LA Times wins Pulitzer for Bell, Calif., scandal

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

NEW YORK - The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for a series revealing that politicians in the struggling, working-class city of Bell, Calif., were paying themselves enormous, six-figure salaries.

The newspaper's reporting that officials in the 37,000-resident town were jacking up property taxes and other fees in part to cover the huge salaries led to arrests and the ouster of some of Bell's top officials.

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The Times won a second Pulitzer for feature photography, and The New York Times was awarded two Pulitzers for international reporting and for commentary.

But in a year in which the earthquake in Haiti and the disastrous Gulf oil spill were some of the biggest stories, the Pulitzer Board decided not to give an award in the category of breaking news — a first in the 95-year history of the most prestigious prize in journalism.

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"No entry received the necessary majority," said Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes. He wouldn't elaborate except to say that breaking news is a "deadline-driven category" that depends on news organizations' reporting of an event the moment it happens.

The board named three finalists for the award: The Chicago Tribune for coverage of the deaths of two Chicago firefighters; The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald for reporting on the Haiti earthquake; and The Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn., for coverage of a devastating flood.

A cheer went up and cameras flashed when the awards were announced in the Los Angeles Times newsroom, where about 100 people were gathered.

"The real victors in this are the people of Bell, who were able to get rid of, there's no other way to say it, an oppressive regime," said reporter Jeff Gottlieb, clutching a bottle of champagne.

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"At a time when people are saying newspapers are dying, I think this is the day when we can say, no, not really," said Ruben Vives, another staff writer on the story. "We gave a small town, we gave them an opportunity to speak out. That's what newspapers do."

The newspaper has been hobbled by the troubles of its owner, Tribune Co., which has been operating under federal bankruptcy protection for the past two years. Tribune Co. has been trying to shed most of the debt that it took on in an $8.2 billion buyout engineered by real estate mogul Sam Zell. The Times has also gone through wrenching staff cutbacks before and after the bankruptcy filing, and other turmoil in the newsroom.

In other awards, the nonprofit ProPublica won its first outright Pulitzer for national reporting. Reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein were cited for their piece exposing questionable Wall Street practices that contributed to the economic meltdown. The judges cited their use of digital media to help explain the complex subject. (Last year, ProPublica writer won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine.)

(Last year, "60 Minutes" interviewed the author of "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" about the meltdown.)

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Eisinger said he and Bernstein spent about a year and a half on the series.

"This is what we're here for, to write deep stories that are complex, that other people don't want to take on," he said. "We get the time to do it, we're not afraid of stories and we want to do stuff with real impact. ... This is the kind of thing that the mainstream media's doing less and less of. We're deeply grateful that it's being recognized."

ProPublica is a three-year-old organization that is bankrolled by charitable foundations and staffed by distinguished veteran journalists. It pursues the kind of big investigative projects that many newspapers can no longer afford, and it offers many of its stories to traditional news organizations.

Graphics and videos also accompanied The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's winning entry in explanatory reporting, an account of the use of genetic technology to save a 4-year-old boy from a mysterious disease.

The competition's rules were changed this year to allow digital media to be considered along with text entries. Media were allowed to enter "any available journalistic tool," including videos, databases and multimedia presentations. In the past, most entries were print-only.

Over the years, the Pulitzer Board has declined to give awards 25 other times in particular categories, but this is the first year that no award was handed out for breaking news — long considered the bread-and-butter of daily journalism.

Paige St. John of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune was awarded the Pulitzer for investigative reporting for her examination of the property insurance system for Florida homeowners, which led to regulatory action.

Frank Main, Mark Konkol and John J. Kim of the Chicago Sun-Times won in the local reporting category for their documentation of crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods.

Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., received the Pulitzer for feature writing for her story of the sinking of a commercial fishing boat that drowned six men in the Atlantic Ocean.

Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry of The New York Times won for international reporting for their coverage of the Russian justice system; David Leonhardt won for the newspaper in commentary for his columns on the economy.

Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe received the award for criticism for his writing about art. Joseph Rago of The Wall Street Journal was honored in the editorial writing category for his editorials challenging health care reform bills.

The Washington Post won in breaking news photography for their portraits from the Haiti earthquake.

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said in a statement that the photographers were "determined to make the world understand Haiti's tragedy." He said their "dedication, courage and resourcefulness never wavered."

The Los Angeles Times' Barbara Davidson received the award for feature news photography for her portraits of Los Angeles gang violence.

Mike Keefe of The Denver Post won for editorial cartooning.

(At left, this editorial cartoon about gays in the military, cropped to meet size restrictions, shows the work of Mike Keefe of The Denver Post, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. Credit: AP Photo/The Denver Post via the Pulitzer Prize Board)

Complete list of 2011 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists with comments from judges:

Journalism

Public service: The Los Angeles Times for its exposure of corruption in the small California city of Bell, where officials tapped the treasury to pay themselves exorbitant salaries, resulting in arrests and reforms. Finalists: Bloomberg News for the work of Daniel Golden, John Hechinger and John Lauerman revealing how some for-profit colleges exploited low-income students, leading to a federal crackdown on a multi-billion-dollar industry; and The New York Times for the work of Alan Schwarz in illuminating the peril of concussions in football and other sports, spurring a national discussion and a re-examination of helmets and of medical and coaching practices.

Breaking news reporting: No award. Finalists: Chicago Tribune staff for coverage of the deaths of two Chicago firefighters killed while searching for squatters in an abandoned burning building; The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, a joint staff entry, for coverage of the Haitian earthquake, often working under extreme conditions; and the Staff of The Tennessean, Nashville, for coverage of the most devastating flood in the area's history.

Investigative reporting: Paige St. John of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, for her examination of weaknesses in the murky property-insurance system vital to Florida homeowners, providing handy data to assess insurer reliability and stirring regulatory action. Finalists: Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times for his spotlighting of medical radiation errors that injure thousands of Americans, sparking national discussion and remedial steps; and Sam Roe and Jared S. Hopkins of the Chicago Tribune for their investigation, in print and online, of 13 deaths at a home for severely disabled children and young adults, resulting in closure of the facility.

Explanatory reporting: Mark Johnson, Kathleen Gallagher, Gary Porter, Lou Saldivar and Alison Sherwood of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for their lucid examination of an epic effort to use genetic technology to save a 4-year-old boy imperiled by a mysterious disease, told with words, graphics, videos and other images. Finalists: The Wall Street Journal Staff for its penetration of the shadowy world of fraud and abuse in Medicare, probing previously concealed government databases to identify millions of dollars in waste and corrupt practices; and The Washington Post staff for its exploration of how the military is using trauma surgery, brain science and other techniques both old and new to reduce fatalities among the wounded in warfare, telling the story with words, images and other tools.

Local reporting: Frank Main, Mark Konkol and John J. Kim of the Chicago Sun-Times for their immersive documentation of violence in Chicago neighborhoods, probing the lives of victims, criminals and detectives as a widespread code of silence impedes solutions. Finalists: Marshall Allen and Alex Richards of the Las Vegas Sun for their compelling reports on patients who suffered preventable injuries and other harm during hospital care, taking advantage of print and digital tools to drive home their findings; and Stanley Nelson of the Concordia (La.) Sentinel, a weekly, for his courageous and determined efforts to unravel a long forgotten Ku Klux Klan murder during the Civil Rights era.

National reporting: Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein of ProPublica for their exposure of questionable practices on Wall Street that contributed to the nation's economic meltdown, using digital tools to help explain the complex subject to lay readers. Finalists: David Evans of Bloomberg News for his revelations of how life insurance companies retained death benefits owed to families of military veterans and other Americans, leading to government investigations and remedial changes; and The Wall Street Journal Staff for its examination of the disastrous explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, using detailed reports to hold government and major corporations accountable.

International reporting: Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry of The New York Times for dogged reporting that put a human face on the faltering justice system in Russia, remarkably influencing the discussion inside the country. Finalists: Deborah Sontag of The New York Times for her coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, steadfastly telling poignant, wide-ranging stories with a lyrical touch and an impressive eye for detail; and The Wall Street Journal staff for its examination of the causes of Europe's debt crisis, taking readers behind closed doors to meet pivotal characters while illuminating the wider economic, political and social reverberations.

Feature writing: Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J., for her deeply probing story of the mysterious sinking of a commercial fishing boat in the Atlantic Ocean that drowned six men. Finalists: Tony Bartelme of The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., for his engaging account of a South Carolina neurosurgeon's quest to teach brain surgery in Tanzania, possibly providing a new model for health care in developing countries; and Michael M. Phillips, of The Wall Street Journal, for his portfolio of deftly written stories that provide war-weary readers with fresh perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan.

Commentary: David Leonhardt of The New York Times for his graceful penetration of America's complicated economic questions, from the federal budget deficit to health care reform. Finalists: Phillip Morris of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, for his blend of local storytelling and unpredictable opinions, enlarging the discussion of controversial issues that stir a big city; and Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune for her versatile columns exploring life and the concerns of a metropolis with whimsy and poignancy.

Criticism: Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe for his vivid and exuberant writing about art, often bringing great works to life with love and appreciation. Finalists: Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly for his delightful, authoritative restaurant reviews, escorting readers through a city's diverse food culture; and Nicolai Ouroussoff of The New York Times for his well-honed architectural criticism, highlighted by ambitious essays on the burst of architectural projects in oil-rich Middle East countries.

Editorial writing: Joseph Rago of The Wall Street Journal for his well-crafted, against-the-grain editorials challenging the health care reform advocated by President Barack Obama. Finalists: Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post for his insightful editorials on foreign affairs, marked by prescient pieces critical of America's policy toward Egypt well before a revolution erupted there; and John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune for his relentless campaign to reform an unsustainable public pension system that threatens the economic future of Illinois.

Editorial cartooning: Mike Keefe of The Denver Post for his widely ranging cartoons that employ a loose, expressive style to send strong, witty messages. Finalists: Matt Davies for cartoons in The Journal News, Westchester County, N.Y., work notably original in concept and execution, offering sharp opinion without shrillness; and Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader, for provocative cartoons that often tackle controversial Kentucky issues, marked by a simple style and a passion for humanity.

Breaking news photography: Carol Guzy, Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti of The Washington Post for their up-close portrait of grief and desperation after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti. Finalists: Daniel Berehulak and Paula Bronstein of Getty Images for their compelling portrayal of the human will to survive as historic floods engulfed regions of Pakistan; and Carolyn Cole of the Los Angeles Times for her often haunting images of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, capturing the harsh reality of widespread devastation.

Feature photography: Barbara Davidson of the Los Angeles Times for her intimate story of innocent victims trapped in the city's crossfire of deadly gang violence. Finalists: Todd Heisler of The New York Times for his sensitive portrayal of a large Colombian clan carrying a genetic mutation that causes Alzheimer's disease in early middle age; and Greg Kahn of The Naples (Fla.) Daily News for his pictures that show the mixed impact of the recession in Florida — loss of jobs and homes for some but profit for others.

Arts

Fiction: "A Visit from the Goon Squad," by Jennifer Egan (Alfred A. Knopf), an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed. Finalists: "The Privileges," by Jonathan Dee (Random House), a contemporary, wide ranging tale about an elite Manhattan family, moral bankruptcy and the long reach of wealth; and "The Surrendered," by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead Books), a haunting and often heartbreaking epic whose characters explore the deep reverberations of love, devotion and war.

Drama: "Clybourne Park," by Bruce Norris, a powerful work whose memorable characters speak in witty and perceptive ways to America's sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness.

(At left, Christina Kirk, left, and Frank Wood are shown in a scene from Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park" in New York in this publicity photo. Credit: AP Photo/The Publicity Office)

Finalists: "Detroit," by Lisa D'Amour, a contemporary tragicomic play that depicts a slice of desperate life in a declining inner-ring suburb where hope is in foreclosure; and "A Free Man of Color," by John Guare, an audacious play spread across a large historical canvas, dealing with serious subjects while retaining a playful intellectual buoyancy.

History: "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery," by Eric Foner (W.W. Norton & Co.), a well-orchestrated examination of Lincoln's changing views of slavery, bringing unforeseeable twists and a fresh sense of improbability to a familiar story. Finalists: "Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South," by Stephanie McCurry (Harvard University Press), an insightful work analyzing the experience of disenfranchised white women and black slaves who were left when Confederate soldiers headed for the battlefield; and "Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston," by Michael Rawson (Harvard University Press), an impressive selection of case studies that reveal how Boston helped shape the remarkable growth of American cities in the 19th century.

Biography: "Washington: A Life," by Ron Chernow (The Penguin Press), a sweeping, authoritative portrait of an iconic leader learning to master his private feelings in order to fulfill his public duties. Finalists: "The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century," by Alan Brinkley (Alfred A. Knopf), a fresh, fair-minded assessment of a complicated man who transformed the news business and showed busy Americans new ways to see the world; and "Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon," by Michael O'Brien (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a graceful account of a remarkable journey by Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of a future president, who traveled with a young son across a Europe still reeling from warfare.

Poetry: "The Best of It: New and Selected Poems," by Kay Ryan (Grove Press), a body of work spanning 45 years, witty, rebellious and yet tender, a treasure trove of an iconoclastic and joyful mind. Finalists: "The Common Man," by Maurice Manning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a rich, often poignant collection of poems rooted in a rural Kentucky experiencing change in its culture and landscape; and "Break the Glass," by Jean Valentine (Copper Canyon Press), a collection of imaginative poems in which small details can accrue great power and a reader is never sure where any poem might lead.

General nonfiction: "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner), an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal, into the long history of an insidious disease that, despite treatment breakthroughs, still bedevils medical science. Finalists: "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain," by Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton & Co.), a thought-provoking exploration of the Internet's physical and cultural consequences, rendering highly technical material intelligible to the general reader; and "Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History," by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner), a memorable examination of the longest and most brutal of all the wars between European settlers and a single Indian tribe.

Music: Zhou Long for "Madame White Snake," premiered Feb. 26, 2010, by the Boston Opera at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, a deeply expressive opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale to blend the musical traditions of the East and the West. Libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs (Oxford University Press). Finalists: Fred Lerdahl for "Arches," premiered Nov. 19, 2010, at Miller Theatre, Columbia University, a consistently original concerto that sustains an extraordinary level of sensuous invention as it evolves from one moment to the next; and Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon for "Comala," recording released in June 2010 by Bridge Records, an ambitious cantata that translates into music an influential work of Latin American literature, giving voice to two cultures that intersect within the term "America."