By Chris Adams

Want to win a Pulitzer Prize? Roy J. Harris Jr. has studied them all – going back 100 years – and he knows better than anybody what it takes to win.

He also knows there’s no secret formula.

A former reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal and CFO magazine, Harris is author of “Pulitzer’s Gold,” a look at the history of the public service award. While there are other Pulitzers for journalism – feature writing, national reporting, etc. – as well as those for literature and the arts, it’s the public service prize that showcases the true spirit of the prizes. In his book and in a wide-ranging discussion with the National Press Foundation, Harris tells the stories of what papers did to win. While there is no formula, certain themes emerge:

  • Courage on the part of publishers to pursue stories in the face of extreme pressure from the government or powerful institutions. Think of efforts by The Washington Post to pursue Watergate in the 1970s and the National Security Agency spying scandal in the 2010s. Or The New York Times and the Pentagon Papers, or The Boston Globe and the Roman Catholic Church.
  • Inventive efforts by reporters to crack open stories through innovation, technology and tenacity. Harris describes recent efforts by the Sun Sentinel in South Florida to use highway transponder data to document excessive – and dangerous – speeding by police officers. He also details the effort by two reporters in Illinois in the late 1940s to go county-by-county to document editors in the state who were on government payrolls.
  • All-in team efforts to help a community in need: The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and The Sun Herald of Mississippi to help their readers recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Or the efforts of The Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota to help readers deal with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

Harris knows the awards well. And for him, it’s a family matter: Among the winners he discusses is a journalist named Roy J. Harris, the author’s father, who was part of four public service winning efforts for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the middle of the 20th Century.

You can dig into the treasure trove of great public service journalism at the Pulitzer Prize website.