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Thursday, April 27, 2017 12:09 am

Take this plaque and shove it

Press association fixed contest

PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

 

The annual journalism contest sponsored by the Illinois Press Association is supposed to be a measuring stick for excellence, a chance for newspapers large and small to boast to readers about winning awards in categories ranging from news writing to photography to page design.

Judges are enlisted from press associations outside Illinois. But judges didn’t have the final word in the 2011 contest, as IPA president Dennis DeRossett changed results in at least one category. While the IPA says that an investigation showed that DeRossett changed just one result in a photography category, a former IPA official who was in charge of the contest says that DeRossett also changed results in another category, giving first place to the Chicago Sun-Times even though a judge had given top honors to the Chicago Tribune.

The matter came to light and was quietly handled last fall, when Jeff Egbert, publisher of the Pinckneyville Press, learned that the judge had given him a first-place award for spot news photography. But the Vienna Times got the plaque and recognition at the awards luncheon, with Egbert’s paper, contrary to the judge’s decision, getting second place.

Egbert won’t say who tipped him, but he complained to the press association, which determined that DeRossett had changed contest results. The IPA sent Egbert a belated plaque, but he has not renewed his IPA membership.

“I paid good money to enter the contest, at least hundreds of dollars,” Egbert says. “They took my money and then cheated me.”

In a letter to Egbert, Don Craven, IPA general counsel, last fall wrote that the executive committee of the IPA board unanimously agreed that DeRossett had acted improperly and that discipline was warranted. But neither Craven nor IPA board members will say how DeRossett was punished. That doesn’t sit well with Egbert.

“I’m the one who brought up the problem, I’m the one who was wronged, I should know the resolution,” Egbert says. He also says that the IPA should have notified member newspapers that the contest was rigged. “I think the membership of the organization that pays dues has a right to know that the results were altered,” Egbert says. “The IPA and member newspapers demand transparency out of government bodies. I should expect the same out of my own organization.”

During a brief telephone interview, DeRossett refused to say why he changed contest results, nor would he discuss the letter sent by Craven to Egbert acknowledging improper conduct.

“I would suggest that you talk to Don Craven about that letter,” DeRossett said. “That letter was not authorized by the board. I think you need to talk to Don about this whole thing. There are several people involved, but it’s not exactly as stated.”

DeRossett agreed to an interview with Craven present. He also said that he would call back for a second interview. He did not call back, and a second interview never took place.

“We’d be happy to discuss this,” DeRossett said during the initial interview. “There’s an explanation. But there’s also a proper context.” What’s the explanation and context? “I’m not not-answering your questions,” DeRossett responded. “I want to make sure it’s not a one-sided story.”

David Porter, former IPA director of communications who administered the 2011 contest, says that DeRossett also changed the results of the best web project category, giving first place to the Chicago Sun-Times even though the category judge gave top honors to the Chicago Tribune.

Porter says that DeRossett, who was hired in 2010, had told him that he didn’t like surprises. With that in mind, Porter says that he told DeRossett that the Pinckneyville paper had finished first in the photography contest even though the Vienna paper had won an award from the National Newspaper Association for the photo that had finished second in the IPA contest. Similarly, he says, the Sun-Times had won a Pulitzer Prize for the entry that finished behind the Tribune in the 2011 IPA contest.

“I anticipated this could be a surprise,” Porter says. “The publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, who was president of our association at the time, would be at the (awards) convention. He might want to know why his Pulitzer Prize-winning entry didn’t win our contest. … I was unprepared and somewhat flabbergasted when, instead of talking about what our response might be if someone questions this, the response was ‘Change the results.’”

Craven, who investigated contest rigging, said that he could not substantiate the allegation that DeRossett ordered results changed so that the Sun-Times bested the Tribune. There were neither paper nor electronic records to review, he said, and so he interviewed IPA employees, including DeRossett, who admitted changing the results of the photo contest. “As I was talking to the employees, I asked, I believe, all of them if they knew of any other instances where this had occurred,” Craven said. “To a person, including Mr. DeRossett, the answer was no.”

Why DeRossett changed results isn’t clear. Craven refused to discuss motives, as did Sandy Macfarland, chairman of the IPA board of directors and chief executive officer of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, who said that the IPA board acknowledged improper conduct by DeRosett and took corrective action.

“I’m not saying anything more,” said Macfarland, who referred questions about the category involving the Chicago papers to Craven. “You’ve got the letter. You’ve got what you need to get. It’s an internal matter. You’ve got what you need. This phone call is over.”

Craven said that the IPA board was informed that DeRossett had changed photo contest results. Board member Jim Kirk, who was hired by the Sun Times in 2012 and named publisher in 2013, pointed out that he wasn’t on the IPA board in 2011. He wouldn’t say whether he agreed with how the association handled the matter.

“I’m not going to go there with you because that’s an internal matter,” Kirk said.

Why didn’t Porter blow the whistle six years ago? Porter, who left the IPA in 2014 and now owns the Lebanon Advertiser and Arcola Record Herald  newspapers, says that he feared for his job.

“It was a bad situation,” Porter says. “I was in a position of seeing that this was carried out, but I was also in a precarious employment situation. I really felt like I was unable to challenge it. … I stewed about it for a long time while I was still working there. I struggled with it – it was the wrong thing to do, and I participated in it. I always said, if someone asked me, I would tell the truth. You asked me the questions. I’m not going to lie. That would be a further erosion of my integrity.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Craven said when told that a person with knowledge of contest rigging was afraid to come forward. “That’s why there are whistleblower provisions. If they are apprehensive about their own supervisor, if their supervisor is the source of the angst, they are encouraged to come to me as the representative of the board.”

Porter says that he’s not aware of any contest rigging since 2011. He said that he can’t recall another situation where the results of an IPA contest were at odds with results of another contest. If there had been disparate results, Porter says that he would not have told DeRossett until the last minute.

“It would not have happened again on my watch,” Porter says. “I learned that, even though he didn’t want surprises, based on this experience, I would not have brought it to his attention. I would have waited until it was too late to change to bring it up.”

Craven says that procedures have changed since 2011 so that that there is now an electronic record that can be checked to ensure contest results can’t be changed without creating a telltale record. Porter says that he trusts contest results.

“I own two newspapers, I still enter the contest,” Porter says. “If people don’t enter, that reduces the quality of the contest. Rightly or wrongly, the contest is a PR issue, so newspapers can write a story in their paper saying, ‘We did something better than other papers did.’ I do it, too.”

But Egbert says he’s finished with the IPA.

“If they will tamper with results as small as Division A newspaper photo contest results, what else are they doing?” Egbert says. “They sent me a plaque for first place. The plaque would have meant something to me in 2011. I want to set it on fire in 2016.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.



IPA helped with sale of newspapers

Jeff Egbert, publisher of the Pinckneyville Press, acknowledges that he can be accused of grinding axes when he complained to the Illinois Press Association about rigged contest results.

Egbert says the IPA drew his ire last year when the association helped arrange the sale of a dozen southern Illinois newspapers that otherwise would have gone out of business. The papers, including the Du Quoin Evening Call in Perry County, the same county where Pinckneyille is located, were owned by GateHouse Media, which sold the publications last summer to Paddock Publications, a newspaper company based in Arlington Heights that is best known for publishing the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.

Egbert says the deal cost him money because legal notices that must be published in newspapers of record in any given county can continue being published in the Du Quoin paper. Had the Evening Call folded, Egbert says that his paper stood to realize increased revenue from legal notices.

“The IPA stepped in and made sure my competitor stayed in business,” Egbert says. “Someone mentioned to me, ‘This isn’t the first time the IPA screwed me over.’” That, Egbert says, is when he learned about contest rigging.

The IPA acknowledges helping save papers it believed might go under. IPA president Dennis DeRossett said the association, at the request of GateHouse, stepped in to help find a buyer for the endangered newspapers.

“The story of our industry right now is, it’s a dying industry,” DeRossett said. “That [closure of the GateHouse papers] would have obviously fueled fire to that story, not just in Illinois, but nationwide. … Our mission is to basically enhance the journalistic and business interests of Illinois newspapers.”

Sandy Macfarland, chairman of the IPA board of directors, wrote in an email that he wasn’t aware of the deal until it was consummated, but he defends it.

“The IPA is proud to have played a role in identifying a buyer for those newspapers so they can continue to serve thousands of readers in dozens of Illinois communities,” Macfarland wrote.

At the time of the deal, executives employed by both the Daily Herald and GateHouse were on the IPA board. Asked about the potential for conflicts of interest, Don Craven, IPA general counsel, said that he doesn’t recall either GateHouse or Daily Herald executives participating in discussions about the transfer of GateHouse papers to the Daily Herald’s parent company.

Egbert accuses the IPA of profiting from the deal.

“The IPA made money on this as a broker,” Egbert says. “They made money on that newspaper sale, whether they want to admit it or not.”

DeRossett says that the IPA was paid expense money for legal work, including the drafting of confidentiality agreements. He declined to say how much. –Bruce Rushton

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