Joseph Pulitzer's 1904 will established the Pulitzer Prizes: four awards in journalism, four in letters and drama, one for education, and four traveling scholarships. The overseer advisory board he set up was and is empowered to change or create new categories, not give an award in any given year, or ignore the recommendation of the juries in each category. Since the first prizes in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize Board has increased the number of awards to 21. There are currently awards for journalism (public service by a newspaper, local reporting of breaking news, investigative journalism, explanatory reporting, beat reporting, national affairs reporting, international affairs reporting, feature writing, commentary, criticism, editorial writing, cartooning, breaking news photography, feature photography), writing (American fiction, American history, American biography, American poetry, American nonfiction), drama, and music.

There are 20 Pulitzer juries (about 102 judges) who recommend 3 nominations to the Board. Winners get a certificate (the Public Service winner gets a medal), $5000, and lunch from the President of Columbia University.

Although the music prize began in 1943, it was solely for classical music until 1998, when other American music forms were eligible. The Board bestowed a Special Award on George Gershwin marking the 1998 centennial celebration of his birth and Duke Ellington on his 1999 centennial year.

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