NEW YORK — The Los Angeles Times' investigation of the exorbitant salaries officials of a small California town paid themselves won a Public Service award Wednesday from the Associated Press Managing Editors association.
In a series of stories on the salary scandal, the newspaper revealed that the city manager was the highest-paid in the country, collecting nearly $800,000 a year in Bell, an impoverished town in southeastern Los Angeles County. They also found the police chief, assistant city manager and city council members made exorbitant salaries. The newspaper's work led to arrests, state and federal investigations, refunds of millions of dollars in illegal taxes and new financial disclosure rules in California.
The judges said the series "is a textbook case of a newsroom using its investigative expertise to stand up for the little guy."
In the 40,000- to 150,000-circulation category, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson was honored for its "Barriers to Mental Health" series on the obstacles to seeking help for the seriously mentally ill. The project followed the deadly shooting rampage in January that killed six and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. "An outstanding journalism effort," the judges said.
The Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal won the small-circulation category for "Money Pit, Money Makers: Developmental Centers and the Medicaid Match," a series on how New York state made hundreds of millions in federal Medicaid dollars from people institutionalized in nine centers for the mentally disabled. The entry was "an incredibly compelling series of reports with broad national implications. ... Simply an outstanding public service effort," according to the judges.
APME is an association of editors at AP's 1,400 member newspapers in the U.S. and newspapers served by the Canadian Press in Canada. The awards will be presented at the group's annual conference Sept. 14-16 in Denver.
Judges for the Public Service awards were: APME Foundation President Otis Sanford, journalism professor at the University of Memphis in Tennessee; APME President Hollis R. Towns, executive editor, Asbury Park Press, Neptune, N.J.; former APME presidents Bobbie Jo Buel, editor, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson; David Ledford, executive editor, The News Journal, Wilmington, Del.; and AP national investigative editor Richard T. Pienciak.
Judges did not participate in discussions or vote on their own newspapers' entries.
Three finalists were selected for APME's fifth annual Innovator of the Year Award: The Kansas City (Mo.) Star for the Midwest Democracy Project to help citizens to get more involved in civic debate; The Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., for its Open Newsroom Project, which turned its newsroom into a community center to open the journalism process to the public; and a group of Pennsylvania newspapers for its Broken Budgets project, which, with the AP in Pennsylvania, informed readers of state legislative staffing costs.
Judges were: Laura Sellers-Earl, director of audience development, East Oregonian Publishing Co., Astoria, Ore.; Laura Kessel, managing editor, The News-Herald, Willoughby, Ohio; J.B. Bittner, editor, Stillwater (Okla.) News Press; Mark Baldwin, editor, The Republic, Columbus, Ind.; and Bob Heisse, executive editor, Centre Daily Times, State College, Pa.
The papers will present their groundbreaking work at the APME conference, and attendees will select the winner.
The Arizona Republic in Phoenix and its website, AZCentral, and the Statesman Journal of Salem, Ore., were the winners of the Gannett Foundation Award for Digital Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, administered by APME.
The Arizona Republic won the award for papers over 75,000 circulation for infusing watchdog reporting into its work in many different ways, first by changing the newsroom culture by supporting and celebrating good watchdog reporting. It launched AZ Fact Check to test assertions by candidates and officials, and it invited readers to help identify falsehoods by public officials. It published value-added content on the website with projects to allow readers to weigh raw information themselves. And it provided reporters with a new set of watchdog tools, including a portable document scanner, a media guide to public access laws and a watchdog wiki and blogs.
"This entry sets the standard for innovation," the judges said. "The Republic and AZCentral have infused interactivity in a number of aspects of reporting and presenting the news."
The Statesman Journal was honored for papers under 75,000 circulation for its investigation of the Willamette Education Service District. "This is classic watchdog journalism, uncovering waste and evidence of fraud and corruption among government officials and their pals," the judges said. "It's also innovative in the use of online elements, allowing readers to sift through documents and see in graphic form how all the players relate to one another at various levels."
The award recognized papers that creatively used digital tools in the role of being a community's watchdog. Each winning paper will receive $2,500 from the Gannett Foundation and will be recognized at the APME conference.
Judges were Alan Miller, managing editor, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch; Teri Hayt, managing editor, Arizona Daily Star; Bittner; Kessel, and Towns.
The association also chose the winners for the following awards (in order of circulation category – over 150,000, 40,000-150,000 and under 40,000):
_ Los Angeles Times for "Grading the Teachers," a groundbreaking analysis of public school test scores that showed good teachers make a measurable difference in the classroom but often go unrecognized and unrewarded.
_ The Salt Lake Tribune for its efforts to preserve Utah's open records law. The newspaper, relying on comprehensive reporting by its news staff and swift action by its editorial board, helped inform debate over the bill that ultimately led to its repeal.
_ The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press for its work to strengthen Vermont's weak open government laws. Now, action is being taken after a 2010 governor's race in which the Free Press made clear that open government was the paramount issue facing Vermont.
Judges: David Tomlin, AP associate general counsel; David Bailey, managing editor, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock; Debra Simmons, editor, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer; Martin Reynolds, editor, The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, and Heisse.
_ The Plain Dealer for "Unfinished Business," a moving exploration of the lingering and devastating effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam War veterans and their families in the United States and on survivors in Vietnam.
_ The Roanoke (Va.) Times for "Life and Death in the Time of Cholera," an account of a volunteer medical team fighting death, disease and disorder to save lives in Haiti.
_ The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M., for "Navaho Nation," a series of stories on the impact of broadband telecommunications access to the Navaho nation.
Judges: John Daniszewski, AP senior managing editor/international news and photos; Carol Hanner, managing editor, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal; Hayt, and Reynolds.
_ The Wall Street Journal for "What They Know," an investigation of Internet privacy that was greatly enhanced by online data visualization.
_ The Roanoke Times for the "Legacy of the Flood," which recalled the 25th anniversary of a deadly flood and reflected on how much has changed in Roanoke since that event.
_ The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News for coverage of the April tornado that devastated the community. From stories, photos and videos to interactive maps and victim resource guides, the entry showed how a newspaper can use the Web to expand its coverage, the judges said.
Judges: Tarrant; Brad Dennison, vice president/ News & Interactive Division, GateHouse Media, Downers Grove, Ill.; Baldwin; Barry Arthur, assistant managing editor/photo & electronic media, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock; Paul Cheung, AP interactive and graphics editor.
The judges listed honorable mentions in other categories:
_ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for its "Mapping Mortality" series on the harmful effects of air pollution.
_ The Washington Post for "Top Secret America," a revealing look at the government's huge national security and intelligence system.
40,000 to 150,000:
_ Asbury Park Press, for its investigation and campaign to save the polluted Barnegat Bay.
_ Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune for its investigation of Florida's property insurance industry.
_ Statesman Journal, for its investigation of the Willamette Education Service District.
_ Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News for its coverage of the devastating Tuscaloosa tornadoes.
_ The Arizona Republic for its coverage of global immigration.
_ The Wall Street Journal for its series revealing behind-the-scenes power plays shaping the European financial world over the past year.
_ The Wall Street Journal for its coverage of the aftermath of Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster.
40,000 to 150,000:
_ The Commercial Appeal for a series of stories showing how the Mexican drug scourge has reached into Memphis.
_ Arizona Daily Star for telling the immigration story through the eyes of officers and medical examiners who retrieve and identify the victims of Arizona's desert heat, violence and lack of water.
_ Los Angeles Times for a breathtakingly beautiful online guide to Yosemite Park that include the photographer's personal story about drawing on the park as his muse for decades.
_ The Seattle Times for a series that, with digital tools and partnerships, elevated the issue of homeless families and their particularly painful struggles.
40,000 to 150,000:
_ The News Journal, Wilmington, Del., for "My Neighborhood," which drew on multimedia tools to paint a picture of two troubled neighborhoods in Wilmington.
_ Florida Today, Melbourne, for "Space Inc.," a multimedia look at the White House's decision to phase out the space shuttle and replace it with private contractors.
_ Victoria (Texas) Advocate for a series about local residents suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.