Best of Gannett 2011: The Courier-Journal at Louisville, the Statesman Journal at Salem, and the News-Star at Monroe Win Public Service Awards; Judges Praise Watchdog and Digital Work
The Courier-Journal at Louisville, Statesman Journal at Salem and The News-Star at Monroe won top Public Service honors in the 2011 Best of Gannett competition.
Overall, The Detroit Free Press won the most awards in Division I with eight citations. The Poughkeepsie Journal led Division II with six awards. And The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun topped Division III with five awards.
Eight top journalists from outside Gannett judged the entries in three circulation size divisions in the 35th year of the annual contest. They assessed work in eight categories in each division.
The judges were impressed by the range of strong work across Gannett. In particular, the judges praised the ability of many Information Centers to marshal their resources to cover big stories and to engage their audiences.
Also drawing praise: Digital coverage of breaking news, as well as digital components to winning entries in almost all categories.
Hard-hitting watchdog work and explanatory enterprise were cited as strengths, as were the use of databases and Freedom of Information requests.
“Many newspapers clearly set out to help their communities address problems and it appears that many succeeded in those efforts,” said one judge.” Another praised efforts of newspapers to facilitate discussions between residents and community leaders. “That’s community journalism at its finest,” the judge said.
A list of the judges appears at the end of this announcement.
Here are the results and the judges’ comments about each of the winning entries:
First place: The Courier-Journal at Louisville – For a series of staff reports that examined the potential impact of a plan to merge a state-run hospital with a health care system run by the Catholic Church. The newspaper’s persistence in seeking records and its questioning of planned policies led to a last-minute decision by the governor to reject the plan.
Judges’ comments: “Nearly every element is here for the classic recipe of journalism that separates the best community newspapers from all other voices today. The Courier-Journal brought its full arsenal to bear in pursuit of open records, including a successful legal challenge to the denial of the records request, strong explanatory reporting of health care issues, context of what the merger would mean in the rapidly shifting health care industry and what it might mean to patients. Social media and other digital tools were used to engage the public in the discussion and to mobilize public opinion.”
Second place: Robin Erb and Kristi Tanner, Detroit Free Press – For a three-day series that exposed widespread neglect and sub-standard conditions at nursing homes across Michigan. Following publication, lawmakers, state officials, safety advocates and others opened inquiries into the problems and pledged to change some regulatory approaches.
Judges’ comments: “This well-documented and powerfully told series took you inside the nursing home industry in Michigan. Reporters showed how poorly trained staff, understaffed facilities and poor conditions had led to injuries and deaths. First-person accounts from residents and family members humanized the problem. The series also showed why and how some nursing homes provide exceptional care and could serve as models for others. The series included a scorecard for every nursing home in the state, showing rankings, fines and violations in an easy-to-use digital format.”
Third Place: Bob Ortega, The Arizona Republic at Phoenix – For stories that exposed flaws in the security and management of prisons in the state. After the escape of three inmates from a privately run prison, the newspaper documented political and financial connections between a prison operator and state officials, a lack of oversight, a slow response to problems and underlying issues with sentencing.
Judges’ comments: “For six months, The Republic raised significant questions about proposals to expand private prisons and about the state’s sentencing practices. It persisted in pursuing public records across four states. The newspaper’s reporting and social media use led to increased public engagement and to changes in prison policy and oversight.”
First place: Michael Rose, Tracy Loew and Dick Hughes, Statesman Journal at Salem – For stories and editorials that revealed how engineering and construction flaws doomed a $34 million county office building and transit mall.
Judges’ comments: “The newspaper’s news and opinion pages documented a litany of missteps, indecisiveness, poor decisions and lack of accountability that ultimately led to the abandonment of Courthouse Square for safety reasons. The newspaper used multiple forms of storytelling, including excellent print and digital graphics, to explain the circumstances leading to a multimillion dollar failure. The project brings together the best of explanatory and investigative journalism on an important issue of accountability to the community.”
Second place: Mike Donoghue, The Burlington Free Press – For stories that revealed a lack of accountability in the Vermont court system for monitoring the use of criminal warrants.
Judges’ comments: “The Free Press’ reporting, stemming from a single case of a mishandled search warrant, led to reform efforts by the state legislature and state Supreme Court to better protect citizens’ rights. Dozens of articles documented the lack of tracking and accountability – in fact, stories described a near free-for-all approach by law enforcement to obtain warrants that were not recorded or tracked for results or for property seized.”
Third place: Mary Beth Pfeiffer, Poughkeepsie Journal – For ongoing investigations that uncovered deep flaws in the centers that care for developmentally disabled people in New York State, revealed disturbing cases of abuse and neglect and showed how some employees were protected from discipline.
Judges’ comments: “These reports recounted, in disturbing detail, how developmentally disabled residents of state institutions were abused – including cases in which abuse, neglect or incompetence resulted in a resident’s death. This is journalism that would not have been done were it not for the persistence and focus of a reporter who kept finding layer after layer of accountability issues. Her reporting forced the state to reopen investigations into some of the deaths and to review oversight, training and discipline approaches for employees at the state institutions.”
First place: The News-Star at Monroe – For coverage of a legislative redistricting debate that ended up threatening and then saving the local congressional seat.
Judges’ comments: “In both continuing news coverage and through a series of editorials, the News-Star made clear how much was at stake in the redistricting battle that pitted one part of the state against another as Louisiana grappled with how to reduce its congressional delegation by one. The debate swerved in several directions, all well chronicled in print and online coverage, before the local district was preserved in a last-minute maneuver.”
Second place: Dan Morris, The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun – For coverage of a college student’s alcohol-related death that led the state to consider clamping down on the sale of a 95-proof beverage.
Judges’ comments: “Amber Rice died after drinking Everclear, a drink that is almost pure alcohol. Morris followed up with a series that examined the circumstances surrounding the 18-year-old’s death. He found that the potent beverage is subject to the same regulations as a 6 percent alcoholic drink. And that triggered a legislative inquiry into revising alcohol regulations.”
(The judges awarded only first- and second-place prizes for Public Service in Division III.)
First place: Jennifer Dixon, Detroit Free Press – For an investigation that revealed that while Fannie Mae was publically touting its efforts to prevent home foreclosures, it was secretly pressuring banks to evict delinquent homeowners and to sell their houses, often for pennies on the dollar.
Judges’ comments: “This extraordinary work rises to the top of the mountain of reporting that has been done in recent years on Fannie Mae and the nation’s foreclosure crisis. Building on confidential documents, Dixon delivers a scathing account of the mortgage agency’s duplicity. She writes with force and clarity while meticulously documenting her indisputable findings. The series was a call to action for congressional leaders, who are pressing the agency and the White House for explanations and for change.”
Second place: Jorge Fitz-Gibbon and Jonathan Bandler, The Journal News at Westchester – For their deeply reported and clearly written investigation of the troubled reconstruction of Interstate 287.
Judges’ comments: “This is a topic from which many newspapers would have shied away. It is complicated. It is technical. And as the highway project’s title – the Cross-Westchester Expressway Comprehensive Reconstruction Project – suggests, it could be dreadfully dry. But Fitz-Gibbon and Bandler and The Journal News’ graphics, design and online teams did an outstanding job not only of making this engaging, but of revealing the lax management of this oft-delayed project. Their investigation resulted in significant reforms in how New York State manages major road construction.”
Third place: Jim Waymer, FLORIDA TODAY – For a probe into the effects of chemical waste left behind by a half-century of rocket and space-shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral.
Judges’ comments: “The most notable aspect of this report was the relentless pursuit of information by FLORIDA TODAY and Waymer. They had to battle NASA and the U.S. Air Force to obtain public records, databases and maps that would enable Waymer to assess the damage that decades of rocket launches had wrought to the environmentally sensitive areas of the Space Coast and in particular to a wildlife refuge. The reporter filed appeal after appeal, finally obtaining information the government had hidden from the public. The result was a clear and concise report that documents the damage and the cost of the cleanup.”
First place: Jeff Burlew, Tallahassee Democrat – For reporting that revealed a nonprofit agency brought to the city to help close the digital socioeconomic divide was in fact a front for telecommunications giant AT&T — and that the mayor had ethically questionable ties to the agency.
Judges’ comments: “Burlew did an outstanding job of pulling back the cover of the Alliance for Digital Equality, mining documents to expose the group as a front for AT&T. He also revealed that Tallahassee’s mayor pushed a partnership with the group even though he had financial ties with both the nonprofit and AT&T. Burlew’s probe has led to an ongoing FBI investigation.”
Second place: Jamie Page, Pensacola News Journal – For an exposé of cronyism in Escambia County government.
Judges’ comments: “The Escambia County Equestrian Center might not be the first place a reporter might look for government corruption. But Page found just that, uncovering cronyism that had led the county to hire as the marketing and promotions director of the center a man who had no qualifications, and at a salary higher than was publicly posted. Page revealed that the director was a friend and political contributor of a county commissioner who pushed for the hire. The public outcry resulting from the story was great and the unqualified man was removed from the position.”
Third place: The Burlington Free Press – For staff coverage of “The Embezzlement Epidemic,” stories that shined a light on lack of financial oversight of Vermont’s local governments and on the resultant rash in thefts by public officials.
Judges’ comments: “This is a sterling example of a newspaper connecting the dots in its community to reveal a systemic failure. After covering episodic thefts and embezzlements by local officials, the Free Press elevated its prism to explore what was happening statewide — and why. The newspaper discovered that Vermont has the fewest number of auditors in the country and an appalling absence of oversight and safeguards. The series has sparked significant public discussion and debate in Vermont.”
First place: Dan Morris, The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun – For a sophisticated investigation into Tennessee’s criminal-sentencing system and for Steve Coffman’s hard-hitting editorial.
Judges’ comments: “Sparked by the murder of a local business leader by a convict who had been released early from prison, this project documented in stark and shocking detail how Tennessee routinely releases dangerous convicts well before their sentences have been served, and how, time and again, innocent citizens have paid the price with their property and sometimes their lives.”
Second place: Jeff Mitchell, Salinas Californian — For a series of stories on the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, a public entity that operated behind a wall of secrecy.
Judges’ comments: “The most admirable aspect of this compelling body of work was the relentless manner in which Mitchell determined to break through the veil this agency had placed around itself. Ultimately, the newspaper succeeded, revealing to its readers that the hospital was in dire financial condition and might be violating health and safety codes.”
Third place: Angela Mullins, The Times Herald of Port Huron — For an examination and analysis of the salaries of administrators in local school districts, a story that required a significant battle to secure public records.
Judges’ comments: “This series demonstrated several important qualities that are the foundation of any good newspaper: an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer when it comes to access to the public’s records; an open-minded approach to reporting that begins with a good, simple, organizing question and powerful, effective execution of the findings. Most admirably, even after battling districts to pry loose salary information, Mullins was fair-minded enough to present the surprising conclusion that, contrary to public perception, most of these districts were not overpaying their administrators relative to other districts in Michigan.”
First place: Detroit Free Press – For “Reading Works,” a staff project aimed at addressing Detroit’s high rate of illiteracy. The newspaper partnered with Wayne State University, community leaders and media partners to develop content and action plans that address the city’s “silent shame.”
Judges’ comments: “This stands as the best example of community leadership for several reasons: its ambitious goal to improve and change the lives of almost half of the city’s citizens by giving them reasons to become literate; the depth and breadth of the partnerships in the community; and the sustained effort, including a dedicated Website and fund-raising efforts – this was not a one-time group of stories. ‘Reading Works’ aimed to build a better-educated workforce and a culture of learning and it united a broad range of people and groups in that effort.”
Second place: The Arizona Republic at Phoenix – For “Armed: The Lore and Lifestyle of Guns in Arizona,” a project that examined the role of firearms in state politics, commerce and life and that placed in context an issue that has been debated since before Arizona became a state.
Judges’ comments: “The Republic’s work was exhaustively researched, written with grace and authority, and arrestingly illustrated. Following the Giffords’ shootings, many in the state began to question what they saw as a lenient attitude toward guns. This work provided context for that debate, covering the issue from many angles and capturing the emotions on all sides. This is exactly the kind of work newspapers should be doing.”
Third place: Democrat and Chronicle at Rochester – For “Let’s Move, RocKids!” a social gaming initiative aimed at teaching youngsters from 4 to 12 what it means to live a healthy lifestyle.
Judges’ comments: “What a unique approach to storytelling – games! The interactivity, competition and prizes were all perfect elements to engage the target audience. The project drew an impressive level of involvement with more than 4,100 kids from 115 schools competing. There was a nice breadth of content here, from healthy eating to fitness to sports. The initiative was packed with information and presented in an enjoyable and engaging way that immersed the kids in the content.”
First place: John Penney, Poughkeepsie Journal – For crusading editorials and community conversations that focused attention on domestic violence and the criminal justice system’s failure to help victims.
Judges’ comments: “Seldom do we hear of the media making a strong social and judicial impact in a community. The Poughkeepsie Journal did just that, thanks to the efforts of one editor who uncovered facts and switched on the media spotlight on the issue of domestic violence. Three women had died at the hands of partners who should have been incarcerated, and the Journal looked at how those offenders were able to stay free to commit murder. The weeklong editorial series led to changes that can save lives.”
Second place: Gannett Wisconsin Media newspapers – For a collaborative effort by 10 Information Centers that investigated the state’s management of the deer population.
Judges’ comments: “This statewide reporting effort began by following up on complaints by hunters and relied upon exhaustive legwork by staffers at Gannett’s 10 Wisconsin properties. This partnership delved into an issue that matters to the state’s economy and that captures the imagination of residents. The facts and issues will help to shape future state hunting regulations. The project included impressive use of data and video, and it included an especially impressive interactive graphic.”
Third place: Sarah Bradshaw, Poughkeepsie Journal – For an investigation into the proliferation of unlicensed taxis and the safety problems they cause.
Judges’ comments: “This package is a winner because of the instant impact it made in the community. In the days after Bradshaw’s story appeared, cabbies inundated the city to find out what they needed to do to comply with regulations. The reporting shined a bright light on a problem and helped officials see their way to making quick solutions, including streamlining licensing procedures. Impressive were the deep reporting, use of databases and good old fashioned on-the-street reporting. Graphics provided a great service to the community as well.”
First place: News Journal at Mansfield – For ‘VisionQuest,’ a multi-part special section aimed at helping community leaders tackle the region’s job losses and economic problems.
Judges’ comments: “The ‘VisionQuest’ sections took a smart, localized approach to the biggest challenge facing the city. They held elected officials accountable for growth, highlighted organizations that are working to improve their surroundings and provided a place for readers to engage with the city’s brain trust.
Second place: Justin Hinkley, Battle Creek Enquirer – For a multi-part series “Whole child, whole community,” that explored how well Battle Creek is preparing its youngest residents for success and that highlighted inconsistencies in education and achievement.
Judges’ comments: “Hinkley used extensive data analysis, public records and tough interviews with troubled characters to show how Battle Creek’s schools and community leaders have fallen short. He suggested ways they can improve, as well. A product of Battle Creek himself, Hinkley provides unique insight and sets thought-provoking scenes.”
Third place: Cindy Hodgson, Herald Times at Manitowoc – For aggressive reporting into the challenges facing local school districts’ 69 homeless children after two were arrested for sleeping at their high school.
Judges’ comments: “In a three-part package that coupled homeless students’ tales with school administrators efforts, the Herald Times Reporter took an insightful and thorough look at a particularly troubling subset of the region’s homeless population. Her reporting prompted donations and support by residents and renewed efforts by shelters.”
First place: The Arizona Republic at Phoenix – For fast, responsible and wide-ranging coverage of the Tucson-area shootings that killed six and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Judges’ comments: “This was comprehensive coverage of a national story of enormous importance and impact. The newspaper dominated initial social media and digital coverage thanks to its commitment to both accuracy and speed during a chaotic media frenzy. The Republic built coverage based on confirmed facts and quickly added description, emotion and context to the building story on digital platforms. Its next-day print coverage was exhaustive, dramatic and insightful as it addressed local emotions and national issues.”
Second place: Detroit Free Press — For quick and comprehensive coverage of the death of assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian.
Judges’ comments: “This was a case of jumping on a piece of information with a tweet and a Facebook post to break the story to the world and to set the agenda for coverage. The newspaper quickly posted a mix of content including an obit, photo galleries and stories that traced Kevorkian’s career and controversies. It beat its local and national competition from early morning when the news broke and throughout the day. Reaction stories were added continuously. The next day’s print edition placed Kevorkian’s life in historical context.”
Third place: Reno Gazette-Journal – For immediate and extensive coverage of wildfires that destroyed dozens of homes and startled the community.
Judges’ comments: “As soon as the story broke on a Friday evening, the staff jumped into digital coverage with bulletins, updates, breaking news video, extensive reporting and social media use that helped to inform the community. Print coverage quickly showed the toll of the fires and captured the emotions of residents.”
First place: Poughkeepsie Journal – For comprehensive coverage of the first Poughkeepsie police officer to die in the line of duty, shot while dealing with a domestic violence dispute.
Judges’ comments: “This is a textbook example of deploying almost an entire staff on breaking news while adopting a digital-first mentality that set the stage for dynamic, second-day print editions. The work was pitch-perfect for each storytelling platform. The constant flow of information and updates to the newspaper’s website as well as the depth of reporting were impressive. The staff can be proud of its work here in helping a community and a police force deal with a horrific action.”
Second place: Green Bay Press-Gazette — For coverage of the Super Bowl and the Packers’ 2011 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that went well beyond the expectations for sports coverage.
Judges’ comments: “We expect the staff of a town as football-obsessed as Green Bay to excel at covering their hometown team. The Press-Gazette’s coverage of Super Bowl XLV met and exceeded those expectations. The print treatment was exceptional, with a special edition and a next-day wrap anchoring extensive coverage. The online presentation was complete and up-to-the-minute with its use of blogs, videos and social media that captured the emotions of fans and the drama of the scene as the game progressed.”
Third place: St. Cloud Times – For coverage of the Swany Flour Mill fire.
Judges’ comments: “For a small-market newspaper, the St. Cloud Times covered the Swany Flour Mill fire as if it were a major metro daily covering a big regional disaster – with a skeleton after-Christmas staff. The newspaper impressed us by quickly posting an initial story online and then updating it six times in two hours. We applaud the reporter, who remembered his ‘newsroom of the future’ training and took an engaging video to post right away. Later videos covering the aftermath were edited interview pieces that would have fit on a TV broadcast. Print coverage captured the mill’s significance for residents.”
First Place: Times Recorder at Zanesville – For coverage of the release of 56 tigers, bears and wolves and the suicide of the proprietor of a wild animal farm who released them.
Judges’ comments: “This extraordinary story captured the attention of the world. The Times Recorder marshaled its small staff and leveraged its relationship with its television partner to produce comprehensive coverage that touched on every detail of this bizarre event. It broke news, told the story of the community and of the residents, and throughout was fresh and engaging in its storytelling.”
Second place: The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun – For coverage of two back-to-back storms that hit between print cycles, which meant the dominant coverage of each was online.
Judges’ comments: “The Sun’s coverage of the two storms that battered the area is a reflection of how breaking news has evolved to a digital product. The first storm hit late at night, past the first day’s print edition deadlines, and the second storm hit the next day. While the newsroom covered them both completely online using video, photo galleries, social media and updated stories, the print edition was a well-presented overview (with a terrific A1 photo) that arrived a day and a half after the storms first hit.”
Third place: The Reporter at Fond du Lac – For coverage of the shooting death of a police officer.
Judges’ comments: “Coverage of an early morning shooting that left one policeman dead and another officer and a K9 dog injured was comprehensive and well-executed, using digital elements such as video, photo galleries and social media to get the information out in addition to seven updates to the story. Concurrently, the newsroom staff came up with stories about the neighborhood, the shooter and a piece about the three policemen who had been killed in Fond du Lac since 1898. The print edition pulled all these elements together well, and promoted the online content well.”
First place: Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki and Kristi Tanner, Detroit Free Press – For stories that exposed widespread grade-fixing and cheating on standardized tests in Michigan schools.
Judges’ comments: “This is an important topic and a difficult one for which to get on-the-record information and comments. The work was swift and had great impact: an inspector general’s ongoing investigation into the grade-fixing, a review of state (achievement) scores by the state department of education based on the Free Press reporting and data analysis, and a deeper examination of how the state investigates suspected cheating. There was great database work used to spot anomalies and trends in test scores over time. Following those leads helped to uncover 34 schools with a high probability of cheating. This was a nice mix of data and narrative.”
Second place: Dave Breitenstein, The News-Press at Fort Myers – For relentlessly and methodically exposing a series of troubling issues at Edison State College, including ethical breaches by administrators, questionable executive compensation and academic problems.
Judges’ comments: “Over a nine-month period, Breitenstein showed, among other things, that the school misled students into thinking the nursing program had national accreditation and there was a lack of legally required documentation for board meetings. Compensation issues for the school’s president were unraveled and explained. This reporting eventually led to the resignation or firing of several board members and the firing of the school’s president.”
Third place: Tina Lam, Detroit Free Press – For an exhaustive examination into the invasion of the Asian Carp in the Great Lakes that explained the environmental and economic issues at risk.
Judges’ comments: “The reporting explained all sides of the complex environmental issue and showed that while one part of the county is spending millions of federal dollars to keep the Asian Carp from migrating into its waters, another part is doing little to help. We liked the approach of separating fact from fiction and debunking some common misconceptions. This was among the best entries to use both digital and print to tell a story – there was a strong documentary video, engaging online graphics and an excellent print read.”
First place: Mary Beth Pfeiffer, Poughkeepsie Journal – For two separate database investigations by the newspaper’s projects reporter on an historic yet unnoticed decline in prison population and on public employees’ abuse of overtime.
Judges’ comments: “These separate database projects are prime examples of the power of computer-assisted reporting and were among the best original reporting seen in this year’s contest. Each project uncovered powerful trends that are likely to alter the course of this community. And each one brought raw data to life with narratives that showed why readers should care about the findings.”
Second place: Cody Winchester, Argus Leader at Sioux Falls – For environmental beat reporting that included an examination of the Army Corp of Engineers’ controversial handling of flooding and an investigation into the former governor’s questionable work with a company that does business with the state,
Judges’ comments: These stories included hard-hitting enterprise, thoughtful features and excellent explanatory work on a topic of central importance to this region. Strong reporting, an excellent eye for a story and clear writing elevated the work.”
Third place: Candace Page, The Burlington Free Press – For a series of environmental beat stories including pieces on home petroleum spills and on a fungus raging through the local bat population.
Judges’ comments: “This beat reporter covers a wide range of environmental stories affecting the people of the Burlington area. However, one story in particular stood apart – a piece on the largely undocumented but costly problem of home and small business gasoline and oil spills. Through personal accounts, the reporter captured the problem and the effects of dealing with it – these small spills cost Vermonters more than $100 million in the last two decades. A good mix of statistical data and personal stories helped readers understand the issues.”
First place: Tajuana Cheshier, The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun — For a wide range of education stories that showcased the reporter’s knowledge of the subject and ability to make issues hit home for readers.
Judges’ comments: Cheshier deftly profiled young teachers concerned about their career paths in an era of reform, dug deep to uncover the root causes for the failure of a 168-year-old private college, and provided breaking-news updates of developing stories with text messages and short stories. She showed herself to be an aggressive questioner and a sensitive storyteller – a model for a beat reporter at a newspaper of any size.”
Second place: Emily Schettler, Iowa City Press-Citizen – For her precise and easy-to-understand coverage of the use of tax-increment financing in the area.
Judges’ comments: “The best beat reporters not only keep their noses to the ground, staying on top of significant developments that public deserves to know, they lift their noses when need be to provide necessary context, explanation and questioning. Schettler did just that with her coverage of how the small city of Coralville was using tax-increment financing to lure businesses away from nearby cities in a fashion clearly outside the legislative intention of the tool. Her explanation of how such financing works was the best we had seen in a publication of any size.”
Third place: Eric Litke and Dan Benson, The Sheboygan Press – For their coverage of controversy surrounding the mayor.
Judges’ comments: “There is a maxim among investigative reporters that when you fire at a powerful local officials, it’s best to make sure it’s not a glancing blow. Litke and Benson scored a bull’s eye with their revelation that the mayor, an admitted alcoholic who said he was in recovery treatment, was in fact struggling with the disease and in very public fashion that included physical confrontations and alleged sexual harassment.”
First place: Janine Zeitlin, The News-Press at Fort Myers – For “Loving Ingrid,” an extraordinarily crafted love story that confronts the real-life heartbreak of a marriage — and a family — blindsided by tragedy.
Judges’ comments: “Zeitlin’s four-part narrative is elegant, but her storytelling is never cliche or saccharine. She weaves this saga with bitter honesty and raw emotion, offering a story not of a perfect marriage gone off course, but of a family with its own flaws trying to find a way forward.”
Second place: John Faherty, The Arizona Republic at Phoenix – For the story of three Arizona teenagers – all of them immigrants living in the country illegally – who sought to graduate high school while living on their own.
Judges’ comments: “Faherty puts a remarkably human face on the immigration debate in a state where some are working tirelessly to shut down the border. There is exceptional reporting at work here as well as image-filled writing. “On their Own” uses painstaking detail to paint a unique family portrait, one filled with equal parts loss and hope, isolation and anticipation.”
Third place: Shaun McKinnon, The Arizona Republic at Phoenix – For a haunting reconstruction of the events that led up to the Tucson shooting that left six dead and wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others.
Judges’ comments: “McKinnon produced a chilling tale of how an ordinary winter weekend turned into mass murder chaos. Built upon detail after detail and well-paced, this story has a gritty crime novel feel: The reader knows the outcome from the start but hangs on anyway, somehow hoping for an alternative ending.”
First place: Candace Page, The Burlington Free Press – For “Flood amnesia,” stories that chronicle the damage wrought by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene and show why Vermonters continue to live — and rebuild — in the floodplain.
Judges’ comments: “The Burlington Free Press and reporter Page don’t scold riverfront residents for their ‘flood amnesia.’ In a multi-part series bubbling over with musical prose and vivid detail, the paper examines the locals’ complicated and poignant connection to the Tweed River.”
Second place: Thomas Patterson, Statesman Journal at Salem – For his work documenting the life and love of a long-married couple staring down Alzheimer’s disease in “Life in a Constant State of Leaving.”
Judges’ comments: “Thomas Patterson is a photographer by trade, not a reporter. But in this writing project he used his sharp eye for detail and a natural sense of storytelling to produce a narrative rich with sense of place and pitch-perfect voice. This is an artful family portrait, told beautifully.”
Third place: Louise Knott Ahern, Lansing State Journal – For her story about Caleb Jarvis, a high school student struggling with obesity.
Judges’ comments: “Reporting on obesity is nothing new. But it’s rare to present a character as brutally honest, and as openly self-conscious, as an overweight high schooler. Ahern doesn’t rely on cliches or sugar-coat the situation; she artfully expresses the anguish, the shame and the judgment. ”
First place: Adam Rodewald, Oshkosh Northwestern – For “Miracle on Hold,” the well-told story of a 13-year-old girl trapped in a coma-like state for nearly two years.
Judges’ comments: Rodewald uses gripping description, a clean narrative arc and a thorough grasp of complicated science to capture the anguish, desperation and fervent faith of the girl’s parents, who fear their daughter may never wake up. This is a first-rate story.”
Second place: Tricia Brown, Iowa City Press-Citizen – For a touching story about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and the disintegrating lives of those who suffer from it, told through the lens of Ann Murray, who was diagnosed with the disease at age 56.
Judges’ comments: “The prose in the Press-Citizen’s story ‘Mind Thief’ isn’t flashy or flowery — but it flows seamlessly. This is a heartbreaking account of golden years cut short, one that uses seemingly ordinary examples to express the confusion and panic of a life with diminishing self-awareness. ”
Third place: Rob McCurdy, News Journal at Mansfield — For “Six-Legged Runner,” a story that chronicles blind student athlete Sami Stoner’s efforts to run competitively with her guide dog, Chloe.
Judges’ comments: “McCurdy doesn’t take a traditional approach to this story; he’s not an advocate for Stoner per se. Instead, he crafts a tale that ranges from the politics of high school athletic departments to the efforts to condition a dog for long-distance running, providing a fascinating look at an incredibly unusual case.”
First place: Suzette Hackney and Romain Blanquart, Detroit Free Press – For “Living with Murder,” an extensive examination of the toll murder takes on Detroit and its residents, told on a variety of platforms.
Judges’ comments: “This is an example of strong public service journalism presented through a variety of digital approaches including documentary video (with a score created by a local music producer), an interactive map and tailored approaches for tablets and mobile. The article content is detailed, well-reported and well-told, and the multimedia aspects are engaging, dramatic and informative. The newspaper also engaged readers in social media and arranged a community town hall to discuss the issue.”
Second place: The Arizona Republic at Phoenix – For “Arizona Storytellers,” a year-long collaboration with television and college partners that combined multimedia, broadcast and community engagement to mark the state’s 100th birthday by telling the stories of the people, places and events that shaped the state’s first century.
Judges’ comments: “The compelling strengths of this project are the human faces and voices that provide a powerful narrative of time and place. Top-quality images with moving stories connected with the community, as evidenced by the diverse participation in story-telling events hosted by the newspaper. There were no fancy maps or flash graphics, just a newspaper and a TV station and their community telling heartfelt stories. This is how you keep a news organization relevant.”
Third place: The Des Moines Register – For dominant digital coverage of the campaigning in advance of the Iowa Caucuses, coverage that engaged readers on a variety of platforms and encouraged their real-time participation in offering their views.
Judges’ comments: “There were research and comparison database tools that voters could use, quick, live reporting of events, comments, and reactions and video. The newspaper created a central site for all blogs and took other steps that made it easy for people to find information, follow issues and lend their own thoughts. This was very interactive, very useful and very user-friendly.”
First Place: Statesman Journal at Salem – For the micro-site and the digital engagement created to help tell an investigative report on the reasons behind the failure of a massive courthouse office building and transit mall project.
Judges’ comments: “The staff constructed an omnibus micro-site that expanded on the issues presented for print readers. In addition to aggregating stories, editorials, documents, videos, and archived discussions, the newspaper created interactive timelines and graphics that included a fly-through of the building. A courthouse calculator gives readers a real-time estimate of how much the empty building is costing taxpayers.”
Second place: Chris Gregory, Poughkeepsie Journal – For an interactive graphics package that celebrated the 100th birthday of the area’s largest employer, IBM, with current and historic materials.
Judges’ comments: “This was a dynamic and entertaining approach that used a rare recording of an old IBM company song to set up a century of scenes from the tech giant. It was exceptionally well done.”
Third place: The Burlington Free Press – For fast and compelling digital coverage of the nation’s first fatal shooting at an Occupy encampment.
Judges’ comments: “The newspaper used tweets and social media to break the story and quickly followed up with compelling video and photo galleries of the event. Especially strong was the video of a suspect’s arrest that showed her dragged away by police as protestors chanted “let her go.”
First place: Aaron Hardin, The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun – For a powerful multimedia package, including a gripping interview with the widow of a murder victim, that brought home the impact of Tennessee’s flawed sentencing laws.
Judges’ comments: “The anchor piece of the Sun’s digital work is a gripping sound-slide package with images of a murdered man and his family and an audio interview with his wife. Other pieces include a video interview with the district attorney and documents that underscore the newspaper’s analysis of the situation.”
Second place: Patrick Riepe, Iowa City Press-Citizen – For six days of live blogging, including interaction with residents, from the sexual assault trial of a University of Iowa football player.
Judges’ comments: “Live blogging of a news event is a skill all its own, requiring one to watch and report simultaneously in short takes, field readers’ questions and comments while monitoring the event, report both the key news moments and interesting detail – with brevity. The best live bloggers do it with a conversational style. The Press-Citizen’s reporter scored a home run on all counts.”
(The judges awarded only first- and second-place prizes for Digital Journalism in Division III.)
First place: Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic at Phoenix – For striking videos, photos and slide shows that documented the way members of Native American tribes are trying to maintain connections to their rich past.
Judges’ comments: “Henle earned the trust of family members, who invited him into their lives. The result was a powerful collection of images and voices that told the story of past generations and their struggles, triumphs and dreams, from a look at why sheepherding is fading away to the art of growing corn in harsh conditions. Readers saw and heard glimpses of lifestyles and language that are becoming increasingly rare.”
Second place: Matt Kryger, The Indianapolis Star – For breaking news photo coverage of the collapse of a concert stage at the Indiana State Fair that killed seven people and injured dozens of others.
Judges’ comments: “The Star’s photographer made the most out of being at the right place when a major news story broke. Images of the collapsed stage, scaffolding and shocked concert goers are dramatic, emotional and telling.
Third place: William Archie, Kathleen Galligan and Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press – For documenting the emotion that gripped a small town after a high school basketball player died minutes after leading his team to the win that capped an undefeated season.
Judges’ comments: “This was an extraordinary portrayal that celebrated a young life even as it showed the story of his town’s collective reaction to his death. The photos were powerful yet not invasive.”
First place: Springfield News-Leader – For staff photo coverage of a tornado that killed at least 112 people in and around Joplin, MO.
Judges’ comments: “This entry rose to the top because of the sheer power of the visuals and the utility of the coverage. Starting with a wrap-around double-truck photo, the photography was powerful, moving and played appropriately large for the severity of the event. The newspaper did a great job of marrying the overview of destruction image with intimate portraits of fear and hope.”
Second place: Great Falls Tribune – For multifaceted coverage of the life and death of the world’s oldest man, a resident of Great Falls.
Judges’ comments: “Upon the death of Walter Breuning at age 114, the Great Falls Tribune captured his long and fascinating life through an exhaustive range of visual and auditory elements. Some images dated back to 1907 and photo galleries plus a wide range of video pieces painted a portrait of a man and an era.”
Third place: Michael Heinz, Journal & Courier at Lafayette – For photos and videos that documented an all-too-common reconstructive surgery that befalls young athletes.
Judges’ comments: “Evocative still photos and a four-part video series traced one high school athlete’s experience with an ACL injury from her pre-surgery nerves to the operating room itself to her rehab and recovery. The result is a personal and compelling behind-the-scenes look at the experience. This is a strong example of good visual journalism done in different ways for print and digital.”
First place: Doug Sundin, Herald Times Reporter at Manitowoc – For breaking news photo coverage of President Obama’s visit to Manitowoc County.
Judges’ comments: “This was a web-to-print story. The photos were a great mix of formal and behind the scenes images and helped the reader feel as though he or she was following along with the presidential entourage all day. The photos were technically strong and told the story of the event as seen through the eyes of the community.”
Second place: Jeff Richards, Star-Gazette at Elmira – For visual coverage of devastating floods in the Elmira area and their aftermath.
Judges’ comments: ‘”The judges were impressed with the courage and range of Jeff Richards and applaud his editors for giving the photos the necessary space to convey the story and emotion on Page One, inside the newspaper and in digital photo galleries. These images told the news and conveyed the emotions of residents.”
Third place: Times Herald, at Port Huron – For elegant and artful coverage of the Mackinac Sailboat Race.
We thank the eight journalists who judged the 2011 Best of Gannett competition for their dedication, careful attention, and professionalism. The judges were:
Gil Asakawa, manager of student media, University of Colorado
David Boardman,, editor, The Seattle Times
Sherry Chisenhall, editor, Wichita Eagle
Jeff Cohen, editor, Houston Chronicle
Anders Gyllenhaal, vice president for news and Washington editor, McClatchy Company
Christine Montgomery, chief digital officer, Center for Public Integrity and past president, Online News Association board of directors
Sandy Malcolm, vice president, programming and production, PlayonSports.com
Emily Ramshaw, editor, Texas Tribune