Best Leads Among the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Stories

From a Poynter story by Roy Peter Clark headlined “And the winner for 2020’s Best Pulitzer Prize lead is. . .”

For the sixth consecutive year, we have chosen to issue what may be journalism’s least prestigious award: a prize for the Best Pulitzer Lead. . . .The winners, as always, showcase some of the best reporting in America. Cheers to all of them. But as I have said in years past, a prize-winning story does not always have a great lead. Good is often good enough.

Best Pulitzer Lead
Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times for International Reporting. For coverage of political corruption, espionage and murder in Putin’s Russia.

RIVNE, Ukraine — The target lived on the sixth floor of a cheerless, salmon-colored building on Vidinska Street, across from a thicket of weeping willows. Oleg Smorodinov found him there, rented a small apartment on the ground floor, and waited.

Kyle Hopkins, the Anchorage Daily News. For Public Service. The absence of law enforcement in the state of Alaska proves shocking.

STEBBINS — When Nimeron Mike applied to be a city police officer here last New Year’s Eve, he didn’t really expect to get the job.

Team from the Washington Post: Steven Mufson, Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin and John Muyskens. For Explanatory Journalism on the local and global effects of climate change. (If the actual scribe would like to raise a hand, we’ll give you your props.)

LAKE HOPATCONG, N.J. — Before climate change thawed the winters of New Jersey, this lake hosted boisterous wintertime carnivals. As many as 15,000 skaters took part, and automobile owners would drive onto the thick ice. Thousands watched as local hockey clubs battled one another and the Skate Sailing Association of America held competitions, including one in 1926 that featured 21 iceboats on blades that sailed over a three-mile course.

In those days before widespread refrigeration, workers flocked here to harvest ice. They would carve blocks as much as two feet thick, float them to giant ice houses, sprinkle them with sawdust and load them onto rail cars bound for ice boxes in New York City and beyond.

“These winters do not exist anymore,” says Marty Kane, a lawyer and head of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation.

Jeffery Gerritt, the Palestine (Texas) Herald-Press for editorial writing on the mistreatment of prisoners.

Before dying of a methamphetamine overdose early on Aug. 1, 2017, La Salle County, Texas,  prisoner James Dean Davis, aka “Country,” moaned and yelled for most of the night. Sweat dripped off him in a chilly holding cell, as vomit ran red, like Kool-Aid, on the floor.

“He kept saying he needed help and didn’t want to die,” Davis’ cellmate later told a Texas Rangers investigator.

Special Honor

Colson Whitehead in the category of Fiction for “The Nickel Boys”:

Even in death the boys were trouble.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark. His comments about these story leads in this post are well worth reading.


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