It was a Pulitzer sur­prise

Cor­rup­tion probe brings Daily Breeze its first-ever award

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Es­mer­alda Ber­mudez The staff at the South Bay pa­per was elated — and stunned. Two hours af­ter the an­nounce­ment, they raced to buy sand­wich plat­ters and plas­tic flutes. In the con­fer­ence room, they gath­ered to cel­e­brate with speeches and the un­cork­ing

When the big an­nounce­ment came, no one in the news­room be­lieved the pa­per could ac­tu­ally win. There was no gath­er­ing planned, no food plat­ters, no cham­pagne.

Then, sud­denly, city edi­tor Frank Su­raci let out a scream.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Are you kid­ding me?”

The re­sults came in Mon­day af­ter­noon and staffers at the Daily Breeze, with its seven-re­porter news­room, learned they had just won their first-ever Pulitzer Prize.

The 63,000-cir­cu­la­tion news­pa­per in Tor­rance took the award for lo­cal re­port­ing for a six-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion that re­vealed pos­si­ble cor­rup­tion in a cash­strapped school dis­trict. More than 50 sto­ries by re­porters Rob Kuz­nia and Re­becca Kim­itch — edited by Su­raci — re­sulted in the re­moval of the Cen­tinela Val­ley Union High School Dis­trict’s highly paid su­per­in­ten­dent.

Their re­port­ing also prompted state leg­is­la­tion to pre­vent ex­ces­sive com­pen­sa­tion.

mu­nity they cov­ered, and “we were al­lowed the chance to tell the story, whole­heart­edly.”

The win­ners gave credit to their ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor, Michael Anas­tasi, for push­ing them.

Anas­tasi came to the pa­per, which is part of the Los An­ge­les News Group, from Salt Lake City in 2012.

In one of his first meet­ings with man­age­ment, Anas­tasi re­calls press­ing ed­i­tors to cre­ate Pulitzer­wor­thy work.

“I want us to play in the ma­jor leagues,” he told them. “The only thing that keeps us from achiev­ing to the high­est level is our­selves.”

Su­raci thought he was nuts. In five years, his staff had been cut in half to seven re­porters. Each day, the news­room had to strug­gle with min­i­mal re­sources to cover the vast South Bay area — its city halls, school dis­tricts and neigh­bor­hoods — and with con­stant pres­sure to fend off the much big­ger Los An­ge­les Times.

Su­raci, who joined the Daily Breeze 41 years ago, couldn’t re­call a time when the pa­per sub­mit­ted a story for a Pulitzer.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had any­thing wor­thy,” he said.

As he walked around the news­room, a cham­pagne bot­tle in his hand, he seemed dazed. As­sign­ing Kuz­nia full time to the school dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tion had left his team even more short-handed, he said.

“There were so many sto­ries we had to miss be­cause we didn’t have the staffing,” Su­raci said. “I kept think­ing, let’s fin­ish this, let’s do it right and let’s move on.”

The Pulitzer makes him feel vin­di­cated — and sad. He pointed to the desks sur­round­ing his.

“Look at this, “he said. “Va­cant. Va­cant. Va­cant. Va­cant. Va­cant.”

When he got to Kuz­nia’s desk, he paused. “Va­cant.” The lead re­porter on the win­ning story left jour­nal­ism six months ago. He now works in public re­la­tions at USC.

The North Dakota na­tive had worked a num­ber of beats at tiny news­pa­pers be­fore land­ing at the Daily Breeze. His dream was to make it to the L.A. Times or the New York Times.

“Jour­nal­ism was my thing,” he said. “I al­ways felt lucky that I had found what I wanted to do in my 20s while oth­ers were still look­ing for it.”

But at 39, the ca­reer he so loved barely paid his bills. Six months into his job at the Breeze, he had to take a pay cut. While friends his age were buy­ing homes, he was still rent­ing and driv­ing his old Honda, built in 1989.

He said the pa­per’s win was a tes­ta­ment to the im­por­tance of lo­cal jour­nal­ism.

But the pro­fes­sion, he found, “seems to be melt­ing and I felt too fi­nan­cially un­sta­ble.”

On Mon­day, his col­leagues wel­comed him back to the news­room, if only for the day. They con­grat­u­lated him with a warm pot pie, the food he lived off of dur­ing his long hours on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Anas­tasi told him his old job was his. Other of­fers were likely to roll in.

But Kuz­nia couldn’t say whether he’d re­turn to jour­nal­ism.

‘There were so many sto­ries we had to miss be­cause we didn’t have the staffing. I kept think­ing, let’s fin­ish this, let’s do it right and let’s move on.’

— Frank Su­raci,

Daily Breeze city edi­tor

Robert Casil­las Daily Breeze

DAILY BREEZE re­porters Re­becca Kim­itch and Rob Kuz­nia — who is no longer at the pa­per — cel­e­brate af­ter win­ning the Pulitzer for lo­cal re­port­ing.

Robert Casil­las Daily Breeze

LONG­TIME Daily Breeze city edi­tor Frank Su­raci, left, re­ceives a cel­e­bra­tory hug from ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor Michael Anas­tasi. Su­raci couldn’t re­call a time when the news­pa­per even sub­mit­ted a story for a Pulitzer.

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