Yesterday, the LA Times won the much coveted Putlizer prize for public service reporting thanks to its expose of a web of public-sector corruption in the city of Bell. The award marks what many observers hope will be a reversal of fortune for the newspaper, which has seen a staggering decline in readership, circulation, pages–and most importantly, reporters–in recent years. The award caps an investigation by the newspaper that led to national outrage, firings, criminal charges and incarceration for several Bell city officials, most notably city manager and Surf City resident Robert Rizzo.
The Times beat out Bloomberg News, which exposed how some for-profit colleges and universities rip off low-income students, and the New York Times, which probed the epidemic of concussions in football and other sports. Although the award wasn't exactly a surprise to anyone who has followed the Bell scandal, it was in fact a rather unpredictable outcome of the sad decline of the LA Times, especially with regard to local coverage of Orange County.
To wit: The lead reporter on the Bell story, Jeff Gottlieb, used to be an assistant city editor at the Times' Orange County bureau. Shortly before the newspaper shuttered the bureau, Gottlieb agreed to what on paper looks like a demotion: move from the editor's desk back into field reporting. Gottlieb, though, tells the Weekly he had no complaints about the move.
“They offered me a job as the only reporter covering the South Bay, and I could work at home,” he says. “How could I refuse? No commute, and I got to see my kid.”
Kudos to Gottlieb and the Times for a well-deserved prize. Here's hoping that what he and the rest of the Bell investigation team achieved reminds the folks who run what's left of the Tribune Company that, ultimately, readers do care more about corruption and injustice than which celebrity landed in DUI court this week.