SDX 2001 Awards Gallery
A story that makes a bond
By Vicky Katz Whitaker
“I’ve met the woman of my dreams who owns the dog of my nightmares.”
It was a brilliant opening line followed by a Texas columnist’s first-person account of his courtship. It made me laugh, it made me cry, but most of all, it made me care. That’s what columns should do.
When I was a fledgling journalist, I thought that columnists had the cushiest jobs in the news business. They didn’t have to sit through endless school board meetings like I did, be buffeted by police at a crime scene or, after a fatal accident, interview distraught relatives. What I learned, in time, is that if they’re good columnists, they do that and more. What separates the good from the great, however, is the passion and skill with which they tell the story.
Over the past two decades, I’ve judged hundreds, perhaps thousands of columns submitted by writers from large and small newspapers around the country. Some are memorable like that Texas columnist who received first place in a national competition nearly a decade ago. Most of the others I’d rather forget. The worst entries suffered from uninspired writing and sloppy sentence structure. Columns like that usually are eliminated in the initial round.
The first real step in the selection process starts with a careful re-evaluation of the remaining entries with an eye toward the three C’s: consistency in style, clarity and crisp writing. Interestingly, in judging columns, tone and topic are meaningless. The most serious subjects can be addressed with humor and the silliest with a tug of the heart. What does count in the judging process – as in real life – is how well the writer can relate the tale to his or her readers.
Unlike reporters, columnists need not string a series of facts together in their first graph – unless, of course, they want to. Instead, they can meander through a story, stopping along the way to share an insight or fact before moving on to the next thought. They can move from pain to passion within a few words, forming a bond with readers in a matter of sentences.
The best columnists raise the public consciousness, explain complex issues, zero in on corruption, prick egos or create superheroes in a couple of paragraphs. They can move people to action, make them laugh or make them cry, like the journalist from Texas whose column makes me smile to this day. That’s awesome.
Vicky Katz Whitaker is a freelance journalist.
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Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times
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Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez knows when to make a joke and when to take a stand.
When five local teenagers were accused of gang raping two local girls and beating the girls’ boyfriends, Lopez went beyond his personal disgust with the teens responsible for the attacks. In “Searching for Hope at a Place of Horror,” Lopez reported one of the assailants’ confessions:
The attack, which reads like a war crime, was sickening enough. But there was something just as repugnant in the jailhouse confession two of the suspects made to a Times reporter. Though they expressed remorse, there was an almost casual tone of detachment. Yeah, hey, we got high and it happened. Sorry.
“It all seemed like a fantasy – not a fantasy, just a dream,” said 19-year-old Erick Oswaldo Dominguez. While he was raping the 13-year-old, he said, she begged him not to kill her. After they dumped the girls, he told his friends: “I can’t believe we just did that. Keep your mouths shut and act like nothing happened.”
The column also included interviews with concerned parents, worried teenagers and local clergy.
“ ... Steve Lopez’s engaging, story-telling style is in the tradition of great American columnists,” judges said. “His columns are fun to read, yet moving when he turns to serious subjects. In a field with beautifully honed entries, Lopez’s work sits at the top.”
On the still sentimental yet humorous side of his work, Lopez jokes about celebrity benefits and just deserts in “Playing Footsie With a Dragon’s Basic Instinct.” Actress Sharon Stone’s husband, newspaper editor Phil Bronstein, got a trip to the emergency room after entering the pen of a Komodo dragon. Stone had arranged for Bronstein and the dragon to meet as a Father’s Day gift.
And what does this dragon do upon realizing that a member of the media has dropped by unannounced?
It goes for the newspaper editor like a shark after a chum. It chomps down on his big toe with the Jaws of Life and won’t let go.
Living in the center of the nation’s worst traffic, Lopez also explores L.A. County’s relationship with carpooling with jokes and emotion.
Lopez tells the tale of his own passenger-for-hire experience. Stuck in heavy traffic on his way to Lynwood, Lopez enviously stares at the cars whizzing past in the carpool lane. In hopes of getting ahead, Lopez pulls into a Home Depot and hires a passenger for $25.
“People would rather hire a passenger than endure the inconvenience of making carpool arrangements with a neighbor or office mate,” he wrote.
“People in Los Angeles say that Steve Lopez’s thrice-weekly column is the best of the genre ever published in Southern California,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Many of his columns are hilarious, but also revealing, treatments of serious topics.”
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Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post
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Sports columnist Sally Jenkins has tackled everything from the death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt to the abolishment of Little League.
“Jenkins, whose style and grace bring a fresh perspective to our sports pages, is opinionated, wise, funny, sharp and absorbing,” said George Solomon, Assistant Managing Editor/Sports for The Washington Post.
Sally Jenkins covered the story of Little Leaguer Danny Almonte, the 14-year-old, Dominican-born boy with an arm of gold that illegally played for a 12-and-under team:
Let’s pause for a moment and congratulate ourselves. We (the adults) have criminalized a 14-year-old for playing a game. We’ve done it by buying into a petty, corroded, backbiting vehicle called Little League, and if you ask me, that’s the proper target of censure in this situation – not the kids. Get rid of it. That’s right, that’s what I said. Get rid of Little League, and let’s not give the screaming soccer moms and dads a pass either.
The kids will play without us. Children used to make their own fun. They went into a field, drew a few lines with chalk or flour, and chose up sides. And you know what? It worked. They quarreled, made up, and hardly ever lost perspective the way adults do.
In the same heart-to-heart tone, Jenkins celebrated the life and influence of Katharine Graham. She uses Graham as an opportunity to talk about successful female leaders – in the sports world and elsewhere.
Jenkins’s columns keep one eye on the big news and another on her readers’ hearts. Addressing the death of Earnhardt, Jenkins took her audience into the world of racing and the greasy garages where the passion all begins:
In Dale Earnhardt’s death, the larger meanings collide with lesser ones. Racing is a sport about progress, and perfectibility, but it’s also about clans and running down dirt roads, looking for a fast way out of the dull inertia of small towns. It’s a sport in which a kid with a ninth-grade education peers into the depths of an engine and grasps the Newtonian concepts that can free him from pumping gas, but also possibly kill him.
“Jenkins’ writings are sensitive, thoughtful, relevant and persuasive,” judges said. “Even though this was a difficult category to judge – all the entries were outstanding – she was the clear-out winner.”
The events of Sept. 11 spawned “As Many Soldier On, Athletes’ Relevance Fades Away.” The column centers on the quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur that is painted on the wall of a gym at West Point: “Upon of the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruit of victory.”
Jenkins said that MacArthur’s words are “not as true as they once were,” and that the tragedy and attention paid to America and the military put athletes “in context.”
Ballplayers are great, and great ballplayers are especially great, but they aren’t nearly as moving or reassuring at the moment as national guardsmen, welders, doctors and plebes.