Kiss Me, Katie

Fairy tales can come true. Why, they can even win you an award from Dallas' less-than-vigilant press club.

Questions about the Katies may actually go back for years. Stewart, Albanese's successor at the club, says the organization can't find any evidence that the Katies were judged from 2004-2006. In each of those years, Albanese had a hands-on role organizing the nearly 50-year-old journalism contest. If she rigged the awards, that means nearly 600 Katies were handed out arbitrarily. (Some of Albanese's friends happened to win Katies, including Bob Morrison, one of her staunchest defenders on the board.) It also means more than 1,800 finalists—many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to attend the November banquet—were selected just as randomly. Incredibly, the lack of oversight at the press club was so complete that Albanese was able to use the organization's credit card to travel around the country and take over its journalism contest to give herself trophies. And how exactly did nobody, besides Albanese, know that there were no judges for the Katie Awards?

"I don't know how we don't know," says Stewart. "It boggles the mind."

For the 2003 Katies, which Albanese chaired, the club does have a list of judges, but those awards are also highly suspect. The club furnished the Dallas Observer with a spreadsheet that lists the finalists for that year. Computer records show, however, that the spreadsheet was prepared by David Johnson, Albanese's husband, weeks before the 2003 awards. While there's no way to tell if Johnson or Albanese altered the judge's original nominations before the ceremony, they both clearly had the opportunity to do so. That year, Albanese won two Katies.

Illustration by Jay Bevenour
Jay Bevenour
Illustration by Jay Bevenour
Hall of Shame: New press club President Tom Stewart is entrusted with cleaning up the mess left behind by Elizabeth Albanese.
Mark Graham
Hall of Shame: New press club President Tom Stewart is entrusted with cleaning up the mess left behind by Elizabeth Albanese.

What happened to the 2006 entries is a mystery. Every year, a few weeks before the Katie Awards, around two dozen volunteers help ship the 1,500 or so entries to the contest's judges. Last year, "packing day," as it's informally called, was held on the second floor of the Women's Museum in Fair Park, where the club used to have its offices. There, volunteers snacked on coffee and doughnuts and arranged the entries into 179 brown paper bags for each of the categories. Then they placed each of the bags into boxes. As the day concluded, volunteers packed the boxes into Albanese's SUV.

No one knows where those boxes went from there. Albanese said her husband's company took care of the shipping, but she never asked for a reimbursement on his behalf, nor did she ask that his company be honored as a sponsor at the Katie Awards.

"I wish to hell I knew," Stewart says of the boxes. "Greatest mystery to me. For all I know they're in the damn Trinity River."

What will become of the press club is now in question. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the press club had real relevance to working journalists—it was a place where they met with the city's movers and shakers to get the scoop on the big story of the day. But times have changed. For most reporters, the club has no use beyond awarding the Katie Awards each year.

"We've really struggled with that," Stewart says. "What is its relevance today? I don't see the major news organizations of this community stepping up to save it. I don't have anybody beating down my door saying, 'Here's the resources to keep this organization afloat.' I have to wonder if people really do care."

There almost certainly will be no Katie Awards this year, Stewart says, and as a result, the club will lose out on the $20,000 to $50,000 the contest generates each year. Besides supporting the club (paying for its office space and its one full-time employee), the foundation paid for journalism scholarships. For years, Stewart says, the club has been "living hand to mouth." Now it is running on economic fumes.

The club has filed a lawsuit against Albanese seeking damages, but Stewart doesn't expect to get anything out of her. "She probably doesn't have a pot to piss in," he said at a recent meeting. The club spoke with the District Attorney's Office, but the prosecuting office isn't likely to pursue criminal charges.

Some wonder if the Katie Awards are gone for good. Stewart thinks that might be a possibility, but others say the contest will go on. "It's sad what happened, but the cachet the Katies had is still there," says John Miller, a former news director at Channel 8 who now teaches journalism at Texas Christian University. "You can't take a tradition that stretches back as many years as the Katies and let one person's mess-up and lack of oversight by others torpedo this thing that's gone on for decade after decade after decade.

"The people who have made a career on news in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, who have Katies sitting on their desks right now, are not going to let it go away, they're just not. Once everyone takes a deep breath, that sentiment will prevail."

As for Albanese, her career as a journalist is most likely over, at least in this market. Not long after the 2006 Katie Awards she left The Bond Buyer to take a job at First Southwest Co., a Dallas investment bank, as vice president of communications. Coincidentally, she had written a story on First Southwest that had won a 2006 Katie Award for Best Business Story. When news broke about Albanese's past, First Southwest fired her.

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