Alum wins Pulitzer for tax investigation

David Kocieniewski ‘85 has risen from Pipe Dream’s news desk to the Pultizer Prize’s winner’s circle.

Kocieniewski won this year’s prize for Explanatory Reporting for his 2011 series in The New York Times called “But Nobody Pays That,” which investigated the U.S. tax system. The Pulitzer jury wrote that the series “penetrated a legal thicket to explain how the nation’s wealthiest citizens and corporations often exploited loopholes and avoided taxes.”

The seven-part series routinely shaped public discourse, and illuminated a wide range of tax issues, including General Electric’s negative tax rate, the partisan divide on the federal tax code, and the dubious corporate push for tax breaks in the name of job creation.

Eye on the Prize

Kocieniewski told Pipe Dream that he’s proud of his series, especially since taxes are such a complex topic.

“It’s a difficult reporting and writing challenge to get people into taxes, but we helped reframe a debate that affects the whole country by putting facts out there among all the spin,” he said.

In his acceptance speech, Kocieniewski said that the project started when he and his team were trying to address the paradox of corporations reporting record profits while also paying a minuscule tax rate.

Kocieniewski thanked the Times for its support on this project. He said most news organizations do not invest in complex reporting, especially when they focus on the “oh-so-sexy topic ‘Corporate Tax Secrets of the Rich and Famous.’”

“I’m grateful that the Times gave me the time and resources to do it and tell the story in a way that connects to people and is relevant to their lives,” he said. “That’s all you can ask to do in this industry, and I’m grateful that it was recognized by the Pulitzer committee.”

He was competing for the Pulitzer against USA Today’s Tom Frank for his work on state and local employee pensions and The Wall Street Journal staff’s investigation of how corporations collect personal information from Americans’ cell phones and computers.

“Winning was a surprise and an honor and a relief,” he said. “I’ve had a few stories that were near-misses, but it’s great to finally get one that gets the top honor. I’ve done this a lot of years and it’s a great sense of validation and relief.”

Taxes were not always Kocieniewski’s specialty. He used to cover criminal justice and political issues.

“I’ve done a lot of investigative work and I’ve always taken the job that no one wanted to do,” he said. “I really think this award is one for the working dogs.”

Peter Benjaminson, a former BU professor and Kocieniewski’s mentor at the University, spoke highly of his former student.

“I was extremely pleased, but not at all surprised, when Dave Kocieniewski won the Pulitzer,” Benjaminson said. “I’ve been following his work as a professional journalist over the years; his stories were very good when he started as a professional, and have now reached the height of excellence.”

Kocieniewski joined The New York Times in 1995. He started his professional career at the Detroit News in 1986, and four years later, transitioned to Newsday.

Since the start of his career, the world of print journalism has gone through a top-to-bottom makeover. While the business aspect of print has suffered greatly from the digital era, Kocieniewski said it has done wonders for the art of story telling.

“In terms of engaging people and helping people research stuff, it’s better than ever,” Kocieniewski said. “By and the large, technology has made it easier to reach more people. The only problem is finding a way to pay for it.”

He added that the ability to have interactive graphics, online videos and slideshows allows their content to reach a larger audience.

“Our online audience is global and reaches 10 million people,” he said.

Pipe Dream Days

During his undergraduate years at BU, from 1981 to 1985, Kocieniewski worked at a local ice cream shop, DJ’ed at the campus pub, freelanced for the local newspaper Press & Sun-Bulletin and worked at Pipe Dream as assistant news editor.

“Pipe Dream was a very scrappy, smart paper at the time,” Kocieniewski recalled. “When I was there, there were a lot of protests about the company who ran the food service and their investments in South Africa. Apartheid was happening at the time, and I thought Pipe Dream did a really good job keeping an eye on that.”

Kocieniewski said the campus composition changed vastly during his stint at BU.

“When I started, there were all these protests because of Apartheid, and by the time I left, it was the roaring ’80s, so everyone wanted to go into business,” he said. “For me, it was good preparation for someone who works among business people because I have to watch what they do and kind of evaluate them.”

Kocieniewski said one of his most memorable moments at BU was when he was working in the Pipe Dream office, and news broke of John Lennon’s assassination.

“I remember we had to push production back and I was up until 4 a.m. putting together the story and the design,” he said.

Originally from Buffalo, Kocieniewski said BU exposed him to different types of people.

“It was great to hang with the Long Island and New York City kids and get a sense of the world from them,” he said.

Rose Frierman, senior director of alumni relations at BU, congratulated Kocieniewski on his successes.

“We are proud of his achievements and we hope that when he reflects on his time at Binghamton, he can proudly state that his days working on the Pipe Dream prepared him for this recognition and for all the success he has achieved in his professional life,” Frierman said.