The only Pulitzer Prize mention that The New York Times received this year for reporting–a finalist award to Dennis Overbye for a wonderful story on the Higgs boson–was submitted by Overbye himself after the paper decided not to.
Overbye, who covers particle physics and cosmology at the Times, narrowly missed the cut as the paper decided which stories to nominate for the Pulitzers this year. "I was in the running," he told me in an email. "Indeed, when I asked, some of the science editors thought I had been nominated. So I missed out in the final rounds."
Do we smell a conspiracy here? Particle physics is too arcane for the Pulitzers? Reporting on hard sciences is too often overlooked? Not according to Overbye, who accepted the situation with customary grace.
"It's not that the Times devalues science…It's just a lot of what we think is good, impactful journalism gets produced in the course of a year here," he said.
Overbye says he wasn't convinced that his story was worthy of a Pulitzer, but he thought the subject was Pulitzer-worthy. When he discovered the Times hadn't entered his story, he decided (with a nudge from his wife) to send it in. "It only costs $50 and some time on the computer," he said.
"The paper had no problem with that, and in fact there is even a tradition of it. Jeffrey Gettleman nominated himself a couple years ago and won, and this year Josh Haner [the Pulitzer winner for feature photography] did the same thing. I had pretty much forgotten about it — I didn't know when the prizes were going to be announced. We were packing to go to Belize when Barbara Strauch, the science editor who was a big champion of this, called to tell me I was a finalist."
Is Overbye pleased he was a finalist? Of course. But more than that, he was grateful for the opportunity to write the story. "The work really is its own reward, as clichéd as that might sound: The chance to be left alone for a while to dig your teeth into a story with something approximating the appropriate length and embellishments."
Overbye is fortunate to get that opportunity regularly at the Times. And those of us who read him are fortunate, too.