2015 Larry Birger Young Business Journalist Award Winner, Cezary Podkul

ec1caa28-6c57-4419-bd74-2604b6e15713Cezary Podkul is the winner of the 2015 Larry Birger Young Business Journalist competition, which recognizes talented reporters under 30. The inaugural winner was Mina Kimes, then a reporter for Bloomberg News. Podkul, now 32, was selected as the second annual winner. (Cezary turned 30 during 2014 meeting the award eligibly requirements). Birger was SABEW president in 1977 and was a former Miami Herald business editor. He later went on to establish rbb public relations (now rbb Communications) in Miami. Podkul was selected among 34 entrants who submitted portfolios of their work. Podkul led a SABEW Teletraining session in January that attracted 50 plus listeners.

By Marty Steffens
University of Missouri

Cezary Podkul had never seen a story have such immediate impact. In January 2016, he published a story for ProPublica’s “Rent Racket” series, which showed that as many as 200,000 New York City apartments were not in compliance with the state’s rent-stabilization laws.

Those rules make apartments more affordable and protect tenants from evictions and unlimited rent increases. The “Rent Racket” series found that tens of thousands of New Yorkers might be paying more rent than the law allowed.

New York residents were outraged, and in less than a week, a bill was introduced in Albany that would increase penalties on landlords who overcharge tenants. “I’ve never had anything have such a quick impact,” said Podkul an investigative reporter who covers finance for the non-profit investigative website ProPublica.

An earlier story in the series also got lawmakers’ notice. In November 2015, Podkul and ProPublica reporting fellow Marcelo Rochabrun found that landlords had failed to register about 50,000 New York City apartments for rent stabilization while collecting more than $100 million in property tax breaks in exchange for doing so. Within about a month, a bill was introduced in City Hall to tighten oversight.

Podkul was somewhat a late starter in the journalism world. He thought he wanted a career as a financial analyst, and soon after graduation from the Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, he began working for an Australian investment bank in New York.

As he combed through financial and economic data, he saw stories everywhere. As the financial crisis deepened in 2008, he would spend his night blogging about what he saw as disturbing or notable trends. Forbes took notice and soon included his blog in its business and financial blog network. That led him to work for an investor magazine while he attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism part time. His work so impressed his instructors that Columbia awarded him the Melvin Mencher Prize for Superior Reporting. He graduated with a master’s degree in 2011.

One of Podkul’s 2014 investigations also created an outcry. During his time at Reuters he had come upon a data set which listed all municipal debt sold by state and local governments. He figured out a way to calculate the repayment ratios on the debt and began to notice a pattern: The most egregious repayment terms – as much as 44 times the amount borrowed – were by “tobacco settlement” corporations. He did some research and realized these were entities created by governments to sell bonds backed by their annual payments from the historic 1998 settlement with Big Tobacco – often for pennies on the dollar.

Once he got to ProPublica, he found a news hook to interest his new editors in the project: New Jersey had just pledged more cash toward one of its tobacco bonds to avoid default. Cash-hungry states like New Jersey, had sold the bonds to give them money upfront in exchange for giant balloon payments in the future — long after most of the politicians who took on those debts would leave office. In his 2014 series, Podkul identified $64 billion politicians had promised in exchange for just $3 billion of upfront cash.

The Birger competition judging panel noted Podkul’s stellar work with a variety of publications and news services, including Reuters, where he worked before joining ProPublica in 2014. His work with Carrick Mollenkamp for Reuters’ “Uneasy Money” series was a finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism. During his career, he has also covered energy and commodities and the private equity industry.

How is Podkul able to write investigative stories that have such impact? A curious mind and strong organizational habits.

His best tip for investigative reporters is to keep meticulous files on each aspect of reporting, such as raw data, analyzed data, interviews and supporting material. He builds files as the story progresses, and he spends part of each day keeping the system in place. Because investigative pieces can be complex, and occasionally appear dull on the surface, he has honed the art of the pitch, including writing the “nut graf” for the series as part of his outline that he submits to editors. “Explain it to yourself,” he said, “then get your editor to understand it.”

He offers other tips for new reporters:

  • Become a high-level Google searcher. Learn how to phrase searches to yield solid results; the outcome might surprise you.
  • Use LinkedIn to track down sources. Searching by industry or finding former employers who might want to be whistleblowers yields results.
  • Stories have impact when you use real-life examples. They also have impact if you use current events as a news peg.
  • Keep your eyes open, and look for the humor. “If you find something so ridiculous it makes you laugh,” then it’s likely a great story,” he says.

The judging team also honored three finalists: Jeanna Smialek, Washington Bureau, Bloomberg; Dana Mattioli, mergers and acquisition reporter, The Wall Street Journal; and Casey Sullivan, Bloomberg BNA, Big Law Business. Judges included SABEW members Jon Chesto (chair), The Boston Globe; James Madore, Newsday; Marty Steffens, University of Missouri; John Arwood, The Charlotte Observer, and Cindy Perman, NBC.

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