LA Times wins Pulitzer for exposing big salaries

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for a series revealing that politicians in the struggling, working-class city of Bell, Calif., were paying themselves enormous, six-figure salaries.

The newspaper’s reporting that officials in the 37,000-resident town were jacking up property taxes and other fees in part to cover the huge salaries led to arrests and the ouster of some of Bell’s top officials.

The Times won a second Pulitzer for feature photography, and The New York Times won two Pulitzers for international reporting and for commentary.

But in a year in which the earthquake in Haiti and the disastrous Gulf oil spill were some of the biggest stories, the Pulitzer Board decided not to give an award in the category of breaking news — a first in the 95-year history of the prize.

The board named three finalists for the award: The Chicago Tribune for coverage of the deaths of two Chicago firefighters; The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald for reporting on the Haiti earthquake; and The Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn., for coverage of a devastating flood.

A cheer went up and cameras flashed when the awards were announced in the Los Angeles Times newsroom, where about 100 people were gathered.

“The real victors in this are the people of Bell, who were able to get rid of, there’s no other way to say it, an oppressive regime,” said reporter Jeff Gottlieb, clutching a bottle of champagne.

“At a time when people are saying newspapers are dying, I think this is the day when we can say, no, not really,” said Ruben Vives, another staff writer on the story. “We gave a small town, we gave them an opportunity to speak out. That’s what newspapers do.”

The newspaper has been hobbled by the troubles of its owner, Tribune Co., which has been operating under federal bankruptcy protection for the past two years. Tribune Co. has been trying to shed most of the debt that it took on in an $8.2 billion buyout engineered by real estate mogul Sam Zell. The Times has also gone through wrenching staff cutbacks before and after the bankruptcy filing, and other turmoil in the newsroom.

In other awards, the nonprofit ProPublica won its first outright Pulitzer for national reporting. Reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein were cited for their piece exposing questionable Wall Street practices that contributed to the national economic meltdown. The judges cited their use of digital media to help explain the complex subject. (Last year, ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer together.)

Graphics and videos also accompanied The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s winning entry in explanatory reporting, an account of the use of genetic technology to save a 4-year-old boy ailing from a mysterious disease.

The competition’s rules were changed this year to allow digital media to be considered along with text entries. Media were allowed to enter “any available journalistic tool,” including videos, databases and multimedia presentations. In the past, most entries were print-only.

Over the years, the Pulitzer Board has declined to give awards 25 other times in particular categories, but this is the first year that no award was given for breaking news — long considered the bread-and-butter of daily journalism.

Paige St. John of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune was awarded the Pulitzer for investigative reporting for her examination of the property insurance system for Florida homeowners, which led to regulatory action.

Frank Main, Mark Konkol and John J. Kim of the Chicago Sun-Times won the local reporting Pulitzer for their documentation of crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods.

Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., received the Pulitzer for feature writing for her story of the sinking of a commercial fishing boat that drowned six men in the Atlantic Ocean.

Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry of The New York Times won for international reporting for their coverage of the Russian justice system; David Leonhardt won for the newspaper in commentary for his columns on the economy.

Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe received the Pulitzer for criticism for his writing about art. Joseph Rago of The Wall Street Journal was honored in the editorial writing category for his editorials challenging health care reform bills.

The Washington Post won in breaking news photography for their portraits from the Haiti earthquake.

The Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Davidson received the award for feature news photography for her portraits of Los Angeles gang violence.

Mike Keefe of The Denver Post won for editorial cartooning.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.