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SPJ announces winners of new national award honoring collaborative public service journalism by ethnic and mainstream news media

SPJ News

Terry Harper, executive director, (317) 927-8000 ext. 220 or tharper@spj.org
Heather Porter, assistant director of programs, (317) 927-8000 ext. 204 or hporter@spj.org

New York, June 10, 2005 – The Society of Professional Journalists has announced the first winners of its new national award. The New America Award is designed to honor collaborative public service journalism by ethnic and mainstream news media working together to explore and expose issues of importance to immigrant or ethnic communities in the United States.

The announcement of the winners of the SPJ New America Award was made by SPJ National President Irwin Gratz at the first National Expo of Ethnic Media held June 9 in New York City at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

First Place went to Mary C. Johns, editor in chief, and Beauty Turner, assistant editor, of Residents’ Journal and Brian J. Rogal, associate editor of The Chicago Reporter, for “Deadly Moves,” a collection of investigative stories on Chicago public housing. The series exposed unforeseen but deadly flaws in the way the city was relocating some 25,000 families from obsolete projects into new mixed-income neighborhoods.

Alyssa Katz of City Limits and Abu Taher of Bangla Patrika won second place for their joint investigation into how Bangladeshi push cart food vendors in Central Park were exploited by a private company with a lucrative contract that paid millions of dollars to New York City while failing to protect its workers.

Third Place went to The Orange County Register and its Spanish-language weekly affiliate, Excélsior del Condado de Orange, for jointly publishing “Toxic Treats” or “Dulces Tóxicos,” a series of investigative reports. Their stories exposed extensive lead contamination in popular candies imported from Mexico and widely consumed by children in immigrant communities.

Gratz said the judges were impressed by the fact the stories went deeper and had greater impact as a result of the collaboration between the two publications involved.

“In all three cases, each news organization, ethnic and mainstream, brought important journalistic resources to the enterprise to produce stories that neither could have done as effectively working alone. That’s exactly what we were hoping to encourage and reward when we created this new award,” he said.

The winners will receive their awards at the society’s annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards banquet to be held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on July 8.

The new award was unanimously authorized last year by the society’s board of directors after it was jointly proposed by Sally Lehrman, chair of the society’s Diversity Committee, and Guy T. Baehr, chair of the society’s Awards and Honors Committee.

Baehr said the award grew out of a suggestion from Sandy Close, executive director of New California Media, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes ethnic media nationally, and that he and Lehrman consulted closely with both NCM and the Independent Press Association, which has projects to promote ethnic publications in New York and Chicago.

“The Society of Professional Journalists has been a force for encouraging exemplary journalism in the United States since it was founded in 1909. This award is part of an effort by SPJ to continue and expand that role as the United States becomes ever more diverse in both its population and its journalism,” said Baehr.
Lehrman said, “We hope we see more collaborations like these, as they can bring an extraordinary depth and relevancy to coverage of the new America. The ethnic media maintain a deep knowledge of community, including key sources, context and history, which they can integrate with mainstream outlets’ investigative talents and access to policymakers.”

“Deadly Moves,” the first place entry by The Chicago Reporter and Residents’ Journal, was notable for the close collaboration between the two publications, the complementary contributions made by each and the importance and impact of their work together, Baehr said.

The investigative stories, which were published in identical form in both publications, exposed how the relocation of public housing tenants left many of them, especially young people, more vulnerable to gang violence and led to an upsurge in turf wars and gang-related murders.

After the stories were published, the Chicago Police Department announced plans to deploy 120 additional officers to the affected projects and neighborhoods to deal with the problems highlighted in the stories.

Residents’ Journal is an eight-year-old bimonthly publication written by public housing residents and other low income people across the city. It is produced by We The People Media, a not-for-profit organization, and distributed to 35,000 families living in public housing in Chicago. Its readers are primarily African-American but every issue also contains articles in Korean, Spanish, Chinese and Russian in order to reach the diverse population of public housing in Chicago.

Johns and Turner, both long-time public housing residents who have been involved with Residents’ Journal since it started, were able to use their firsthand knowledge and contacts within the community to trace the causes of the unforeseen upsurge in crime back to the turf wars of newly displaced gangs and drug dealers. They were also able to gain the trust of families victimized by the violence in order to show the human impacts.

The Chicago Reporter, a non-profit magazine founded in 1972 to focus on issues of race and poverty, has a long tradition of award-winning investigative reporting and is read by many of the city’s power brokers.

Rogal, who has been a full-time reporter for the magazine since 1999 and associate editor since 2002, contributed his experience both as a beat reporter covering the city’s public housing bureaucracy and as an investigative reporter, including his expertise in the use of databases.

The second place winners, Katz, editor of City Limits, a magazine covering New York City’s low and moderate income communities, and Taher, executive editor of Bangla Patrika, a Bangla-language weekly newspaper based in Queens, also demonstrated the advantages of collaboration between mainstream and ethnic journalists.

When Katz got a tip about mistreatment of workers for the company holding a city concession contract to operate food carts in Central Park and learned that most of them were immigrants from Bangladesh, she reached out to Taher, who she had met through the Independent Press Association’s ethnic media project.

Together they were able to interview frightened workers in English and Bangla, persuading them to tell their stories and document labor law violations that left many of them earning less than minimum wages. Katz investigated their employer, M&T Pretzel, examined the company’s lucrative multi-million dollar contract with the city’s parks department and showed how other cities do a better job of protecting the employees of companies holding city concessions.

Ten months after both publications each ran their own stories based on the joint reporting, New York State Attorney General Elliott Spitzer announced a settlement with M&T Pretzel under which the company paid employees $450,000 for labor law violations. Spitzer said the company would also be monitored to prevent future violations.

The third place winners, The Orange County Register and its affiliated Spanish-language weekly, Excélsior del Condado de Orange, used their combined circulation in both the English and Spanish-speaking communities to ensure that the results of the Register’s exhaustive investigation into lead contamination of candies from Mexico reached both the federal and state officials responsible for regulating candy imports and the parents of children in immigrant communities most at risk of poisoning.

The Register’s six-part series revealed a pattern of childhood lead poisoning in immigrant communities that had no connection to old paint, as often assumed, but to candy imported from Mexico. It also showed that health officials on both sides of the border were doing almost nothing about the problem.

Knowing that the stories would be of interest in the county’s Latino community, the staffs of the two papers worked together to edit and design a 24-page tab in Spanish that ran in Excélsior in the same week that the Register ran its series in English.

The two staffs also collaborated to produce a bilingual poster to help parents identify the candies with histories of high lead contents and to create a bilingual interactive website with useful information for concerned parents.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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