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Society Honors Best Financial Reporting of 2018 at EFJ Awards

Ruth Singleton
Published Date:
Jun 10, 2019

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At the NYSSCPA’s Excellence in Financial Journalism (EFJ) Awards luncheon on June 7, the Society honored some of 2018’s best financial journalism, as well as the reporters and other professionals who produced it. Cezary Podkul, a Wall Street Journal senior reporter and two-time EFJ Award winner, served as the luncheon’s keynote speaker. He spoke before an audience of approximately 35 journalists, editors and awards judges at the Tribeca Grill in New York City.

Podkul began by thanking the Society for hosting the EFJ Awards for 36 years. He then spoke about the difference between a news article and a story. "The primary focus of a news article is just to give information," he said. "Here’s what happened: the who, what, where, when, why. And, rightfully so, we have plenty of those in our field. We have to tell people every day: What did the stock market do?

"But just as important, we write lots and lots of stories like the ones we’re honoring here today. The difference with a story is that a story goes beyond that.  … It’s there to provoke a response. ... It makes you think, makes you wonder about doing things in a different way. Because it can provoke you to action.”

Podkul cited Ida Tarbell’s history of the Standard Oil Co., a story written in 1902, as "one of the most impactful pieces of journalism written in the 20th century, certainly in the field of business." (The story appeared in McClure's Magazine in 19 installments.) He said that he had been thinking about it a lot in recent days in light of news stories about the power wielded by Google, Facebook and Amazon.

"When she was writing that story in the early 20th century, there was a trust for everything," Podkul said. "There was a sugar trust, there was a railroad trust, there was obviously an oil trust. They controlled business. It’s not that there wasn’t a law on the books. We had the Sherman Antitrust Act since 1890. But we weren’t really enforcing it because it was so unclear. It spoke of ‘trust in restraint of trade.’  … What does it mean to be in restraint of trade? No one knew what that meant until they saw Ida Tarbell’s story. And, of course, they said, 'That ... was trust in restraint of trade—what Standard Oil was doing.'

"That just goes to show you the power of good investigative business and financial journalism," Podkul said. "Think of all the people who paid lower prices because regulators reshaped and broke up Standard Oil and decided to take a different tack for monopolies in the 20th century. It really had a profound impact for decades to come.

"The work [Tarbell] did to uncover what Standard Oil had been up to is very similar to the work that we do," Podkul said. "She had to interview a lot of sources, the documents were hard to find, and the story was difficult to get and to write." He added, "It’s in that spirit, in that tradition, that we honor your work today."

EFJ Award Winners

After Podkul’s remarks, the luncheon proceeded to the awards ceremony, recognizing journalists whose work was published, posted or broadcast in 2018 and contributed to a better and balanced understanding of business or financial topics. In selecting the winners, the judges ranked their submissions based on accuracy, quality and thoroughness of research, as well as on a fair and balanced representation of the topic. This year's judges included NYSSCPA members and journalists. They were Scott M. Adair, Gary Belsky, Mary Jo Brancatelli, Rumbi Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, Anthony W. Cummings, Frederick K. Getz, Richard L. Hecht, Elliot L. Hendler, Iralma Pozo, Susan Rodetis, George I. Victor, Michael A. Zaydon and David S. Zweighaft. The 2019 EFJ book judges were Justin Baer, Susan M. Barossi and Leah N Spiro.

NYSSCPA Immediate Past President Jan C. Herringer announced the winners:

Video (Large): Aki Ito, Victoria Blackburne-Daniell and David Nicholson, Bloomberg News, in “Next Jobs,” a six-part documentary covering those in various industries and careers of the future. The three episodes included in the submission featured Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana, 27, who launches and retrieves self-flying, blood-carrying planes in rural Rwanda via the world's first commercial drone delivery service; Danielle Ishak, 28, a human-robot interaction researcher at Intuition Robotics, who studies the way early testers interact with the company’s robot named ElliQ, designed for retirees and the elderly; and Meghan Young, 33, a social media influencer who gets paid by companies to promote and endorse products on social media, making up to $1,500 per feed post.

Video (Medium Media): Solly Granatstein, John Carlos Frey, Marisa Venegas, Greg Gilderman, Shawn Efran, Neil Katz and others from The Weather Channel and Telemundo, with Efran Films, for “Hidden Cost.” This investigation explored the effect of climate change on children who work on farms and other outdoor areas in the United States as a way to make money for their family. During their investigation, the reporters visited Texas and spoke to an American family, the Anguianos. While documenting the family’s life and labor, they were able to get key insight on the state of child labor and how it’s effecting children’s education and health during harvest season.

Video (Small Media):  Suncoast Business Forum, WEDU PBS, won for the two-part video series, “Tampa Bay: Innovation on the Rise,” which was presented at Tampa Bay’s annual Synapse Innovation Summit in March 2018. As the Tampa Bay area becomes a growing location for innovation and entrepreneurship, this program informed viewers about the innovation ecosystem present in the area, and highlighted those present at the summit.  Part 1 focuses on Synapse co-founder, Marc Blumenthal and how he bridged the gap between startups and angel investors via his company. Part 2 focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship in the Tampa Bay area.

General Reporting: Phil Wahba of Fortune, for “Retail Reckoning.” After spending a decade on the retail beat, Phil Wahba, a Fortune senior writer, debunks the common misconceptions of the brick-and-mortar retail demise. In his article, Wahba discusses how private equity investors in the retail sector have impacted key retail stores positively—such as Canada Goose, the company behind the signature parkas with the polar bear logo on the arm—and negatively, as many buyout firms were behind bankruptcies at retailers such as Toys “R” Us. Wahba also profiles two department stores, Kohl’s and Nordstrom, to learn how they are adapting to the online shopping era.

Local: Matthew Dolan and David Jesse in the Detroit Free Press, for “In Donors We Trust,” the two-year investigation that uncovered a financial conflict of interest between University of Michigan’s $11 billion endowment and its donors. Dolan and Jesse discovered that many of the university’s top donors were executives at some of the nation’s top investments firms, and learned that the University of Michigan invested up to $4 billion in those companies’ funds. After revealing some of the most lucrative investments made, donors pledged to return campaign contributions, and policy changes to college affordability were also pledged.

NextGen Reporting: Anne Sraders, The King’s College, in the Empire State Tribune, for “Despite Beating Earnings Expectations, Snapchat’s Losing Popularity Among Students.” Following a brief overview of Snapchat’s recent stock history, Sraders goes on to discuss the app’s declining user count and speaks to those in Snapchat’s demographic (Gen Z and millennials) in order to get insight on the reason for the decline.

Opinion: Shira Ovide, in Bloomberg Businessweek, for a series of opinion pieces focusing on Amazon’s retail takeover and corporate America’s response to this takeover. In, “How Amazon’s Bottomless Appetite Became Corporate America’s Nightmare,” Ovide discusses how in the last  three years, Amazon has transformed itself from an online retail shopping site selling books, electronics, and music to a juggernaut company that has established a place and/or interest in almost every industry, such as parcel delivery, banking and pharmaceuticals. Due to its growth, investors and executives who work in these once untapped industries are wary of becoming ‘Amazoned,’ or phased out due to Amazon entering their market.

Public Service Reporting (tie): Zachary Mider, Zeke Faux, David Ingold and Demetrios Pogkas from Bloomberg News, for “Sign Here to Lose Everything,” which focused on the cash-advance industry and how lenders are taking advantage of the legal document known as the confession of judgment, which gives up borrowers’ rights to defend themselves if they are taken to court. Lenders can also accuse borrowers of not paying without proof and legally seize their assets without notice. Following a case where more than $52K was seized from a small business owner using this method, Bloomberg News analyzed New York state records and discovered that cash-advance companies have obtained more than 25,000 judgments against borrowers across the country by using confessions. This exposure triggered an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office. Bipartisan bills were also introduced in the U.S. Senate and in the House, calling for a ban on the use of confessions.

Public Service Reporting (tie): Implant Files Reporting and Data Team from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Associated Press, NBC News, AVROTROS and more than 50 other media partners, for “The Implant Files.” In November 2018, this reporting group published their yearlong investigation, revealing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) faulty medical device approval system. They found that FDA regulators have rushed approvals, lowered safety standards and hid critical information, which resulted in hundreds of thousands people disfigured, disabled or dead. Artificial hips that corrode flesh and poison blood, spinal-cord stimulators that shock and permanently injure, and surgical mesh that cuts into tissue, causing chronic pain and bleeding, were among some of the FDA-cleared medical devices found during this investigation.  A day after the investigation went live, then FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb made an announcement that the agency would reform its approval process. Along with the huge policy changes by key U.S. regulators, “The Implant Files” also sparked major reform pledges overseas.

Audio (Medium/Large Media): Francesca Levy, Bloomberg News produced a podcast series called, “The Pay Check,” discussing women, work, money and, most importantly, the current gender pay gap. Throughout each segment, The Pay Check series team explored the history, causes and consequences of the gender pay gap, as well as changes that could be made to help close this gap. They also spoke to women who refused less pay during their careers, such as comedian Mo’Nique and Lilly Ledbetter, and shed light on key countries and companies that are changing laws, hiring practices and social norms in order to create pay equity.

Audio (Small Media): Eleanor Klibanoff, Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting; Jeff Young, Ohio Valley ReSource; and Jim Morris, The Center for Public Integrity, won for their investigative piece, “Fatal Flaws: How Kentucky Is Failing Its Workers.” Over the course of six months, these reporters, along with 43 others, investigated and revealed how Kentucky’s worker safety program, Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health (KOSH), failed to properly investigate almost all on-the-job deaths from fiscal year 2016–2017. Throughout their investigation, they visited the families of those lost on the job.

Enterprise Reporting: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and 13 West African reporters and editors, published, “West Africa Leaks,” one of the largest collaborations of business reporters ever assembled in West Africa. Thanks to data from past ICIJ investigations, (Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, Offshore Leaks and Swiss Leaks), reporters were able to discover Swiss bank account details, contracts and passports of West Africa’s top politicians and entrepreneurs. They also analyzed financial statements that exposed multinational corporations that are engaging in tax avoidance, financial crime and corruption in West Africa.

Visual Design: The Center for Public Integrity’s Gordon Witkin, Dave Levinthal, Carrie Levine, Chris Zubak-Skees and Sameea Kamal, for “Tax Breaks: The Favored Few.” Following the passage of the new tax law known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), many tax extenders were included in the bill but went unnoticed by the general public. In their investigation, The Center for Public Integrity delve into more than 30 of these provisions by studying each tax break and revealing its purpose. For each of these provisions, graphics were created and direct readers to the corresponding tax break.

Excellence in Financial Journalism Book Award: Ken Bensinger, “Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal.” In Red Card, Bensinger reveals how IRS agent Steve Berryman found out that the financial records of Chuck Blazer, a FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) official, were under FBI investigation via a Google alert. Berryman then teamed up with the FBI and learned that Blazer engaged in tax evasion, money-laundering and wire fraud. After pleading guilty, Blazer cooperated with the FBI, which led to several FIFA officials being arrested.

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