No, the Spokesman-Review editor didn’t win a Pulitzer

Ever since Rob Curley left the Las Vegas Sun, his former colleagues have kept tabs on his career, following his progress from the Sun to the Orange County Register and, as of last year, to the Spokesman-Review. Their continuing interest in him isn’t idle curiosity, they acknowledge, but rather, they watch for times when he claims credit for the Sun’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

Curley had nothing to do with the award-winning investigative series that exposed the high death rate of construction workers along the Las Vegas Strip, says Drex Heikes, the Sun’s former deputy managing editor who edited every article in that series. Curley wasn’t even in town at the time the series began, and nothing he touched was included in the Pulitzer submission that Heikes later entered.
click to enlarge No, the Spokesman-Review editor didn’t win a Pulitzer
Spokesman-Review Editor Rob Curley:
Not a Pulitzer Prize winner.

“This is a simple factual issue,” Heikes says. “There is an entire newsroom that tracks his comments on this very subject, because it just cheapens the work of everyone.”

When Curley left Vegas for Orange County, an announcement by the Register included Curley’s claim of a Pulitzer, says Heikes, who contacted the paper’s publisher to correct that fact. Later, a Sun staffer alerted Heikes to a talk that Curley was scheduled to give at a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Again, Heikes says, Curley’s biography included the Pulitzer claim. Heikes says he called someone at SPJ, who apologized and deleted the Pulitzer reference, saying that Curley’s bio had been provided to the organization.

“The people in Spokane need to know this,” Heikes says. “They think they have someone there who won the Pulitzer. It’s just not true.”

Curley, in an interview at the Inlander yesterday, acknowledges that he has no claim to the Sun’s or any other newspaper's Pulitzer, and he says a series of misunderstandings have led to this misnomer being repeated time and again. Curley says he’s never told anyone he’s won a Pulitzer; rather, he says, people have simply gotten confused, the claim entered the internet and the wider world, and he can’t seem to stomp it out.

“I don’t know how to make people just stop doing that,” Curley says of people who repeat the debunked claim. “I don’t know how to stop that. All I can is try to clarify it when people ask.”

The claim of a Pulitzer has followed him to the Inland Northwest. Before he was to speak to members of Spokane’s American Advertising Federation, a biography of Curley was prepared by someone inside the Spokesman-Review organization that said he had won a Pulitzer, Curley says. When he saw it, he says, his heart sank.

“My tummy hurt when I saw it this first time,” Curley recalls.

Most recently, the bogus Pulitzer claim was repeated in a biography submitted to the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, in advance of a talk he’s giving there next month. (The title of that event is, “The Heart of a 21st Century Editor: A ‘true believer' takes the reins at The Spokesman Review.”)

That bio describes him this way: “Rob Curley is the only newspaper editor in the nation to have won the top award in print journalism (the Pulitzer Prize), the top award in broadcast journalism (the duPont Award) and the top award in online journalism (ONA’s best news site in the world).”

Curley says he didn’t write that sentence, and the person who originally crafted that line, on his behalf, for his Advertising Federation speech apparently repeated the same error to the Chamber of Commerce. (Earlier this morning, the Pulitzer claim in Curley’s bio on the Chamber of Commerce’s website was removed.)

Curley provided to the Inlander a version of his résumé that lists his accomplishments, and he says that it explains how the mistake has been made. At the top of the résumé, it reads, “The Las Vegas Sun is the only local news organization to win the top awards in print journalism (Pulitzer/2009), broadcast journalism (duPont/2010) and digital journalism (ONA and EPpy/2010).”

Curley says that was misinterpreted as him winning the Pulitzer, adding that he simply wanted to point out the Sun's remarkable accomplishment in taking home all three major awards. “I don’t think I’ve ever tried to misrepresent myself,” he says, “and whenever it happened, I try to explain it.”

“It has long been annoying to really anyone who was at the Sun at that time that he keeps landing at new places and selling himself on this Pulitzer thing."

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He also points to a blog post he wrote after the Sun won the Pulitzer, in which he called out by name the journalists involved. “I am so proud to work with the crew at the Sun directly responsible for the courageous journalism that won the Pulitzer. Alexandra (Ali) Berzon, Mike Kelley, Drex Heikes — as well as so many others who added to the construction-deaths project — are not just some of the best journalists you’ll ever meet, they’re also some of the most grounded.”

Nevertheless, Curley says, the staff of the Sun hated him and hate him still. He says they blame him for the paper’s layoffs. At the Sun, Curley ultimately took charge of digital operations and created an ambitious video program called It cost the paper millions — yet only lasted four months — and people at the Sun “took to calling Curley ‘Harold Hill,’ after the main character from The Music Man, a con man who poses as the leader of a marching band and steals money from unsuspecting townsfolk,” according to a Las Vegas CityLife story.

“That period of my life was really hard, because no matter what lever I pulled, I pulled the wrong lever,” Curley says.

Indeed, the vitriol toward Curley from current and former Sun staffers is palpable, and much of it relates to the perception that he’s attempted to trade on their accomplishments.

“It has long been annoying to really anyone who was at the Sun at that time that he keeps landing at new places and selling himself on this Pulitzer thing (which I noticed some years ago in a bio) despite all the failure and newspaper destruction documented again and again,” according to a former staffer who worked on the prize-winning project.

Certainly, in newspaper circles, the Pulitzer is sacred — journalism’s highest honor — and winning one is seen as a golden ticket straight to the promised land. Write a book, and it’s slapped on the front cover in bold type — “Pulitzer Prize Winner!” Die, and it’s highlighted in the first line of your obituary.

Curley recognizes its significance, and he says he wouldn’t intentionally mislead anyone about his credentials.

“In some ways, I’m kind of a clever guy,” he says, “But I don’t know how to make this stop.”