June 12, 2013

In February 2011, a team of Los Angeles Times reporters led by Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives (see correction) received the Selden Ring Award from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Any day now, the paper is going to throw a party for them.

The Selden Ring is among journalism’s more prestigious awards, if for no reason other than its $35,000 payout. Gottlieb and Vives surely deserved the honor, which credited a trove of jaw-dropping stories about corruption in the city of Bell, Calif. To get a taste for the series, try this installment on former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo, who pulled down a salary of $787,637; with benefits, the compensation rose to $1.5 million; his allotment of vacation and sick pay amounted to 28 weeks per year. There was a great deal more as well.

The Pulitzer people agreed with the Selden Award people, giving the Los Angeles Times the prize for public service — perhaps journalism’s highest honor — for the Bell reporting.

The Selden money came in a check made out to the Los Angeles Times. At the award ceremony, a Selden honcho said of the payout, “It’s going to the reporters and the editors, not the newspaper.” Management proceeded to spread it around to Gottlieb and Vives, who received $5,000 apiece, as well as to other staffers who had worked on the project. Not all of the money was handed out, however.

A year after the Selden Award was announced — in February 2012 — Gottlieb pressed one of his bosses about the leftover cash, according to an e-mail that Gottlieb sent to a third party, who passed it along to the Erik Wemple Blog. The answer? They were planning a party. Months went by, however, with no sign of a party. In November, Gottlieb struck again, e-mailing three of his superiors, including top editor Davan Maharaj: “It has been more than a year and a half since the Pulitzer and the other awards we won for the Bell coverage. There clearly isn’t going to be a party, and it was outrageous to plan on using the prize money to pay for one. It’s time for that money to be distributed. If this makes me a bad guy for bringing this up, so be it.”

Answer: No dice.

For another five months, Gottlieb stewed. Then, on May 3, he escalated the matter, sending an e-mail to Kathy Thomson, president and chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Times Media Group (LATMG). The missive explained what had (not) happened to the money and included this bit: “It’s ironic that I would have to write this note to you considering that this award-winning stories focused on financial abuse and lack of accountability and transparency.”

The appeal to the upper reaches of the company worked. According to the leaked e-mail from Gottlieb, management checked to see how much money was left over. The amount Gottlieb cited in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog is $5,000. (It includes $1,000 from another award that the Bell coverage snared, according to Gottlieb; unlike other Pulitzer Prizes, the public service award does not include a cash prize.) When asked about the figure, Los Angeles Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan writes via e-mail, “Sorry, Erik – we’re not going to get into that level of detail, but doesn’t sound accurate.”

Whatever amount is left in the Selden 2011 kitty, it appears destined for hors d’oeuvres. Here’s the statement from Sullivan: :

[T]he Selden Ring prize money awarded to The Times for its coverage of the Bell scandal was distributed to Ruben Vives, Jeff Gottlieb and other members of the staff who contributed. A small amount was set aside for a staff party. The party was postponed several times for various reasons but will be held in the near future.

Those plans appear to be fine with the USC-Selden braintrust. According to the school, there are no restrictions on how the award can be spent.

Perhaps Selden should institute a ban on any proceeds used to fund stale soirees. In an industry full of strange formalities — witness all the cake-heavy farewells to laid-off and bought-out reporters and editors — an event to commemorate a 2½-year-old achievement could set a new mark for awkwardness.

Principle, not money, motivated his activism on the leftover funds, says Gottlieb. “Nothing’s happened. Nothing would have happened at all unless I caused a fuss, which is ridiculous,” he says. “I mean, what’s going on here? We don’t get raises, the paper’s always crying the blues about money, yet they’ve been so adamant on not giving out this money.”

Grounds exist for sympathizing with the Los Angeles Times on this matter. Figuring out how to divvy up award cash among squadrons of worthy — and sometimes underpaid — staffers is a tough thing to do. Given such difficulties, a party can be a logical choice. And the Los Angeles Times, like any regional U.S. newspaper, has gone through some turmoil in recent years, making it easy to forget about pledges to celebrate. Writes Sullivan:

There is unequivocally no financial abuse, lack of accountability or transparency involved. The Los Angeles Times is, as always, focused on delivering quality journalism to our readers. Winning accolades for that work is enormously gratifying and any accompanying financial awards are appreciated and distributed fairly. There is nothing unusual in utilizing a small portion of the Selden Ring prize money to honor the large team of Times staffers who made our Bell coverage a reality. In fact, the decision to do so was voted on by the team itself. The fact that the celebration hasn’t happened yet speaks to the busy nature of newsrooms.

It’s unclear whether other papers fund parties from prize kitties, though a quick survey of other newspapers failed to turn up any examples. For instance, Phil Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, wrote to the Erik Wemple Blog, “My understanding is that individual Times journalists who win journalism awards that include money are free to keep the prize.” Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, says, “Our position has always been that when a journalist wins a prize, that’s theirs.”

An editor at the Los Angeles Times cited sagging morale as a reason to throw the party, notes Gottlieb. Yet sagging morale has a way of begetting sagging morale. Think about how staffers will feel when they realize they’re swigging drinks with money they could have stuffed in their pockets.

Correction: This piece originally credited only Gottlieb and Vives with winning the Selden Ring Award and failed to note that they led a team of reporters that were honored by the award judges.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.