie, the PD and NEO, which was celebrated on 04.27.05 at the City
Club Forum. But the most remarkable story is that this "voice for the underdog and underprivileged" was raised in Ashtabula, educated at Kent State, and in an independent and uncompromising way quickly ascended from stay at home mom and freelance journalist to the highest ranks of achievement possible in her field.
It is thus truly inspiring to see realized the full potential of individual inspiration
and excellence – this is a realization badly needed in NEO these days…
a message 53 years in the making, and far more telling and
significant than a world series or super bowl championship. Read on…

This City Club forum was a celebration shared by Connie’s friends and co-workers from the Plain Dealer, a who’s who in local journalism, and many of her faithful readers and people reported on in her commentaries – it was a heartfelt affair. The preamble to her talk described her success as a reflection of success by many people at the PD who recognized Connie’s talent and promoted that – those most responsible were there to help share this celebration, starting with Doug Clifton, Editor of the Plain Dealer.

Doug was previously Editor of the Miami Herald, which won three Pulitzer Prizes, so he knows the value of the prize well. He explained the history of the prize and the importance of the achievement of winning. Joseph Pulitzer was a newspaperman and founder of the Columbia School of Journalism, which administers the prize selection process. Pulitzer started the prize in recognition of achievement in his industry.

In awarding the prize, a large committee of world-renowned leaders in journalism chooses the winners, and there are many categories in which prizes are awarded – there were approximately 200 submittals in Connie’s category of commentary. In judgment, all entries are placed in the middle of a table and all seven members of a sub-committee read all entries in their category – entries are either approved or rejected by each judge and entries with three rejections “fall off the table�. In three days the judges work the list down to those entries that all judges consider prize-worthy. The category committee ultimately distills their submittals down to three entries that are celebrated by all judges of the category. Connie reached that level two years ago, and that is an achievement in itself.

Once the committee has chosen three entries for their category, they send them without further preference to a senior committee of 21 final judges, which includes representatives of Columbia University and past Pulitzer Prize winners – “the big board�. Within a day or two the big board determines the winners in each category. Doug describes the awards ceremony that will come up on the 23rd of May – very staid and serious – a gathering without pomp and circumstance. Read the writing that won Connie the Pulitzer Prize here.

Next, PD Managing Editor Tom O’Hara speaks of the impact winning the prize has on the newsroom. He says he was never before with a newspaper when it won the Pulitzer Prize – he knows what it's like to come close but lose - now he knows what it is like to win. The day the prizes are announced, everyone in the newsroom waits with anticipation – finally, when Connie’s prize was announced, Tom realized it was a unique moment when every journalist in the room was happy.

Tom said he contacted other editors whose newspapers won the prize and he learned the experience sends overall newsroom and organizations morale higher and it stays that way for quite a while.

It has been 52 years since anyone at the PD won a Pulitzer Prize… probably a bit longer than any lingering morale may last. Now that Connie has won, others in the newsroom feel they can "swing for the fences". Reporters now get more credibility in the community – they feel the public has more trust in the news. Other newspaper editors told Tom that after their newspapers won the prize they received better candidates for jobs and had better retention. While the PD has won many prizes, none compare with this… expect this to be a transformational moment in local journalism.

Stuart Warner, Connie’s deputy features editor (and her writing coach) took the stage next and recommended to those in the audience who are writers to do what Connie does – she reads – she seeks advice of others – she not only accepts criticism but seeks it out. Stuart recounted that in one case Connie asked for a critique on a piece she wrote and Doug Clifton arranged for Stuart and a Pulitzer prize winning journalist to brutally critique her work – it was brutal and she valued the insight and asked for Stuart to be her editor on future work.

Stuart said Connie works and works and wants to get better and better – she will not rest on her laurels but will only get better.

Following these insights and accolades from her co-workers, Connie took the stage as a Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist (“PPWJ�) and spoke of where she comes from and how she got there. It is important to note that in the official announcement that Schultz won the Pulitzer Prize, the judges
said Connie won for her pungent columns that provided a voice for the
underdog and underprivileged. Read about Connie here.

Her #1 word of advice to journalists in the room was “revise, revise, revise�… she advised journalism is about more than getting your name in print but about getting it right… writing is a mission rather than a job. She explained her turning point was when an editor told her that writing was her job and she realized and told him it was her career.

She has found it valuable to seek out the help of other journalists – but warned you must find ones who like you because it is a competitive field and “we� don’t want everyone to succeed. Find the right help. Every good writer needs a good editor.

Younger writers have lots of anxiety about how to start a story – she asks journalists to tell her their story and then put it to print – suggests writers read their work aloud – she says you are not wagging your finger at an audience, you are having a conversation with your readers.

Connie says, “there are good editors and then all the rest�. She believes her editor is good - Stuart never sits at the keyboard and works her stories but sits with her at the keyboard and helps her work her story.

In conclusion, Connie pointed out whatever she ever wrote she wrote like it was for the NY Times (although she points out these days the NYTimes has issues) – she suggests writers pick what level they want to write at and write at that level, regardless of where they expect their work to be published – set the bar as high as possible. It is easy to get beaten down – you must rise above.

She ends her talk with a quote: “what they call you is one thing, what you answer to is quite another�

Q. You started as a magazine writer and moved to newspaper journalism… would you speak about that?

A. went to KSU and was newspaper editor there so I started with newspapers. Then, as a stay at home mom, got into reading lots of magazines and said “I can do that� – a friend said do that - started freelancing from home. In reflecting now on magazine writing: too many writers put themselves in the story – avoid that… who cares about the writer's story.

Q. Congratulations – how much has voicemail and email impacted your field – changed reader feedback?

A. We gauge our success too much on feedback we receive – it is not indicative of quality/success – receive more feedback on article about hairstyle than human drama – she reads all her email, although she doesn’t have time to respond. Journalists need to focus their work on “do we make a difference?�

Q. For Doug Clifton – I read criticism most judges for this prize were from small newspapers… would you comment on that?

A. False criticism – committee included Pulitzer Prize winning editors and writers. And, in journalism you can’t equate small with bad – the committee was peerless (see committee that judged Connie here).

Q. For Connie, how can your writings be collected by readers?

A. In negotiations for a book coming out next Spring – exciting to keep stories in public eye as we need to keep having conversations

Q. Other day a column wrote of the decline of newspaper reading – please comment.

A. Doug says that is one of his favorite topics – consider the value of newspapers to society – chart participation of citizens in voting to newspaper reading and find exactly parallel lines – people who participate in Democracy read newspapers. Readers/voters tend to be older, educated and relatively affluent. That young people don’t read newspapers is a problem for society and democracy. We need to get more young people reading papers and participating in civic life.

Q. Connie, how will winning the prize effect you?

A. Hoping more papers pick up her column. Want to use winning the Pulitzer as a way to improve appreciation for our paper – "I broke the Jinx". Important times for journalism, as the current presidential administration has chipped away at freedom of speech and truth of information and many in journalism have betrayed profession… as Pulitzer Prize winner Connie has credibility to face these challenges.

Q. You do a great job telling other people’s stories – how do you keep perspective?

A. My family would say I don’t keep perspective - it is difficult – journalism is personal... most readers realize she is a woman from her writing – she was coached to make her work personal – from how she wrote 7 years ago she has evolved – be original and authentic - but remember “well behaved women rarely make history�.