By Alex Vejar
Former Daily Breeze reporter Rob Kuznia made headlines last year after he won a Pulitzer–only for the journalism world to learn he had left the industry. Shocking to some, he had left the Torrance, California newspaper for a role in PR.
Kuznia told reporters he left the industry because he could barely afford to support himself. A year later, he’s still working in PR, but has been given an opportunity to write for major news publications like The Washington Post.
One year ago this week, Kuznia — along with colleagues Rebecca Kimitch and Frank Suraci — won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting after uncovering corruption in the Centinela Valley Union High School District.
Kuznia’s stories led to the firing of the District’s superintendent, who received an exorbitant amount of pay through his salary and a litany of abnormal incentives. Several programs the District cut were reinstated as a result of Kuznia’s work.
But those results took years of work, and a little bit of luck.
In 2010, Kuznia was hired to cover education for the Daily Breeze, a Los Angeles newspaper servicing the South Bay area of LA County. He wrote stories about several school districts, much like any young reporter would.
During that time, the City of Bell was caught in its own controversy in which its City Council found a way to pay themselves massive salaries upwards of $100,000 a year for what are part-time positions. Bell’s city manager at the time earned nearly $800,000 a year.
So when the compensation of Centinela Valley superintendent Jose Fernandez came into question by the teacher’s union, the Bell scandal was fresh on Kuznia’s mind.
In December 2010, he wrote a story reporting on Fernandez’s $300,000 salary, but it didn’t gain much traction in the community. “Nobody really cared that much,” Kuznia said in a phone interview.
But an anonymous email changed everything.
A year and a half after that initial story, Kuznia received a message providing details about Fernandez’s then-current contract. The user previously worked in the school finance department, and the specifics of their message were difficult for Kuznia and his colleagues to ignore.
The emailer, who had read Kuznia’s 2010 story, suggested that he request Fernandez’s W-2 forms from LA County, which the newspaper had not thought to try. The user also used so many specific figures that Kuznia felt confident to monitor Fernandez’s pay more closely, which he did for the next year and a half.
When Kuznia’s investigations confirmed the data given to him via email, he wrote the first of many stories detailing Fernandez’s lofty contract and compensation, along with the systemic corruption in other aspects of the Centinela Valley school district.
“We knew it was a big story in part because of Bell, and in part also because the school district just had a long, sordid history of corruption,”Kuznia said. “And so we knew this was a place that was ripe for a story like this.”
Reporting the Investigation
Kuznia’s first big story on Fernandez’s salary came in February 2014, reporting that the former superintendent earned over $663,000 in total pay in the 2013-14 school year for a district with only four high schools and just over 6,600 students. John Deasy, former superintendent of LA Unified School District — which consists of 900 schools and over 655,000 students — earned only about $390,000 in total pay in the same school year.
The story sparked a Daily Breeze investigation that brought other details about Fernandez and the Centinela Valley high school district to light. Kuznia was taken off his other beats to free him up to solely research and report developments regarding Centinela Valley.
In the midst of reporting the first story, Kuznia received a surprise call from a retired high-ranking finance administrator of the LA County Office of Education who had recently retired. Upon hearing that Kuznia was looking into Fernandez’s compensation package, the man offered to help him understand the language in the former superintendent’s contract.
“A lot of [the contract] was written in such a way where a reasonable person just isn’t going to be able to spot all the goodies,” Kuznia said. “He sat down with me and pointed out some things I wouldn’t have spotted.”
Kuznia also consulted with at least two payroll experts about Fernandez’s contract to confirm its novelty, he said.
Throughout his reporting process, Kuznia spoke to several anonymous sources, some of whom had to provide him with verifiable documentation to validate their claims. In addition, in order to use information told to him under condition of anonymity, Kuznia had to hear the information from two sources.
Some of Kuznia’s sources included people who had been spurned in some way by the school district, he said. After the first story about Fernandez’s hefty contract, deputies of the former superintendent became more helpful, especially after Fernandez was put on leave as a result of the fallout from the Daily Breeze’s reporting.
“After we were kind of able to crack the nut with that first big story, a lot other stuff started to come a lot more easily than it otherwise maybe would have,” Kuznia said.
After a few stories on the investigation were published, it became clear that the Centinela Valley story required more time and resources. Kimitch, a reporter at one of the sister papers of the Los Angeles News Group, joined Kuznia, who said she excelled at public records requests, poring over documents and investigating.
“From the first day she came in, we hit it off really well and worked together really well,” Kuznia said. “I was really glad to have the help because a story like that is a lot of pressure to put on one reporter, especially a beat reporter who’s got other stories to worry about too.”
After months of stories about Centinela Valley, Kuznia’s responsibilities widened to reporting on education throughout the entire Los Angeles area. While he enjoyed covering one topic for quite some time, Kuznia was happy that he got back to reporting a breadth of stories.
“It was a balancing act,” Kuznia said. “I didn’t want to let [the Centinela Valley story] slide. I didn’t want this to slip out of our grasp and lose the story to competitors. But I also like writing other kinds of stories that are maybe more explanatory or enterprise-y or kind of feature-y. After a certain point, I think I probably, on my own, started gravitating toward writing stories about other districts again.”
In Centinela, Fernandez was replaced and programs were added to the district’s schools, but Kuznia said the investigation impacted the district on a larger scale.
“I think beyond those specific examples, I think there was a culture shift where the people who were running the district took pains to say how they were now going to start putting the students first,” Kuznia said. “It felt like they were being sincere for the first time in my time that I’d been there.”
Like any other day, Kuznia woke up on April 20, 2015 and hopped into his 1989 black Honda Accord named Rhonda, drove to the LA Metro train station and rode the Expo Line to his job at the USC Shoah Foundation, where he has worked for the past two years.
The only difference about that day — a Monday — was the highly anticipated announcement of the 99th annual Pulitzer Prizes. Kuznia’s editors had submitted his work for the local reporting category, so he checked on his phone to see if he had, by chance, been among the finalists. But the prizes wouldn’t be announced until noon on the West Coast, meaning Kuznia had to wait four hours.
During the waiting period, Kuznia employed every strategy he could think of to take his mind off the impending announcement. He attempted to work, check his Facebook and read articles online.
Right at noon, Kuznia decided to take a short walk around the USC campus. When he heard the clock tower chime 12 times, Kuznia walked for five more minutes. No one contacted him in that time, which led him to believe he did not win the prize.
Just as he walked back inside his office building and sat down at his desk, his phone began buzzing in his pocket. It was Suraci screaming in Kuznia’s ear that the Daily Breeze had won the Pulitzer. Kuznia said at that moment, he screamed “holy shit” in front of his colleagues.
“At that point, my phone kind of turned into a fire hose,” Kuznia said. “All these congratulations were just pouring in.”
The first person Kuznia told of his win after hanging up with Suraci was his then-girlfriend, Alta. He informed her with a simple text message saying, “I won.”
That same day, he returned to the Daily Breeze offices for a celebration with his former colleagues. During the party, Kuznia was flooded with interview requests from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and others. In fact, he received so many calls, he skipped work the next day to accommodate all the reporters who wanted to speak to the Pulitzer Prize-winning man who no longer worked in journalism.
Life After the Pulitzer
Kuznia recalls how he left the Daily Breeze in 2014 not because he was tired of being a reporter, but because his job wasn’t paying him enough money. While he was able to pay his rent, he was not able to save any of his earnings.
With his position in public relations at the Shoah Foundation, he’s in a much more comfortable financial position.
But that’s not to say Kuznia doesn’t miss journalism. He has recently taken on various freelance assignments from The Washington Post, reporting on stories such as the Bill Cosby controversy, the California drought and the shootings in San Bernardino.
Kuznia said that even though working for The Washington Post is not his main gig, he feels he as though he has moved up in the journalism world.
“That’s been a big deal for me because it’s freelancing at a level that I’ve never worked at before when I was a full-time journalist,” Kuznia said. “In a way, even though I’m not doing it full time anymore, it feels like I’ve sort of advanced in this field a little bit just because I’ve had this opportunity to publish some stories in an outlet that’s national.”
Kuznia said he loves the work he’s doing at the Shoah Foundation. However, if a national newspaper outlet came knocking, he may consider a move. He said it would be a “dream” to work at a large outlet.
But Kuznia is not thinking about that possibility — yet.
“I haven’t gotten to that bridge yet,” Kuznia said. “If and when I do, I will address that question at that point.”
This isn’t the first time Kuznia has had to “reassess” his path. He grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota and based on a high math score on this ACT exams, Kuznia’s college counselor suggested he become an engineer. But a chance encounter with his high school English teacher while working as a bag boy at a grocery score shifted his thinking.
Kuznia, then a high school senior, recalled his former teacher and her husband standing in line at the store. With her Southern accent, she turned to her husband and bemoaned Kuznia’s choice of becoming an engineer. In her eyes, Kuznia was the finest writer in her class, and called it “a waste” that he would pursue any other career.
“I thought I’d had my whole future plotted out,” Kuznia said, “but that kind of threw me for a loop again, so I had to reassess what I wanted to do.”
While in college, Kuznia decided to write for the school newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, but he only occasionally contributed articles in his freshman and sophomore years.
Kuznia landed a job as a columnist for his college paper, and also freelanced for a few local weeklies in Minneapolis during his senior year. However, upon graduation, it took him some time to land a reporting job.
He worked as a janitor in Minneapolis and temped at a bank. Then, after moving back to Grand Forks, he worked at a sugar beet factory, delivered pizzas, mowed lawns and chalked football fields as a member of a maintenance crew — all the while littering the country with resumes seeking a job in journalism.
One attempt finally stuck: a job in Oregon for the Rosenberg News Review, which paid him $9.50 per hour and gave him his first beat — covering city hall.
In 2000, he visited a job fair held by the Bay Area News Group and was offered a position at the Fremont Argus, where he covered night cops and eventually transitioned to his first school district beat.
Kuznia wanted to be in the Bay Area so badly that he would have taken almost any job offered to him, he said.
“I was going for location before job,” said Kuznia, who had friends in the area. “I don’t know what the dream job would’ve been anyway, but I really wanted to get to the Bay Area, and so it was sort of like I was willing to to take whatever reporting job opened up.”
Ten years later, he started at the Daily Breeze, setting him up to cover the biggest story of his career.