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'LA Times' Story Wins Pulitzer, Community Applause


Some journalists around the country are waking up this morning, Pulitzer Prize winners. Among the winners announced yesterday were two reporters for the Los Angeles Times who exposed an astonishing story of corruption in a small poor town outside of L.A. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik spent time with the reporters and editors behind that story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Public service awards don't get much more public service-y than this. After a bunch of the stories he wrote with colleague Jeff Gottlieb ran about corruption in Bell, California, reporter Ruben Vives ran into a grandmotherly woman at a protest outside a city council meeting there.

Mr. RUBEN VIVES (Reporter): You're Ruben Vives from the L.A. Times. I said yes. And she just says, give me a hug. And so I hug her. And then everyone's clapping and yelling and taking pictures. And it was just a bizarre thing to me.

FOLKENFLIK: Vives and Gottlieb had heard of a low-boiling investigation about pay for officials in Bell, so they asked how much did the city manager make. As Gottlieb recalled when I visited last September, city officials refused to say.

Mr. JEFF GOTTLIEB (Reporter): Every day I'm calling the city clerk. I'm telling her, listen, we really don't want to sue you, but, you know, we will. And then when we go to court and we win, because we will, we'll ask the judge to make you pay our legal bills, because that's what the statute says.

FOLKENFLIK: Ultimately, the city manager, Robert Rizzo, relented at a meeting surrounded by officials and lawyers.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Pretty quickly, I asked Bob Rizzo how much money do you make. He just kind of coughed out $700,000.

FOLKENFLIK: Actually, Rizzo's annual compensation was more like $1.5 million. David Lauter was then the Times's Metro editor.

Mr. DAVID LAUTER: You have public officials who were just collecting salaries that are unheard of for municipal officials in California, or really, anywhere in the country.

FOLKENFLIK: Rizzo and seven other current and former Bell officials now face multiple criminal counts. The story also sparked a movement throughout California for greater transparency and accountability from local governments. Bloggers and residents have raised questions, but the clout of the Los Angeles Times mattered.

Mr. LAUTER: When we're not looking, a lot of things happen that people dont find out about, either because in some places there simply are no really local media, or there are local media but they're so stretched thin that they can't really do anything about it.

FOLKENFLIK: But even before the Pulitzer, City Desk editor Kimi Yoshino told me the reports buoyed the newsroom's spirits in the aftermath of the paper's layoffs and the bankruptcy of its corporate owner.

Ms. KIMI YOSHINO (Editor, City Desk): Whenever you get a good story it just brings out the best, I think, in all of us. It makes us excited, weve been proud of the paper, weve been proud of the coverage and its just fun to come to work.

FOLKENFLIK: Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times took the highest award in daily print journalism.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.