Competitors and Cheaters

By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
Secretary, National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation

Competitors

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

One of the best things about being a newspaper columnist is you get to compete, really compete, with columnists on other regional newspapers.

And you can laugh at their foibles, and they can laugh at yours, too. It’s all so damn public.

Back in the January-February 2006 issue of The Columnist (the print version of this newsletter), I poked fun at Steve Blow, my rival at the Dallas Morning News, for writing a column about his new column mug photo.

I figured, “Hey, you got a new picture. That’s great. Everyone can see it, so why write about it?”

But what I wrote in this space was that Blow decided to write about his new column mug at the same time as “tens of thousands of storm evacuees” from Katrina and Rita were flooding the Fort Worth-Dallas area.

Being the ace investigator I am, I also pointed out that Steve had written on the same vanity subject twice before in the previous five years. No, not hurricane evacuees. But his new column photos.

And I gleefully quoted from each of the previous ones:

“Yes, I’m fretting over that silly postage-stamp picture over there,” he wrote years before.

And the other one: “No, it’s not a Y2K glitch. That’s what my face really looks like. After being harassed for several years about that old, out-of-date mug shot, I decided to start the new year with a new face.”

OK, so as I write this now, today marks for me, too, the latest incarnation of my column mug in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. My 6th or 7th over the past 14 years. (It’s a redesign of the paper, and all 1,342 columnists have new photos.) But did I write a column about my new look? No siree! I actually wrote about something other than my navel.

Two days ago, I read Steve’s latest column, first on Poynter.org’s Romenesko Web site, where you might have seen it, and then it my actual hard copy of his newspaper.

Another beauty.

Headline: “It’s now time to cut out an old journalism habit.”

Lead: “I made a momentous decision the other day. I have ceased to clip.”

Humorous second paragraph: “This has nothing to do with lawns or nose hairs or whatever else you might be thinking. This is about journalism. And it feels like closing a door on the past.”

Why-this-is-important-to-you third paragraph: “As of a few days ago, I have given up the little task of clipping my columns from the newspaper and filing them away. I suppose that amounts to a last-gasp admission that this business has changed forever.”

The next three graphs are about the old newspaper morgue. Good descriptive writing. You can really smell the ink on your fingers and feel those paper cuts.

Then he tells us, “We’ve gain a lot in efficiency and lost a lot in romance.”

“I’m not saying any of this is bad,” he writes. “It’s progress.”

His first newspaper, he writes, “was like something straight out of an old-time newspaper movie. I think my memories of it are even in black and white. The place wasn’t air conditioned. More people smoked than not. The newsroom was a  cacophony of ringing phones, clattering Teletype machines and hammering manual typewriters. The place ran on coffee and clips.

Then he tells us how old-timers like him used a pica pole to cut the clips “like a surgeon with a scapel.”

The end is near as he gets to my favorite part:

When he became a columnist in 1989, “I got a file folder, wrote ‘JAN-MAR ’89’ on the tab and began dropping in the clips.

“As each new quarter arrived, I’d get out the same red grease pencil – another newsroom relic, from photo-cropping days – and create a new file folder. They now fill several file drawers.”

And the grand finale: “But I realized the other day that old Metro sections were stacking up on my desk, waiting for me to clip and file the columns in them. Worse, when I thought about it, I couldn’t remember the last time I actually retrieved a clip from my files.

“With a sigh, I faced reality. Online searching is just too easy. Progress inexorably has its way.

“So be it. I have ceased to clip.

“FILE DRAWERS FOR RENT.”

OK, now why did I quote this dang thing for you?

Several reasons:

One, I want you to know that no matter who you are, no matter what kind of columnist you are, and no matter what you wrote about the day Blow’s column appeared, you most certainly wrote a better column than this.

Two, and now I’m serious, who gives a dang about our inside baseball crap anyway?

Three, sometimes when you don’t have anything decent to write about, just take the day off, for cryin’ out loud.

And fourth and most important, something I have preached in this space for years: Your space on the page is the most important real estate in the newspaper. Don’t waste it. Don’t cheapen it. Don’t neglect the really important things that matter just because you are too lazy, too busy or whatever to GOYA KOD.

Get off your ass, knock on doors.

Geez.

* *

Cheaters

You may have already heard about the scandal at the Press Club of Dallas, but it’s worth repeating.

The club’s annual journalism awards are among the most prestigious in the U.S. Southwest. Entries come from newspapers in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Louisiana.

The award is called the Katie, and it’s a gorgeous gold statuette that looks like an Oscar.

I was nominated three times without winning, before I finally won one in 2003. The statuette sits on my fireplace mantle – and looks good. I earned that thing, working my butt off on columns that eventually led to the removal of a school superintendent once named Texas Superintendent of the Year.

When audiences hear that I won a Katie during an introduction before a talk, they sometimes break out in applause. It’s a big deal where I live.

But now, there may never be another set of Katies awarded for good journalism.

The former president of the press club, Elizabeth Albanese, was caught picking the 2006 winners herself, pretending that she had secured judges when she hadn’t.

Here’s the worst part: Last year, she presented herself with four of them!

And what publication does she work for that allowed her to win four, including one for Best Investigative Report for a Major Market Newspaper? Oh, the esteemed Bond Buyer – the one that covers financial news for municipal bond traders.

Holy Woodward and Bernstein, Batman!

During the past three years, while running the contest, she actually won 10 of those little gold statuettes.

If you ever thought journalism contests were rigged, well, here’s one that really was.

Albanese also spent $10,000 using her press club credit card to pay for expensive vacations, too. She later reimbursed the club.

When other press club officials asked her for the list of 2006 judges, she answered that she got a new laptop, and the judges’ names were on her old laptop (the 21st century equivalent of “my dog ate my homework”).

I gotta give credit to Josh Benton, my favorite reporter on The Dallas Morning News (give THIS guy a column!) for digging and finding her “winning” entries. Benton, who wrote the best story on this scandal, dug up that Albanese has a criminal record and lied about it, changing her name and pretending to be someone else. And Benton furthered his own story with a fascinating post later on his newspaper’s blog.

Here’s a portion:

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More Albanese

An update on the Katies affair. More vigorous Nexising has let me find two of the four entries Elizabeth Albanese won for – the entries for Best Business News Story and Best Business Feature Story. (Those with Nexis access can find them by searching for her byline and April 11 and May 3, 2006, respectively.)

I’m no Katies judge – or maybe I was and just didn’t know it – but both stories are pretty slim pickings. I haven’t read the competition, but neither one screams award-winning genius to me. See for yourself – plus a little more juice – after the jump.

I don’t want to post the full text here for copyright reasons, but here’s the top of her Best Business News Story winner:

A new interpretation of a longstanding law mandating that Texas issuers require signed certification of bids in competitive bond sales has made it faster and less cumbersome for underwriters to purchase debt in the state.“There was a general perception that you had to have a signed piece of paper from the bidder and then signed by the issuer at the award of the competitive bid,” said Drew Masterson, a senior vice president with First Southwest Co. “Everyone in the state thought it was a requirement – so it’s time to dispel the myth.” It doesn’t get more interesting, trust me.

And then there’s the award winner for Best Business Feature Story. Even though her actual Katies entry is titled “69 Years of First Southwest,” it’s actually about the  60th anniversary of the company.

Dallas-based First Southwest Co. celebrates its 60th anniversary in business this month, marking the growth of the firm from a tiny operation in a small Texas office to one of the leading financial advisory firms in the country.

Since its inception, the firm has not only been a major player in financial advisory and underwriting businesses in Texas, but has also provided to its customers innovative tools that were later adopted by the market, including auction-rate bonds and zero-coupon bonds.

Now, I don’t want to make light of business writing – it’s not my thing, but it’s an important job. But if this was the best feature story of the year, I’ll eat my socks. It’s the puffiest of puff pieces. (“In the firm’s early years, the founders, whom Kerley called visionaries, worked with the resources available to issuers to get projects founded.” “It was that can-do attitude, London said, that spurred the firm’s involvement in deals across the country.” Et cetera.)

It almost reads like a P.R. piece.

Wait a minute – what company did Elizabeth Albanese leave journalism for? Oh: First Southwest. Where she’s listed as their chief media contact. Hmmm.

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After that blog posting, Albanese was fired from that job.

OK, why does this matter?

Well, turns out the Press Club of Dallas is going back through its 2004 and 2005 records to examine the validity of those awards, too, because Albanese was involved in picking contest judges in those years.

It matters because the Press Club raises a lot of money at the annual awards banquet, and some of it goes to student scholarships. That money could be lost.

It matters because the winners at my newspaper have been asked by the managing editor in an e-mail that went to our staff a week ago to return their 2006 awards. (This business is rough enough without having to hand back your gold statuettes six months later.)

It matters because the public is now hearing about one more in-house press scandal that makes us all look like fools.

Like Steve Blow not clipping his old stories anymore, this is indeed inside baseball.

But deceivers like Albanese who lie and cheat their way to the top are helping to topple the great traditions of American journalism.

Right before our eyes.

God help us all.

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Dave Lieber, a former NSNC board member, writes Really Bad Column for the society’s e-newsletter and also for www.columnists.com. His website is www.yankeecowboy.com.

5/2007

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