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Thursday, May 11, 2017 12:01 am

Contest-gate

Press association reopens investigation

 The Illinois Press Association has reopened an investigation into the rigging of a 2011 statewide journalism contest that only recently came to light.

The investigation was reopened within the past week after Illinois Times obtained a scoring sheet from the contest that shows the Chicago Tribune, not the Chicago Sun-Times, finishing first for best web project. David Porter, a former IPA employee who was in charge of the contest, says that Dennis DeRossett, IPA president, ordered results changed so that the Sun-Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for the same story that finished second in the state contest, was anointed first place instead of the Chicago Tribune, which was the true winner.

The IPA has acknowledged that DeRossett changed the results in a photo category in the 2011 contest, giving the Vienna Times first place instead of the Pinckneyville Press, which was the actual winner (“Take This Plaque And Shove It,” April 27, 2017). After an investigation last fall prompted by a complaint from Jeff Egbert, Pinckneyville Press publisher, the IPA belatedly awarded a plaque to Egbert, who had taken the photograph judged to be the best. DeRossett was disciplined, according to a letter that Egbert received from Don Craven, IPA attorney, but the IPA won’t say what sanction was meted out. DeRossett was paid $188,000 in 2015, according to federal tax records. His current salary isn’t known.

The IPA has said that it could not substantiate a claim by Porter that DeRossett had also changed the results of the best web project category, for which the Sun-Times received a first-place plaque six years ago. Porter says that DeRossett, knowing Pulitzer results, ordered the results changed after he learned that the Sun-Times entry had finished behind the Tribune. Craven has said that DeRossett admitted that he changed the result of the contest that involved the Pinckneyville paper, but denied changing any other results.

However, a judging sheet filled out by Dan Simmons, former reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, casts doubt on the claim that DeRossett didn’t elevate the Sun-Times over the Tribune in the best web project category

The scoring sheet filled out by Simmons shows the Tribune as the winner. Six years after the fact, Simmons says that both entries were strong. “I think it was kind of a coin toss,” says Simmons, who is now employed by a magazine based in Pennsylvania. Simmons points out that there was no best web project category in the contest for the Pulitzer Prize, for which the Sun-Times won in the local reporting category. “From what I remember, the Tribune’s thing, I think was something about the tangential impact of some kind of crime, and the online presentation was richer and more sophisticated than the Sun-Times, even though the Sun-Times story was such a blockbuster,” Simmons said.

Simmons said he can’t recall whether he was the sole judge, but Porter, who administered the 2011 contest, is categorical: The scoring sheet submitted by Simmons should have been the final word.

“That’s the only one for that particular category,” says Porter, who left the IPA in 2014 and now owns the Lebanon Advertiser and Arcola Record Herald newspapers. “That would be the only one that would be pertinent to that circulation division. It’s the final determination.” Porter said he gave a copy of the score sheet to Craven last fall, after Egbert complained.

Illinois Times emailed interview requests and copies of the scoring sheet to 13 members of the 14-member IPA board, which includes executives from some of the state’s biggest media organizations (an email sent to the Chicago Tribune Media Group’s representative bounced back as undeliverable). None replied.

Craven said that Porter gave him a copy of the scoring sheet last fall, but a question remained as to whether Simmons was the only judge. Now, Craven said, the investigation has been reopened, and the IPA is searching its computer system for records relating to the contest.

“Like all journalists, we’re trying to find the truth,” Craven said.

But Porter says the IPA already knows the truth.

“I told them (the IPA) about both instances,” Porter said. “They only addressed the squeaky wheel. I think they attempted to let the other one slide. They had the opportunity to fix them both, but they only chose to fix the one that was complaining. I think it speaks to the integrity of the organization: When given an opportunity to take corrective measures, they only corrected the one they thought would become public.”

DeRossett could not be reached for comment.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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