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About AHCJ: General News

President's corner: Reflecting on Len Bruzzese’s 15 years as executive director Date: 08/01/20

"How’re things going with the search for a new executive director?"

That was Len Bruzzese’s question to Andrew Holtz, AHCJ’s former board president and then-interim executive director, in early 2005. Holtz, an independent journalist, “was sitting at [his] dining room table, on the phone with Len, discussing issues of mutual interest to AHCJ and Len’s then-home, Investigative Reporters & Editors.”

It was, as Holtz recently recalled, the sweetest question he had during his stint as interim executive director. That’s because he and the rest of the search committee — myself included — had just spent a day interviewing a series of candidates “and rejected them all,” Holtz said. “They just didn’t get journalists. When asked about fundraising ideas, a typical candidate said, ‘Pharma,’ and could not grasp why we wouldn’t rush to suckle that teat.”

Fortunately for AHCJ, Bruzzese was intrigued by the organization and the role, which he agreed to take on a few months later. “When I enthusiastically handed him the wheel (trying not to frighten him with my giddy delight),” Holtz recalled, “AHCJ’s finances had the flight path of a sputtering Piper Cub (I swear I could feel tree tops slapping the landing gear). And look at us now.”

Indeed. In 2005, the AHCJ and Center for Excellence in Health Journalism had no financial reserves, which meant no safety net. Fifteen years later, we have $3.5 million in reserves, ensuring the stability and future of the organization – and reflecting the value that foundations, universities and other supporters place on our mission.

“He’s cajoled conference sponsors and foundation funders when the board thought it was impossible,” said former AHCJ board president Charles Ornstein, deputy managing editor at ProPublica. “When I think about how far AHCJ has come, so much of the credit rests with Len.”

That accomplishment of Bruzzese’s is even more impressive when one considers that AHCJ has kept membership and conference fees among the lowest in journalism – and hewing to the strictest fundraising policy of any organization like ours, in order to limit conflicts of interest.

That’s not all AHCJ has accomplished with Bruzzese at the helm. We’ve created eight national fellowship training programs that have offered career development to hundreds of journalists, as well as more than 10 conference fellowship or stipend programs that have supported more than 1,000 members in getting to the annual conference over the years. Bruzzese also oversaw the redesign and relaunch of the AHCJ website as healthjournalism.org, introducing thousands of new resources, including the funding and development of a core curriculum that features the ongoing work of 10 core topic editors.

It may not be surprising, then, that membership has doubled during Bruzzese’s tenure, which has also witnessed dramatic growth in the activities of our Right to Know Committee, increased collaborations with other journalism groups, and the launch of public-service sites hospitalfinances.org and hospitalinspections. org. All of this pointing to a significant rise in the organization’s national stature.

The list goes on. But as members likely know by now, board members once again find themselves being asked questions similar to the one Bruzzese posed in 2005, as we search for a new executive director following Bruzzese’s announcement that he would like to step back from everyday duties. He will remain active — the board made sure of that — to help with an extended transition. As we search, we are looking for candidates with passion, experience, and their own vision for AHCJ’s future. But it is hard not to hold up his efforts as a model.

Bruzzese “doesn’t take no for an answer,” recalled Ornstein. “There were many summers when I trekked to Columbia, Missouri, to speak to AHCJ fellows, even when work was overwhelming and even on my wife’s birthday! (Note to past self: Not a great idea.)” I know the feeling: My birthday often fell when that workshop was scheduled, and Bruzzese convinced me to travel to Columbia to teach anyway. He did, however, make sure there was a cake to celebrate at one of the group dinners.

Former board president Trudy Lieberman pegs many key events over the period to food, including an Indian dinner Lieberman and then-board member Sanjay Bhatt cooked one night during the darkest days of our 2005 search when she thought the group might disband.

“Maybe it was karma,” said Lieberman, an independent journalist. “Len’s name showed up a few days later, and he sounded like a promising candidate. The night of our call, I was testing a recipe for Arctic char. I think I was judging in the Beard contest that year and had overbooked myself that day. This was no time to multi-task. Luckily Len seemed to know what we were looking for, and I was impressed. He was our guy.” No surprise, then, that Lieberman and Bruzzese continued to meet over food. “One of those meetings was at an outdoor cafe in Cleveland where we came up with the idea for the urban and rural health workshops that have become signature events for our group. The food may have sparked our creativity.” Surprisingly, she doesn’t remember what they ate.

Bruzzese is “indefatigable,” said Ornstein. “I remember at one AHCJ conference, Len slept on the floor because his back was in agony, but you would have never noticed it. He doesn’t ask of others what he wouldn’t do himself.”

“Len is that rarest of creatures,” said Holtz. “A journalist who can not only manage competently and kindly (a rare enough combination), but one who can find money that conforms with AHCJ’s funding rules, the strictest of any organization of our ilk.”

He added that Bruzzese “has led with joy and optimism, setting a welcoming tone from the top that has been an essential part of what draws members to join and support AHCJ’s mission. I can firmly declare that the most valuable act I ever performed for AHCJ was to seize on Len’s question and help draw him into our service.”

“I remember when Len started, we were at rock bottom,” said past board president Karl Stark, an editor with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We had no money in the bank and the place was hanging by a thread. Len built the place conference by conference and grant by grant. What he did was entrepreneurial in the best sense. His 15-year run has made a lot of good health journalists smarter and more interesting. How many people can say that?”

From all of us on the board of directors, past, present, and future: Thank you, Len.

Ivan Oransky, M.D., is vice president, editorial at Medscape and Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.