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Judging the Pulitzers

buffy2011I was super excited Monday when Pulitzer Administrator Mike Pride announced the 2015 winners. Why? Because I served as a juror in the local reporting category. It was an honor to be asked to serve on a jury for the second year in a row. Last year, I judged the feature writing category.

I’m happy to say that one of my top choices received this year’s award. It went to  Rob Kuznia, Rebecca Kimitch and Frank Suraci of the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif.  Their work uncovered widespread corruption in a school district that served one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles County. Through their dogged reporting and tenacity, they dug deep and what they found was jaw-dropping. They discovered the superintendent had:

  • amassed $663,000 in compensation
  • taken out a district-funded $750,000 whole life insurance policy without board approval and then had the board approve it retroactively
  • steered lucrative contracts to political allies
  • managed to get a contracted work year of 215 days, 30 days shorter than other superintendents, which meant he was paid overtime for “extra” time he worked. Additionally, he claimed he had worked every legal holiday and had never taken a vacation day throughout his tenure, resulting in even more pay. Investigators found that was highly unlikely.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Based on their coverage, the FBI and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office  launched criminal investigations. The superintendent was fired and legislation was put forth that would prevent abuse and create more accountability for school districts in California.

This was good journalism and I am super proud to be a part of the nominating jury.

Sitting in the Pulitzer World Room on the campus of Columbia University in mid-February judging the entries, I felt overwhelmed at times. I, along with my fellow jurors, were tasked with choosing the best journalism of the year.  Wow. It was  an incredible opportunity but also a lot of pressure and responsibility.

I remember looking up at the beautiful stained-glass window, “Liberty Lighting the World,” that is the focal point of the World Room and inhaling deeply. The window, once part of the World Building, depicts the newspaper’s masthead.  I remember saying a prayer, trying to calm my nerves.

What I’ve learned from judging the Pulitzers two years in a row is that great journalism is being done. Journalism that impacts lives and makes a difference. Journalism that uncovers injustice and leads to change.

I’ve never been prouder to be a journalist. Whatever new tools we use, our mission hasn’t changed.  We play a vital role in the dissemination of news and information. Our watchdog role ensures that democracy continues. We give a voice to those who cannot speak and stand up for those too weak to rise. And for that, I’m proud.