When the 101st annual Pulitzer Prizes are awarded at New York’s Columbia University in April, the winners will be announced by a Kentuckian.
Dana Canedy, a Fort Knox drill sergeant’s daughter and University of Kentucky graduate, left a two-decade career at The New York Times on July 17 to become administrator of the nation’s most prestigious awards for outstanding journalism, literature and musical composition.
Canedy takes over the Pulitzers at a pivotal time for American journalism.
Despite growing audiences and amazing new technology tools, news organizations are losing much of the advertising revenue that has always supported good journalism to online search and social media companies.
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Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has tried to consolidate his power by attacking America’s free press as “fake news” when it reports accurate but unflattering things about him.
“This is a very challenging time for journalism in this country,” Canedy said in a telephone interview. “I think the Pulitzer Prizes already exist to uplift and celebrate and cheer the best in American journalism. Obviously, the most important way is through the awards, but there are other ways we can do that.”
Canedy said she wasn’t ready to discuss specifics, “but one of my goals is to try to use the Pulitzer brand to support freedom of the press. I’m giving that a lot of thought.”
“I’m used to working for a news organization with an historic, storied reputation and brand,” she added. “So I understand you have to be very judicious about how you change a brand and how a brand evolves. I was a gatekeeper for The Times and The Times’ brand for many years and I’m going to be that for the Pulitzers now.”
Canedy hinted at some changes that may be coming to the Pulitzers, such as revised award categories, entry rules and eligibility requirements. She said she also wants to continue efforts in recent years to make prize jury panels more diverse. “It makes it a really exciting time to be in this position,” she said.
Canedy, 52, is the oldest of seven children born to Penny and T.J. Canedy Sr., who live in Radcliff, where she grew up.
“I’m the first person on either side of my family to attend college,” she said. “I inherited a strong work ethic from my father, who was a drill sergeant.”
Canedy said she fell in love with writing at age 11 or 12. “In my high school memory book, there’s an entry that says, ‘I will be a writer in New York within 10 years,’” she said. “It took longer than 10 years, but I eventually made it.”
Canedy earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Kentucky, where she wrote for student publications and was a work-study student for the Office of Minority Student Affairs.
“I remember her as a very serious, extremely conscientious student who possessed an impressive work ethic,” said Chester Grundy, who headed the office. “Its been really gratifying to follow her amazing career over these many years.”
After eight years at The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland, Canedy went to the New York Times in 1996. She was a lead reporter on the series “How Race Is Lived in America” that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. As the newspaper’s Florida bureau chief, she covered the disputed 2000 presidential election and the flight training of the 9/11 terrorists. She oversaw national breaking news coverage for The Times for four years.
After Canedy’s partner, First Sgt. Charles M. King, was killed in combat in Iraq in 2006, she used a journal he had begun keeping for their unborn son as the basis for the best-selling book, “A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor.”
“I grew up a Kentucky girl, but my son is a complete New Yorker,” Canedy said of her son, now 11. “That has been fun to watch.”
Columbia Pictures has optioned the book for a movie, to be directed by Denzel Washington. Canedy said they are in the process of choosing a second screenwriter for the project, after deciding a first attempt wasn’t right.
Most recently, Canedy was The Times’ newsroom recruiter, also overseeing management training and diversity initiatives while writing occasional essays for the newspaper. She was a senior advisor to The Times’ CEO and executive editor. But after 20 years at the newspaper, Canedy started thinking about leaving.
“I’m a believer that when you get really comfortable you should challenge yourself again,” she said. “I had all these interesting projects presented to me and I really wanted to focus on writing books and working on this movie.”
Then the head of the Pulitzer search committee approached her about succeeding Mike Pride, 70, who was retiring as the prize administrator. “I’m really honored to be in this position,” she said.