“Oh shit!” Rob Kuznia shouted at his desk on Monday afternoon, startling his colleagues in the public relations department of the Shoah Foundation.
Kuznia, the son of a middle school teacher-dad and a medical technician-mom, grew up in the quiet farming community of Grand Forks, North Dakota, on the banks of the Red River, steeped in the sort of prairie values of non-histrionics and personal modesty celebrated in the movie Fargo.
So it was very much out of character for the low-key, polite and soft-spoken Kuznia to be shrieking into his cell phone at his cubicle, and then rushing crazily out of the cramped office space that he shares with five co-workers.
“I sit right next him,” said Josh Grossberg, Kuznia’s boss at the foundation office on the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles. “He did scream, and all of a sudden he ran out of the room, I think to call his girlfriend. We all started Googling, and there it was. When he came back he was just glowing—and in a bit of a daze.”
Eight months earlier, Kuznia, 38, had left journalism, probably for good, giving up his reporting job at The Daily Breeze in nearby Torrance for the much better-paying PR job, writing press releases and pitching stories on behalf of the educational foundation started by Steven Spielberg and dedicated to memorializing the Holocaust and other episodes of genocide.
Kuznia and his longtime girlfriend, freelance web designer Alta Peterson, could barely make ends meet in expensive LA on their combined incomes, let alone his mid-five figure salary at the financially struggling newspaper. “I could pay the rent, but I really couldn’t do much more than that,” Kuznia told The Daily Beast. “Savings was kind of non-existent, and buying a house was a pipe dream.”
He was pushing 40, working extreme hours at a very demanding job, and living paycheck to paycheck. “I could make my rent, but it was difficult,” he said. “It was getting to the point of being scary.”
Now, suddenly, Kuznia learned that he, Daily Breeze reporter Rebecca Kimitch and editor Frank Suraci had won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest award.
Kuznia’s newsbiz swansong was a six-month investigation in 2014 of cronyism and outrageous greed in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, one of the poorest, tiniest and worst performing (PDF) in Los Angeles County, where the clueless school board was paying the superintendent $630,000 a year, plus more than a million dollars in other taxpayer-funded perks.
“Awarded...for their inquiry into widespread corruption in a small, cash-strapped school district, including impressive use of the paper’s website,” read the Pulitzer citation for local reporting.
Kuznia, of course, knew that the Daily Breeze had nominated his stories for the Pulitzer, along with more than 2,000 competing entries submitted by other news outlets, but he believed that “winning one was going to be pretty unrealistic,” he told The Daily Beast the morning after.
“I knew the announcement was going to broadcast live at noon our time [3 p.m. Eastern Time], but I didn’t want to watch it—I guess for a couple of reasons,” Kuznia said. “I work in a small office and I thought it would be kind of weird to be watching YouTube to see if I won. The second reason is that I didn’t want to be disappointed live on YouTube.
“So I just decided to go for a walk on campus. As soon as I stepped outside, the clock struck twelve in the Bell Tower, a couple of minutes passed, no one called me, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I guess this didn’t happen.’ I returned to my desk, sat down, and the next thing I knew, my cell phone was buzzing. And I took it out of my pocket, and it was Frank, my editor, and he’s screaming in my ear. It was kind of a ‘Holy shit’ moment.”
As Kuznia’s smart phone overloaded with text and voicemail messages for the next 12 hours, “I felt like I was surfing a wave of human congratulations,” he said, adding that although he and his fellow ink-stained wretches celebrated alcoholically and liberally at the Elephant Bar in Torrance, he wasn’t suffering from a morning-after hangover, “because of all the adrenalin coursing through my body.”
Kuznia’s journey to the Pulitzer is a long and winding one. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis with a combined degree in journalism, psychology and rhetoric, he sent his resume to 40-odd newspapers all over the country but no jobs were immediately forthcoming.
So he returned to Grand Forks, where, yes, he lived in the basement of his parents’ house, and spent half a year earning money at a variety of occupations—delivering pizza, chalking the lines on football fields, and hoisting heavy bags of sugar beets onto conveyer hooks—before The News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon, offered him a cub reporter’s position covering city hall.
By the time he arrived at The Daily Breeze a decade later, Kuznia had bounced from one outlet to the next, including the Fremont Argus in Northern California’s Bay area, the now-defunct Hispanic Business Magazine in Santa Barbara (where his unfamiliarity with Spanish was not considered a liability), the Noozhawk web site, the Pacific Standard and—memorably, from February 2004 to February 2007—the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Kuznia, who was the News-Press’s education beat reporter, received a rough education himself in the dark underbelly of the newspaper biz when he found himself caught in the middle of an ugly war between the paper’s journalists and its meddlesome owner, Wendy McCaw, the ex-wife of a telecomm billionaire, who intervened in editorial decisions to protect friends and business associates.
McCaw--who was widely considered a white knight when she bought the paper from The New York Times Co. in 2000 but ended up, by some accounts, an evil queen—fired scores of reporters and editors who were trying to affiliate with the Teamster’s Union, and many others resigned; Kuznia was among six reporters terminated in February 2007 for participating in a morning rush-hour protest on a freeway overpass, where they brandished a big sign exhorting, “Cancel Your Newspaper Today.”
“It was a very difficult situation,” Kuznia recalled, “and there was no way not to get swept into it. There was no way to avoid being a casualty of some sort. Either you’d be black-marked for sticking around or you would lose your job. It was kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. But it was also a little bit exciting, weirdly enough. I think when a bunch of us got fired, we thought, ‘Well, we’ll find jobs elsewhere in a couple of months.’ ”
In fact, it took much longer than that; attacked by the rise of the digital revolution amid an increasingly sluggish economy, the dead-tree newsbiz was contracting, and Kuznia found himself collecting unemployment payments and freelancing for a time out of the garage of his rented apartment—the so-called “gar-office” where Alta had banished him so as not to be driven insane by his annoyingly piercing police radio scanner.
Josh Grossberg, it turns out, was assistant city editor at The Daily Breeze when Kuznia applied for a reporting job in 2010, and, as with the Shoah Foundation years later, was instrumental in his hiring.
“Rob is very thoughtful and can be very delicate with people,” said Grossberg, who left the paper in 2013, “and working here at the foundation requires a certain amount of finesse, because you’re dealing with sensitive subjects. If you talk to Rob, he’s very humble. He’s a very talented writer, too. And he makes sure everything is right before he turns it in.”
Kuznia, on joining the Daily Breeze five years ago, recalled that he felt like he’d found his calling. “By the then, local print media was reeling pretty bad, but to me it felt like a homecoming. It felt like a return to my comfort zone and to doing what I was good at. So I was really happy to take that job.”
But even as he thrived on the sheer journalistic excitement of his work, financial pressures, among other stresses, were affecting him negatively as he rushed headlong into middle age. “I was getting more physical manifestations of stress. I really don’t know exactly why. It was kind of a slow burn,” Kuznia recalled. “Just the occasional extremely mild panic attack. I also started to have tinnitus”—a ringing of the ears. “I thought maybe I had a tumor. I would try to walk it off and chill. But I was kind of reaching this boiling point of stress.”
When Josh Grossberg called to tell him about the PR job opening at the Shoah Foundation, along with “a significant bump” in salary and benefits, especially a generous two-for-one 401K match that USC awards its employees, “I was absolutely torn,” Kuznia admitted. “I would be leaving a profession that I felt like I was beginning to master and doing something completely different—right at the time I was really finding my stride.”
On the other hand, “journalism at the local level is a scary place to be, especially at the age I am,” Kuznia added. “And it seemed a pretty good idea to try something else and broaden the skill set. The Shoah Foundation is a great organization. I felt I could be proud to go there—and I am.”
Of course, while Kuznia is an unusual Pulitzer-winner in the sense that he received the coveted prize at a time when he’s no longer a practicing journalist, it would hardly be unusual if a major newspaper such as The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times or The Washington Post suddenly offered him a job.
“If something like that came around, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a dream come true,” Kuznia confided. “I don’t know how I would respond or what my reaction would be. I guess I’ll cross that bridge if I get there.”