Second Thought: Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Tarnish on the Hardware

I’ll take one of those awards that the Dallas press club wants back.

By Dan McGraw

Those of you not in the journalism biz probably haven’t noticed this peculiar little ethics problem local news organizations have been dealing with for the past month. The Press Club of Dallas, which holds the Katie Awards competition every year, now cannot find any of the judges who supposedly read through the 2,000 or so entries in 2006 and awarded those heavy and gaudy statuettes to the winners. Oh, and maybe 2005 as well.

But the most important part of this mess is that the president of the Press Club of Dallas single-handedly won four Katie’s last year. That would be like Snoop Dogg taking home Grammy’s in hip-hop, classical music, country-western, and opera while serving as president of The Recording Academy.

OK, maybe not quite that. But Elizabeth Albanese, a correspondent for a little trade paper called The Bond Buyer, won ten Katies in the past three years while she was Press Club president. Last year she won in the large newspaper category for “best investigative reporting,” beating out all of the big papers. The Bond Buyer is aimed for the municipal bond business and has a circulation of about 3,600.

Albanese (she lives in Trophy Club — weird, no?) has had a history of theft and forgery convictions and some mental illness troubles, according to The Dallas Morning News. But the biggest problem is that no one seemed to think it a problem that the president of the organization giving out these awards to journalists and PR professionals in six states had any conflict in setting up the awards and then winning so many of them. It was only after one journalist complained (it wasn’t us), that the press club began looking into the matter.

According to the reports, Albanese can’t seem to remember or locate any of the judges she selected. She has resigned, and the club is suing her for fraud and negligence. Many news organizations are now considering giving back their awards. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is going to box up their 14 heavy statues from the 2006 awards and mail them back to Dallas. The wins are tainted, they believe, and the big postage bill is well worth it.

While I have no problem with the Star-T taking these great doorstops from their hard-working writers and editors, I have a different view. In their lawsuit, the Press Club has demanded that Albanese return all of her Katies. I’ll go one further: I say she should mail back nine. Send the other one to me.

I lost to Albanese in the “best feature business” story for medium-circulation newspapers in 2006. While most of us in this business claim we care not a whit about these awards, most of us do. So when I found myself on the finalist list, I tried to read the other entries. Couldn’t find the one from the Corpus Christi Caller Times. But I found Albanese’s piece from The Bond Buyer and was kind of shocked it had made it through as a finalist.

I considered it a puff piece about some Dallas bond firm celebrating its 60th anniversary. Learned that the company had once funded outhouses for some city many years ago, but had a “can-do attitude.” I’m not putting it down — this type of trade journalism serves its purpose. If you have a circulation of 3,600, you have to do profiles of those buying your trade paper. That’s how the biz works.

But there was no way this was worthy of any type of award. Our entry was our long piece on the Museum Place project currently being built in Fort Worth’s Cultural District. Not great, but it broke news on the huge project and gave some analysis of how this big business deal functioned in political and cultural circles. A contender, if I do say so.

Maybe by this time you’re thinking I’m a little too het up (and a little biased) about this. I’ll be the first to admit that. But the key issue here is how journalists view themselves and how it comes out in these sometimes inane awards.

Most journalists don’t get big salaries or bonuses, so awards are the big deal on our resumés. We have local and state and national awards, and awards handed out by groups, like the medical or legal profession, that are hoping to curry a little favor and get some good PR.

In any other business, people would have been screaming about this situation years ago. But in the news biz, believe it or not, we do ethics for a living. We write about others’ lapses and tend to think that such a competition in our own profession must be above-board. Fort Worth Weekly was guilty of that: We noticed the weirdness of the Katies, but figured that if we complained it would just look like sour grapes.

Well, peel me that grape. I’m still pissed off about the awards judge who, long ago and far away, once described my work as “bland, yet competent.” A great phrase for your resumé, or maybe your tombstone.

The Katies judges can help soothe this wrinkle in my psyche. I figure they owe me a Katie. They can send me the one that Albanese “won” for being bland, competent, and club president. Hey, I have a bunch of volumes on journalism ethics that need a bookend. And my resumé could use a little zing.

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