The Pulitzer Prizes were begun in Joseph Pulitzer’s Will, written in 1904, seven years before his death. In that will the legendary journalist sought to insure excellence in journalism and the arts, and made provisions for awards for journalism and drama, as well as scholarships for outstanding students the field of journalism. In the education of journalists Pulitzer was also a pioneer, for he was the first to fund schools of journalism, which did not exist before he did so. The profession of journalism was not considered to be fully respectable in the late 19th and early twentieth century, so Pulitzer was instrumental in raising it up to a more broad social standing. But Pulitzer also understood that the world would grow and change so that his own Prizes, funded by an estate from his own fortune, would have to grow and change with America itself. So he established a board of governors for the prizes, and that board has changed the number and nature of the prizes through the years. They have been expanded, recently, to include online journalism, fulfilling Pulitzer’s hope to ensure excellence in all arenas.
In some respects, however, the prizes seem to be contrary to Pulitzer’s nature, for he surely was not a fan of personal glorification for its own sake. He would not even give his own reporters bylines, for example, and lost some of his best reporters to William Randolph Hearst, who had no such compunctions. It must be remembered, on the other hand, that Pulitzer was the first newspaper editor to enlarge newspaper circulation to the common man, for before him papers were only read by the upper crust. “You can’t preach to empty pews,” Pulitzer cried out, arguing that if the common man of the Gilded Age was going to rise up against the fat cats who were exploiting them they must become educated by the news media about the injustices that were being thrust upon them. His invention of sensationalism, with banner headlines and stories about scandals, murder, divorce and other subjects that so called respectable newspapers considered gossip not worthy of attention, attracted the massive readership that funded the Pulitzer Prizes. Yet Pulitzer did not want his papers to be purely sensationalistic, for he felt that such scandalous writing was only a tool to attract readers to buy the paper, who would then read other parts of the paper and become educated about the unscrupulous men who oppressed them and take political action against them. Today there is a a distinction between papers like the Daily News and the New York Times, but Pulitzer wanted his own paper, the World, to have elements of both of these papers, which it did. It was the biggest selling paper in New York between 1884 and 1911.
So today the Pulitzer Prizes are among the more sought after prizes in journalism and the arts, so that Pulitzer has achieved his goal of helping to ensure excellence in the public sphere. But Pulitzer also made bold innovations in the field of journalism on the whole by democratizing it, and today there are many different fields in the media by which ordinary citizens can find out about their political problems, and do something about it.