Not many of us get an invitation to design and direct "a Pulitzer Prize for the young," and I've never gotten over the opportunity. Since 1981 the judges have identified an amazing roster of talented people, some of whom became household names.
When this year's winners step to the podium on June 12 to receive their checks, they will become part of a fast track well understood in their age group because the mark of approval from lustrous journalists often changes their lives. The Livingston board, Christiane Amanpour, Ken Auletta, Dean Baquet, Charles Gibson, Ellen Goodman, John Harris, Clarence Page and Anna Quindlen, do the judging, and present their picks with detailed introductions to an audience always on the prowl for new talent.
Some job leaps are dramatic. C.J. Chivers was 32 and moved from the Providence Journal-Bulletin to The New York Times. H.G. (Buzz) Bissinger won at the age of 27 as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He went on to write "Friday Night Lights," among other best sellers, and is now also a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.
But job offers aren't the only thing winners feel shift. For the 25th anniversary of the prizes, past winners weighed in about what the experience meant to them. For Christiane Amanpour, 34, in 1992, the Livingston prize for her Sarajevo reporting "was when I understood what it meant to be a journalist, that words matter and the way you frame an issue matters." She later joined the Livingston judging panel.
Thomas Friedman won a Livingston at the age of 29 in 1982. Now the international affairs columnist for The New York Times, he said the recognition was important because "it was for (all) journalists under 35 and I was still a pup, a babe in the woods, and who knew what I would do, quite frankly, after that."
"It was enormously encouraging," said Steve Coll, two-time Pulitzer winner and dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He was awarded a Livingston in 1991 at the age of 33. "At that time, the idea that Mike Wallace (then a judge) had read or scanned a package of my clips and had been involved with creating this award was as close to a brush with celebrity that I was ever going to have."
David Isay founder and president of StoryCorps, an oral history project that airs weekly on NPR's "Morning Edition," said flatly winning as a 25 year-old junior NPR producer "was a very, very, very big deal. It was a life-changing thing for me."
"While it is true that you are only as good as your last story, winning the Livingston Award ensured that my stories were noticed," said Jo Becker, then age 31. "It gave me confidence to pursue my dream of becoming an investigative reporter and a leg up from the St. Petersburg Times to the Washington Post and now the investigative staff of The New York Times."
In 1990, David Remnick was 32. "It charges you up," he said. "It gets your batteries going to do the next thing." In his case this meant a series of distinguished books and the top editor's slot at The New Yorker.
For me as director, however, the Livingston Awards' most gratifying judgment came from Gene Roberts, who took over editing a then-moribund Philadelphia Inquirer and whipped it into a dynamo that won 17 Pulitzers in his 18 years there:
"I have found the Livingston Awards more valuable to me as an editor than the Pulitzer or any other award I can name, precisely because it focuses me on good talent in an early part of a writers' career," he said. "No one has done more to develop young journalists."
The Livingston Awards for Young Journalists aims at identifying top talent early (entrants must be under 35) and boosting winners by presenting them to the senior levels of the profession at an annual lunch in New York City. For more information on the program, run by the University of Michigan and supported by the Knight Foundation, read here.