Yesterday, Kuznia and two other journalists from the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif., won a first-place award in the local reporting category from the Pulitzer Prizes. The recognition covered 10 stories that Kuznia — along with Rebecca Kimitch and Frank Suraci — produced on the “widespread corruption” in the Centinela Valley Union High School District. A revelation that schools superintendent Jose Fernandez pulled in $663,000 in total compensation in 2013 anchored the series. Consider that the district consisted of just four schools and 6,000 students. Kuznia et al., too, reported on generous policies for campaign donors, outrageously lenient mortgage terms for Fernandez, bad management, the whole deal.
To celebrate his Pulitzer, Kuznia had to make a return to the newsroom of the Daily Breeze. That’s because last August he’d accepted a job as “Coordinator, External Relations” at USC’s Shoah Foundation, which is “[d]edicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides a compelling voice for education and action.”
The move came with a 25 percent pay raise, said Kuznia in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. “I could afford the rent,” said Kuznia, who lives in Los Angeles, not far from Culver City, but “I needed more financial stability.” Reporters at the Daily Breeze, says Kuznia, generally earn salaries in the mid-$40,000 range. Staffers sustained a 5.5 percent pay cut back in 2011, though that money was restored for Kuznia before he left last summer.
The jump from journalism to PR is generally greeted with groans in this industry, a sentiment that the 39-year-old Kuznia himself acknowledges. “I guess journalists have for a long time kind of thought of going to PR as giving up or selling out, but, you know, when I was a reporter, I needed PR people,” he said. “They supplied me with many of the stories that I ended up pursuing. … You can’t have a baseball game without a batter and a pitcher. It’s more of a two-way street than I thought it was. It is rewarding on the other side too.”
Over his four years at the Daily Breeze, which covers Los Angeles County’s South Bay area, daily life was hectic. Kuznia would get to the office around 10 a.m. and depending on his editor’s needs, might not check out till 10 p.m. “Right away, your editor’s looking for stories and if there’s nothing on the budget, it’s stressful for everybody,” said Kuznia. “There isn’t a lot of time to think.”
Things are more predictable at the Shoah Foundation, where Kuznia conducts an 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. sort of existence. The fringe benefits don’t hurt, either: Whereas Kuznia got no subsidy for his commute to the Daily Breeze’s Torrance offices, USC gives him $30 per month to help with the cost of taking the Metro Expo line to his workplace on campus. “I don’t need my car because I’m not buzzing around town,” he says.
Nor is he chasing stories that change the world. In his letter to the Pulitzers in support of the submission, Daily Breeze Executive Editor Michael A. Anastasi noted that Fernandez was fired and legislation was proposed to tighten management of California school districts. The FBI and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, noted Anastasi, fired up investigations. Furthermore, Kuznia points out that the school district has boosted or revived vocational, summer school and phys-ed programs that had gone neglected. “That’s maybe one thing that set us apart maybe from other entries,” says Kuznia, citing the impact of the stories.
In pursuing the Centinela Valley series, Kuznia encountered some classic resistance from the targets of the paper’s investigation. Fernandez, he remembers, responded to inquiries about his compensation by pointing to a “witch hunt.” “He made the case that we were sensationalizing or manipulating information to make it seem that he was getting more money than he was,” says Kunzia. The Daily Breeze folks solved that problem by comparing Fernandez’s pay documents with those of other superintendents from other jurisdictions. “We did, like, an apples-to-apples comparison,” he says.
How could Kuznia possibly be happy leaving behind these apples? If some news outlet offered to match or best his current salary, wouldn’t he jump? “I can’t really know until the bridge presents itself,” he says. “And I also hesitate to answer because am employed by a very good employer.”