If nothing else, you have to give Sam Zell credit for punching the right buttons among the journalism traditionalists.

In a recent interview with Conde Nast Portfolio editor Joanne Lipman, Zell basically discounts the importance of journalism awards in the newspaper industry, or as he puts it:

“I haven’t figured out how to cash in a Pulitzer Prize.”

This has created quite a stir, that the man in charge of some of the most prestigious award-winning newspapers in the country doesn’t think much of using that as leverage for drawing readers back to newspapers.

But, if you step back a bit, he makes a good point. After all, if Pulitzers were as highly treasured by readers as they are by the journalism community, then papers such as the L.A. Times and N.Y Times should not be suffering the same fate as the rest of the industry. And, as we’re finding out with L.A., a trophy case full of awards hasn’t stopped the bleeding of readership from newspapers.

This is not to say that the basis for journalism awards are not important, but I have long believed that many newspapers have been so awards-focused that they have lost sight of what readers really want. No one has won a Pulitzer for providing outstanding coverage a community’s spirit, or detailed information of the happenings of the local Little League, or giving readers information on a great restaurant in town. Yet in many cases this is what is suffering as newspapers downsize and tighten their scope of coverage.

Awards basically stroke the ego of the newspapers and journalists involved. They really do nothing to attract and retain readers. What will attract and retain them is refocusing the energy used to produce award-worthy stories into content that catches your community’s attention and makes them run to your paper or web site when they need a fix of local news.

Maybe if someone created an award for that, more publishers would take notice.

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