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Home > Publications > Quill > SDX Award Winners: Newspaper Feature Writing


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Monday, July 13, 2009
SDX Award Winners: Newspaper Feature Writing

The Star-Ledger and Real Change

By Jim Poyser

Feature Writing (Circulation 100,000+)

WINNER: AMY ELLIS NUTT, THE STAR-LEDGER

“The Accidental Artist”

He had been weighed down by the baggage of loss for so long. Now, in taking up his artist’s life again, he realized all the pieces were there: his youth, his wife and children, his work as a chiropractor, his stroke, his brother’s death, even his success as an artist. He would always be moving and changing, it’s just that he would feel the motion more than most.

Here, in this moment and place, art was his true north. His life was his art and his art was his identity.

Part narrative, part medical thriller, part psychological mystery, “The Accidental Artist” is the tale of Jon Sarkin, a methodical, even-tempered, middle-class family man who suffered a stroke after brain surgery and woke up a radically changed man. Wild, creative and obsessed with painting. Eventually famous for it.

Staff writer Amy Ellis Nutt told the story in a nine-chapter, 16-page Sunday supplement that allowed readers to enjoy the story as if it were a book. Photographs of Sarkin’s art illustrated the story, and an online special included videos of Sarkin painting and drawing.

The world would always feel fragmentary, he said. One moment would never lead to the next. Instead, each was an island in time, isolated from everything except his own imagination. Like a spectral Robinson Crusoe, he would forever be shipwrecked on the rock of his own consciousness.

Judges call this feature their “unanimous choice. Nutt explored the wildest, most fascinating and most treacherous territory of all: the human brain. This was a big story, deeply reported, expertly told.”

Nutt, currently working on a book about Sarkin and the history of the science of identity, said her work on “The Accidental Artist” increased her desire to explore more deeply the subject of neurology and artistic creativity. “Personally, it helped me better understand the amazing resourcefulness of the broken brain. How we cope with loss and pain is often something we can’t completely control, but even that conundrum is part of the beauty and mystery of the human spirit.”

More online: http://tinyurl.com/oawz5v

Feature Writing (Circulation Less Than 100,000)

WINNER: ROSETTE ROYALE, REAL CHANGE

“The Man Who Stood on the Bridge”

"The idea for the series came from a brief in the police blotter of our paper that piqued my curiosity,” reporter Rosette Royale said. “Who would have believed it would have led me on a seven-month journey?”

Employing the techniques of narrative journalism, this three-part, 15,000-word series, “The Man Who Stood on the Bridge,” examines the intersection of the criminal justice and mental health systems by telling the story of a young person who, at a low point, ended his life by jumping off a bridge. His name was Bret Hugh Winch, and while he was drawn to the hip-hop culture that spoke to many people his age, he was also set apart from his peers by a particular label: He was a sex offender.

From where Bret stands on the Aurora Bridge on Oct. 17, 2007, Queen Anne Hill rises to the south. To the north, the buildings of Fremont stretch into the distance.

Immediately to his right, a white tower crane reaches skyward. With its looming presence, it could be the mast and jib of a ghostly ship devoid of sail.

In front of him, open air. Directly behind him, a waist-high rail. Bret holds onto it with one hand.

Intercut into each of the story’s three parts, much like scenes spliced into a film, are short sections that provide a minute-by-minute breakdown of Bret’s last perilous moments on the Aurora Bridge.

Judges lauded the story: “This is the type of journalism that newspapers must continue to do, despite the economic climate and the industry’s problems. If they don’t, there won’t be any reasons for newspapers to be around when times get better. Yes, it’s expensive to do these kinds of stories. But the cost of not doing them is even greater.”

Royale said the response to his story was “incredible. Our paper is a weekly, sold by vendors who are either homeless or low-wage earners. With the series coming out in three parts – meaning three separate issues – I was surprised to find out that nearly every issue for those three weeks sold out.”

He said he believes the series “helped people see how insensitive it is to reduce someone to a label: in this case, sex offender. It’s shone a light on the difficulties faced by those confronting mental illness. And it’s shown we are all more than the sum of our parts; we’re also the people we are connected to.”

More online: http://tinyurl.com/d7wjee

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