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Home > Publications > Quill > Sigma Delta Chi Awards Winners - Newspapers/Wire Services


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Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Sigma Delta Chi Awards Winners - Newspapers/Wire Services

By Dana Neuts

Click here for introduction to the awards and a menu of all categories.

Deadline Reporting (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: Staff, The Seattle Times

“Four Officers Slain”

During the Thanksgiving weekend of 2009, four Lakewood, Wash., police officers were murdered at a coffee shop, the deadliest attack in law enforcement in the state’s history. The killings occurred just a month after the unrelated ambush slaying of a Seattle police officer, leaving the community raw with emotion. The latest police killings occurred at the hand of Maurice Clemmons, a convicted felon who had been released from the Pierce County jail the week before.

With the suspect still at large and believed armed and dangerous, The Seattle Times mobilized its staff far and wide to cover the story, chronicling the story online and in print as it unfolded. With solid journalism reporting and ethics as its cornerstone, the veteran team used every media channel and communication tool at its disposal to follow the story, including being the first media outlet to report the name of the suspect within an hour of the shooting.

“We used tools both traditional and state-of-the-art to compile a mountain of information on Clemmons, which we posted online through the day. The breadth and depth of that information was breathtaking,” Executive Editor David Boardman wrote in a nomination letter. “We were the place to which a shaken community turned for information, perspective, insight and comfort.”

Digging into employment records, property transactions and criminal history, the Times revealed that Clemmons had been granted clemency by then-governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee. Clemmons also had an extensive criminal history in Washington and was said to be at high risk for reoffending.

Judges noted: “The newspaper’s next-day coverage was phenomenally deep, especially reporting a breaking story on a holiday weekend. The vivid details made it intensely local, while reporters’ dissection of the failures of the criminal justice system in multiple states made it a national topic.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper1

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Deadline Reporting (Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Staff, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

“Natural Gas Explosion Destroys Half a Downtown Block”

With only three reporters on staff, the entire newsroom of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle rallied on March 5, 2009, to cover a natural gas explosion that rocked the city’s historic district and was the single most destructive event in Bozeman, Mont., in 100 years.

The Chronicle would spread the word online, posting regular updates to its website and to Twitter and other social media sites while also preparing a newspaper for the following day, an edition that would include eight stories and 11 photos related to the blast. Through the paper’s deadline reporting, concerned readers across the country could learn more about the blast and its possible cause, find out which individuals and businesses were affected, and discover where to go for help. The newspaper played a key role in providing accurate information about the blast and its victims, as well as squashing rumors.

Amidst all of the confusion, everyone in the Chronicle’s newsroom contributed to coverage, said Managing Editor Nick Ehli. Editors became reporters, a news clerk monitored the police scanner, and photographers spent hours in freezing temperatures to get the story. The Chronicle even hired a helicopter and pilot to shoot photos and video to post on the newspaper’s website within 90 minutes of the blast.

“Every person in the newsroom stayed on the story long after dark Thursday, putting together the pieces of the story right up until the press ran that night,” Ehli explained to judges. “As an editor, I’ve often wondered how my newsroom would respond to such a horrific tragedy. In hindsight, our work that day was timely, accurate, complete and compassionate.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper2

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Non-Deadline Reporting (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: Michael Sallah, Rob Barry & Lucy Komisar, The Miami Herald

“Allen Stanford’s Miami Connection”

Years before his banking empire was shut down in a massive fraud case, Allen Stanford swept into Florida with a bold plan: entice Latin Americans to pour millions into his ventures — in secrecy … to pull it off, he needed unprecedented help from an unlikely ally: The state of Florida would have to grant him the right to move vast amounts of money offshore — without reporting a penny to regulators. He got it.

For 10 years, Stanford would operate his Ponzi scheme, bilking investors out of more than $7 billion, the second largest fraud in U.S. history. The Miami Herald began a probe into the case after receiving a tip from freelance reporter Lucy Komisar. While investigating Stanford’s finances, the Herald learned the state had allowed Stanford to operate an unregistered financial office in Miami without regulation.

For six months, Michael Sallah, Rob Barry and Komisar followed the complex fraud case to uncover regulatory oversights, bribes and complicity in a shocking crime that defrauded more than 21,500 investors. The investigative team reviewed thousands of records and e-mails and conducted key interviews with company insiders to expose the regulatory breakdowns and political favors that aided Stanford. Armed with information, the team wrote a series of detailed stories to explain to readers how such a scheme could be so deftly carried out. The series prompted regulators to review existing policies and legislation for needed changes.

Judges said: “The Miami Herald … presents a model example of what a metropolitan daily can do best by utilizing its locally based and relevant subject for a broader saliency of national import in this national financial meltdown period. The reporting is comprehensive, the writing is lucid for legibility at the average readers’ level of experience, and its impact on state- and federal-level regulatory procedures is just laudable.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper3

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Non-Deadline Reporting (Daily Circulation 50,001-100,000)

Winner: Shoshana Walter, The Ledger

“Broken Silence”

While developing new sources on her beat, Shoshana Walter of The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., shadowed a police detective who led her to Jimmy Wheeler, a persuasive career criminal with a silver tongue. Aided by other reporters and after thorough hours of interviews and careful research, Walter pieced together the frightening story of how the charming Wheeler seduced two women and violated their daughters, 10 years apart from each other.

Walter revealed the awful truth of Wheeler’s actions in a two-part series titled “Broken Silence.” Accompanying the print series was an online multimedia package that includes photos, video, a timeline, caregiver tips and more.

One reader, a victim of abuse, wrote of Walter’s work, saying, “Ms. Walter should be praised for this series, and exposing what we go through as victims, and the road that has to be traveled to reach the status of survivor. These two women who have come forward and told their stories need to be commended. It takes more than anyone can imagine to rise above the stigma that is placed on abuse victims, and they have shown that fighting back and using the power of their voices to speak up really can make a difference.”

Also impressed with Walter’s work, judges wrote: “What a terrific example of reporting, writing and presentation, including the multimedia aspects. This clearly took a great deal of patience and effort, starting with the groundwork of building trust. Too many stories of this type aren’t told because they’re not easy to get. This is a credit to a reporter, editor and staff willing to spend hours, days and months to dig for buried truth. Well done!”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper4

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Non-Deadline Reporting (Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Gabe Semenza, Chris Cobler & Staff, Victoria Advocate

“Fatal Funnel”

Just as when Flores arrived 30 years ago, the United States again finds itself at a crossroads. The country bulges with illegal immigrants and hearty debate regarding calls for a new round of changes in the law. So, where does the country go from here?

While other news organizations were covering topics of national interest like health care, the economy and war in the Middle East, the Victoria (Texas) Advocate chose to explore a local topic that Texans deal with every day: immigration.

In one of the worst immigration-related tragedies in U.S. history, 19 illegal immigrants died in Victoria of dehydration and suffocation in 2003 as they were being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border in a large truck. Five years after the incident, the Victoria Advocate revisited the issue to see what changes have been made and what is still needed.

Beginning in 2008, the Advocate’s 16-month series revealed how legal loopholes, insufficient border staff and inadequate regulation contributed to the 2003 tragedy and how many of those same issues still exist today on “The Fatal Funnel,” a stretch of highway in South Texas leading through Victoria.

Going beyond its investigation and research, the Advocate further highlighted the issues and engaged residents by hosting two town hall meetings that drew hundreds of participants. The meetings included local clergy, police officers and scholars to discuss immigrations issues. They also played a documentary on the Mexican drug war. While the Advocate’s editor admits that “The Fatal Funnel” remains deadly, the reporting team is proud that it brought immigration issues once again to the forefront of readers’ minds, sparking public debate and keeping the important topic alive.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper5

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Non-Deadline Reporting (Non-Daily Publication)

Winner: Timothy Roberts, El Paso Inc.

“Crisis on the Border”

In early 2009, with more than 7,000 police officers and troops patrolling the streets of Juarez, the Mexican border town finally has a taste of peace. With 1,900 killings the year before, the change was a welcome one but not without a price. Having the soldiers on hand, armed and ready to defend, created the impression that the city is focused on fighting the drug cartels and not on economic development. With unemployment of approximately 30 percent, city insiders anticipated other problems including putting the Mexican army in charge of the city’s safety.

Timothy Roberts of El Paso Inc. captured it all in his yearlong, multi-part series titled “Crisis on the Border.” Roberts lives in El Paso but walked across the bridge onto the dangerous streets of Juarez to interview city officials, police officers and hopeless, frustrated residents. Roberts took photos and produced three multimedia projects to tell the stories of violence, corruption and tentative peace to readers on the other side of the border.

One of the stories tells of a forgotten housing project in Juarez called Riveras del Bravo, with an open sewer running through it and an incredible lack of jobs, shops and parks. The residents’ pleas for help have been repeatedly ignored, Roberts reported.

One resident told Roberts: “We need someone to listen to us … no one is interested in us. Politicians ask what we need, but they never fulfill their promises.”

Judges note: “The series is intense, readable and engrossing as he interviewed hundreds and called attention to the things which are happening beyond the headlines about death. Families are uprooted, industries and small businesses go belly up, people stay home, afraid to go out.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper6

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Investigative Reporting (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: Charles Duhigg, The New York Times

“Toxic Waters”

How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water? is a question asked by one of the hundreds of people Charles Duhigg interviewed in his seven-part series about the toxicity of our water. This consumer’s question is only the tip of the iceberg uncovered by Duhigg, an investigative business reporter for The New York Times.

Throughout the series, Duhigg compares the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act written in the 1970s to actual practice in the 21st century. His findings are astonishing: More than half a million violations have been committed by more than 23,000 companies since 2004, with little or no consequence; only 91 of the country’s 60,000 contaminants are governed by these laws; and no potential cancer-causing toxins have been added to the Safe Drinking Water Act in a decade.

The EPA admits that the nation’s water does not meet public health goals and enforcement of water pollution laws is unacceptably low, according to Duhigg’s reporting. But that explanation was not sufficient for Duhigg, who investigated the situation for more than a year, receiving hundreds of thousands of pollution records through FOIA requests and even creating an extensive online database where more than 440,000 readers would check their own water systems for contaminants and learn which local companies had broken water pollution laws.

Judges note: “‘Toxic Waters’ is an incredible package that affects every American. The writing and anecdotes are compelling. The online graphics, videos and searchable database are illuminating. This reporting led to new laws, changes in federal rules, and the dedication of $3.6 billion for water infrastructure improvements. Good job.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper7

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Investigative Reporting (Daily Circulation 50,001-100,000)

Winner: Eric Nalder & Cathleen F. Crowley, Times Union

“Dead by Mistake”

Each year, nearly 200,000 people die because mistakes occur in U.S. hospitals. Behind the numbers are people who trusted the medical system. Instead they lost limbs; had wrong organs removed; or were misdiagnosed, overmedicated, infected and in too many cases lost their lives.

This was the story told by reporters, editors, photographers and others in “Dead by Mistake,” a series of 30 articles about costly, preventable and sometimes fatal medical mistakes. Perhaps just as remarkable is that the project was undertaken by Hearst Newspapers at a time when newspapers and media organizations around the country are cutting staff. Instead of looking the other way, Hearst assembled a team from nine newsrooms to delve into the ugly truth.

Over nine months, the Hearst team combed through documents dating back 10 years to a federal report that called “the death toll shocking and challenged the medical community to cut it in half — within five years.” Ten years later the situation continues to increase. What went wrong?

Hearst reveals in its stories that many errors were made, most of them avoidable. Twin infants died of internal bleeding, a 79-year-old man had the wrong kidney removed, and a 20-year-old woman was misdiagnosed, leaving her a quadriplegic.

In this insightful series, the investigative team tells dozens of stories of individuals who have suffered at the hands of the medical profession, provided a searchable online database of how hospitals measured up, and included timelines, graphs and photos to very clearly illustrate the critical nature of the problem. The series was deep, detailed and multidimensional, offering readers an invaluable public service as well as resources and action steps for change.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper8

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Investigative Reporting (Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Terrie Morgan-Besecker, Jen Learn Andes, Jerry Lynott & Gary Visgaitis, The Times Leader

“Luzerne County Corruption Investigation”

Since 2004, The Times Leader has been reporting on government corruption in the Luzerne County, Pa., government. When two judges were charged with fraud and accepting kickbacks over $2.6 million in January 2009, The Times Leader broadened its reporting, digging into the whos, hows and whys behind the scandal and revealing an astonishing trail of corruption, fraud and abuse of power.

While numerous governmental agencies were involved in the legal misdeeds, subsequent cover-up and investigation, those same agencies were not forthcoming with information to the public. Through its tenacious reporting, The Times Leader and its investigative reporting team did its own research, so readers could understand the depth and breadth of the situation.

Judges said: “Talk about your smoking gun. The staff behind this story really nailed it by unearthing a document showing how a crooked judge and a drug dealer shared use of a luxury condo. The resulting story is as awesome as the corruption of these public officials is pathetic. Bravo!”

In the last story of the series, Laurene Transue, whose daughter was impacted by a decision by former judge Mark Ciavarella, said this:

“Now at the end of the spectrum, it feels good to know there are people out there in the government and justice system who are morally upstanding and follow the law and are equal and just and fair.”

It also bolstered her faith that the common person can make a difference.

“We are nobody special,” she said. “If nothing else, if people can learn that, even if you think you are nobody, if you open your mouth and other little people open their mouths, you can change things.”


More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper9

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Investigative Reporting (Non-Daily PUBlICation)

Winner: Kirsten Grind, Alwyn Scott & George Erb, Puget Sound Business Journal

“WaMu’s Final Days”

As the subprime mortgage crisis exploded, many banks went along with it, including Washington Mutual. While many media outlets covered the story, none offered the depth or detail of the Puget Sound Business Journal. Kirsten Grind, who had been covering related stories regarding WaMu, wanted to know why the bank was suddenly seized by regulators and why J.P. Morgan Chase was able to buy more than $300 billion in assets for just $1.9 billion.

As researchers combed through property records of 172 foreclosed homes and Grind interviewed insolvent homeowners and insiders at WaMu, two key themes became clear: WaMu was solvent at the time it was seized; and J.P. Morgan Chase Bank had already been negotiating with WaMu for the sale. In effect, the government seized a bank that was solvent and that had other options.

Telling the inside story of WaMu’s demise, these revelations and facts stunned WaMu’s customers and the Business Journal’s readers alike, offering them insight into how and why the government acted as it did. The outpouring of support the newspaper received following the publication of the story was overwhelming as well as gratifying.

Judges wrote of the series, specifically to Kirsten Grind: “Outstanding at all levels. Masterful storytelling. Damn dogged research. Commendable source development. Hold your pen high, lady. You are a credit to the craft!”

Subsequent to the investigation, Grind signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster to write more extensively about the downfall of WaMu.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper10

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Feature Reporting (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: Neil Swidey, The Boston Globe

“Trapped” and “The Way Out”

Imagine entering a tunnel that’s been bored into the earth hundreds of feet below Massachusetts Bay and continues straight out, for 9½ miles. There is no light, besides what the bulb on your helmet can give off. There is no sound, besides the water dripping overhead or sloshing around your boots. There is no air, besides what you brought in with you, a lifeline pumping through a hose and into your face mask. … It’s the world’s longest one-way tunnel, so there’s no way out other than turning around and making the hazardous trek back to where you started.

“Trapped Under the Sea” and “The Way Out” tell the story of the harrowing journey of five commercial divers assigned to a dangerous mission to correct a complex engineering problem in an underground tunnel hundreds of feet below the surface. Neil Swidey deftly takes readers into the dank, dark tunnel, revealed in vivid detail 10 years after the incident, as he follows the action through the “god-awful hole” to its devastating conclusion where only three of the divers get out alive.

In reporting this two-part series, Swidey worked day and night for months, interviewing dozens of people involved at virtually every level of the project including engineers, attorneys, public officials, the divers and their families. Sifting through thousands of pages of documents to piece together what happened inside the tunnel and how three divers miraculously survived, Swidey also revealed raw emotions of a story that had, thus far, not been told.

Drawing readers in with the very first sentence, Swidey’s tenacious reporting and compelling writing represent storytelling at its best.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper11

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Feature Reporting (Daily Circulation 50,001-100,000)

Winner: Roy Wenzl, The Wichita Eagle

“The Miracle of Father Kapaun”

Father Emil Kapaun died in 1951, but the story of his work lives on for many, particularly folks like Chase Kear whose family had been told that Kear would not survive following a pole-vaulting accident. Not ready to give up hope, Kear’s family said thousands of prayers to Father Kapaun, asking him to save Kear. Despite the odds against him, Kear awoke and walked again, even after having a third of his skull removed to relieve brain swelling.

His baffled doctors said his survival defied medical science. They told the Vatican later that it was a miracle.

This is one of thousands of stories told about Kapaun, who has been recommended by the Army for the Medal of Honor and who is a candidate for sainthood. In an eight-part series, award-winning journalist Roy Wenzl followed Kapaun’s life back to the Korean War, where he served alongside soldiers on the battlefield to care for them both physically and spiritually.

After reporting on incidents and alleged miracles involving Kapaun for years, Wenzl and photojournalist Travis Heying spent an additional six months researching Kapaun’s life, reviewing archives at the Catholic diocese in Wichita and speaking with men with whom Wenzl had served. Despite the fuzziness 60 years can put on details, Wenzl had learned of Kapaun’s selfless behavior during the Korean War, his care of the injured and dying, his rallying of the troops, and his repeated sacrifices.

“One of the POWs said he could never be Father Kapaun, but that he tried to live a better life because of him,” Wenzl said. “I’d like to think everyone who read the series, and those who worked on it, has tried to do the same thing.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper12

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Feature Reporting (Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Sara Schilling, Tri-City Herald

“Hospice: Learning How to Live”

In “Learning How to Live,” Tri-City Herald staff reporter Sara Schilling tells the story of Chuck Watson, a 59-year-old man diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Thanks to advice from friend George Walker who told him not to be afraid to die, Watson chose to live instead, volunteering his time to Hospice at the Chaplaincy in Kennewick, Wash., to provide end-of-life care to others. Ten years later, Watson is still around and working with hospice patients.

Noting that the past 10 years have been the best of his life, Watson told Schilling: In hospice, death isn’t the enemy, suffering is. The goal is to make patients comfortable and help them find peace.

In doing research for the story, Schilling met with Watson numerous times as well as with employees and other volunteers at Hospice. Due to privacy concerns, however, access to others receiving care and their families was limited, so Schilling and photographer Bob Brawdy had to be patient yet persistent as they followed the story.

“Death is an uncomfortable topic to discuss,” Schilling said. “At times, it was incredibly sad and emotionally draining. But, ultimately, it was uplifting.”

Since the story was published in November, Schilling and Brawdy received phone calls, e-mails and letters thanking them for their work. Schilling’s reaction to that feedback:

“I think the story shined a light on the quiet but important work that’s done every day at places like Hospice. I also hope that reading about Chuck Watson’s journey inspired people to think about their own lifestyles and priorities.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper13

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Feature Reporting (Non-Daily Publication)

Winner: Nadia Pflaum, The Pitch

“Aftermath”

Ten years ago, Juliette Jones was raped and stabbed in her home, left for dead by her attacker. Miraculously, Jones survived the brutal crime, but her rapist has never been caught. Despite the span of time since the crime, Jones stepped forward, asking The Pitch to tell her story to mark the anniversary of her rape to bring her closer to closure and to show other women that there is life after rape.

Impressed with staff writer Nadia Pflaum’s work, Jones asked Pflaum to chronicle her ordeal, discussing details of the crime, her recovery and the legal status of the case against her attacker, should he ever be caught.

The most challenging aspect of telling Jones’ story was translating her personality to print, Pflaum said. Jones was immediately likable — funny, quirky and rebellious — and she loathes being pitied or being treated as a victim. Pflaum said Jones was able to inject humor into the horrifying details of her story, a testament to the same stubborn streak that helped her fight off her rapist. Jones wasn’t about to let a cruel stranger determine her time to die.

Pflaum does a great job of telling a painful story in such a way that women can relate to Jones and perhaps learn from her experiences. Pflaum also sheds light on the complexity of DNA evidence, the DNA backlog of local and federal crime labs, and filing charges against an unknown assailant.

According to The Pitch, numerous readers have remarked that Jones’ story was one of the most affecting features they’d read in the paper to date. Perhaps most surprising was the flood of phone calls from people in the mental health field who wished to offer Jones some kind of support.

More online:tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper14

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Editorial Writing (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: Barbara Arrigo, Detroit Free Press

“Michigan’s Budget Tightrope”

“Michigan has to transform or die,” the Detroit Free Press exclaimed on the front page of its Oct. 4 editorial section. Referring to the devastating financial situation in Michigan, this edition was one of more than a dozen in a yearlong series of editorials by the Free Press about the structural deficit in the state of Michigan.

Led by editorial writer Barb Arrigo using the analogy of a tightrope, the newspaper drew attention to the state’s growing structural deficit, highlighting its seriousness to readers, taxpayers and legislators.

Like the tightrope walker, the state must do something to bring the lines together … the state can only hang on over the long term if it brings projected expenses and revenues closer together.

The paper took its analysis and reporting one step further by offering 10 reforms to bring the state’s budget back in balance.

No single step will cure the state’s budget ills. Taxes and spending both need reforms. These measures, taken together, would put the state on a path for budgets that balance year after year.

Throughout the year, the newspaper followed up with the state’s governor and legislative leaders to identify areas of consensus and monitor the proposed 2010 budget. These efforts led to continued discussions about what reforms can and should be made.

Recognizing the quality of work in the series, judges wrote: “Beyond ambitious. Easy to read, aided by simple, yet effective graphics. This was well written, and the literary device used to explain the perils of one-time money funding ongoing budgets — the tightrope walker — brought to life what could be deathly boring subject matter. The specter of pension obligations — ‘the dog that hasn’t barked yet’ — was beautifully explained. This entry is an argument for why newspapers are vital to a democracy.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper15

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Editorial Writing (Daily Circulation 50,001-100,000)

Winner: Mac Thrower, Press-Register

“Tenure Law for Felons”

If the legislature put the interests of students at the top of its education priority list, a proposed overhaul of the state’s tenure law for teachers and administrators almost certainly would attract overwhelming support ... editorial writer Mac Thrower begins in a series of Press-Register editorials demanding revisions to Alabama’s Fair Dismissal Act.

Triggered by the case of Charlene Schmitz, an Alabama teacher convicted of enticing a 14 year-old student to have sex, Thrower began writing about needed reforms in 2008. Why? Schmitz received more than $164,000 in additional pay while serving her sentence in federal prison. Thrower’s position was that the Fair Dismissal Act and the Alabama Education Association make it unnecessarily difficult for schools to fire bad employees or those convicted of crimes.

Despite the challenge of taking a technical subject like employment law and turning it into something interesting and understandable to readers, Thrower worked over a nine-month period to shed light on this topic. His work — along with drawing attention to the Schmitz case — fueled anger among parents, taxpayers and legislators.

… every dollar that goes to this convicted sex offender is money that can’t be used to pay good teachers, improve instruction and boost the academic performance of students, Thrower wrote.

Due in part to Thrower’s work, the legislature unanimously approved a bill that would stop public schools from continuing pay for teachers convicted of a felony or a sex offense involving a child.

“It was gratifying to see how the public backlash generated by the Schmitz case ultimately compelled one of the most powerful political forces in the state, the teachers union, to retreat from its entrenched position on the Fair Dismissal Act,” Thrower said. “I have a greater appreciation for how public opinion can drive legislation. An aroused citizenry can indeed make a difference.

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Editorial Writing (Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Dave Janoski, The Citizens’ Voice

“Kids for Cash”

In the “kids for cash” scandal that rocked Luzerne County, Pa., in 2009, two judges were charged with racketeering, a former court administrator faces jail time for embezzling court funds, and thousands of judgments in juvenile court cases are in danger of being overturned. All told, nearly 30 government officials and contractors were arrested in Northeastern Pennsylvania for their part in the scheme to accept kickbacks in exchange for jailing juveniles in for-profit prisons. In addition, a state commission has initiated hearings on how one judge barred his courtroom to the press and public along with denying thousands of children their right to counsel and sending them to jail for minor offenses without due process.

According to The Citizens’ Voice, these revelations are indicative of a culture of silence and corruption in Pennsylvania. Led by projects editor Dave Janoski, a 26-year newspaper veteran, The Citizens’ Voice published more than 800 stories and 30 editorials on the “kids for cash” scandal, bringing to light the ugly truths of a corrupt political system infested with nepotism and cronyism.

“My editorials were aimed at examining the public apathy and private greed that allowed that culture to flourish and drawing lessons that could be applied to necessary reforms,” Janoski said of his work. “The most gratifying aspect of our coverage of this scandal is the hope that it will lead to more honesty, integrity and transparency in local government.”

As a result of the newspaper’s work, the county government is tightening its bidding and hiring procedures, and two non-profits have launched an ethics initiative featuring public forums and Internet resources aimed at raising awareness about the need for more ethical behavior in government and business.

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Editorial Writing (Non-Daily Publication)

Winner: Jane Eisner, Forward

“Forward Editorials”

In a sampling of editorials from 2009, Jane Eisner explores three challenges women face in the Jewish communal community: gender equality, family values and gender equity. Writing to the predominantly Jewish audience of Forward, Eisner discusses these issues reasonably and logically from a historical perspective.

In an April column, Eisner tells the story of 32-year-old Sara Hurwitz, who completed the necessary education, training and service to serve her religious community. However, as a devout Orthodox Jew, she was prohibited from becoming a rabbi. She was instead conferred rather than ordained, preventing her from leading a public service or acting as a witness.

While there is debate over whether Orthodox interpretations of Halacha actually prohibit women from the rabbinate, there’s no doubt that the religious establishment has done all it could to squash the idea and turn away the few women with the chutzpah to apply to Orthodox seminaries over the years, Eisner wrote.

Similar discrimination is evident in the Jewish community, where only 35 percent of Jewish communal organizations offer paid maternity leave, yet 75 percent of their employees are women.



Eisner argued: …
if those organizations wish to draw in the brightest lights in the future, then creating a family-friendly workplace is not optional. Younger Americans have a decidedly greater commitment to work-life balance than their parents and grandparents did, and smart employers will learn to use that to good advantage.


In a world that is so often politically correct, Eisner used sound arguments and reasoning to show that the Jewish community is making progress, but it has a long way to go before women are treated with the same respect and equality of men.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper16

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Washington Correspondence (Daily Publication)

Winner: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, The Washington Post

“Obama’s War”

Using sources in Washington, D.C., and Kabul, Afghanistan, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post wrote a number of stories explaining President Barack Obama’s predicament in Afghanistan and how the administration’s policies and strategies affected troops on the ground.

In addition, as explained by national security editor Cameron W. Barr, “Chandrasekaran then set out to tell the story of the war in Afghanistan in a new way. Instead of working exclusively from Washington, he leveraged visits to the battlefield to pry more out of senior administration officials in the U.S. capital and to test their assumptions against the realities he witnessed on the ground.” In other words, the savvy journalist didn’t take Washington’s word for it when seeking answers. Instead, he personally visited Afghanistan to learn for himself how policy and strategy translated onto the battlefield.

The result was a series of detailed articles outlining the United States’ relationship with Afghanistan and how the Pentagon and the White House remain at odds over policy. The series also explains concerns over Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s ability to maintain peace. Though the issues discussed throughout the series are complex, Chandrasekaran did a good job of breaking down the issues for readers to grasp. Boldly explaining tensions, he was more concerned with revealing the depths of the issues than he was at offending anyone in the White House or Afghanistan. Chandrasekaran put the truth first.

Judges note: “Rajiv Chandrasekaran artfully illuminated the Obama administration’s Afghanistan problem, revealing incomparable detail about the tension between a White House eager to exit and a military committed to victory. Although Chandrasekaran clearly enjoyed access to high-level administration officials, he went beyond regurgitating the words of anonymous sources by testing their assumptions against the realities he witnessed on the battlefield.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper17

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Foreign Correspondence (Daily Publication)

Winner: Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal

“Hearts, Minds and Blood: The Battle for Iran”

Following the Iranian presidential election in June 2009, chaos and civil unrest broke out throughout the country. Protestors demonstrated their defiance violently, claiming the election was rigged while members of the Basij militia fought back. As the political crisis unfolded, Farnaz Fassihi covered the events for The Wall Street Journal, despite great personal risk to herself and her family in Iran.

In addition to covering the opposition movement, Fassihi went deeply into the stories and people behind the opposition, probing into the regime to give readers a thorough understanding of the beliefs and passion behind the violence. Fassihi began with a profile of Mehdi Moradani, a 24-year-old shopkeeper from Tehran, a mid-level Basij foot soldier.

“It wasn’t about elections anymore,” says Mr. Moradani, a short, skinny man with pitch-black hair and a beard. “I was defending my country and our revolution and Islam. Everything was at risk.”

In additional articles, Fassihi, an Iranian-born journalist who grew up in the United States, reported on international harassment of and threats against vocal Iranians, against a doctor who refused to sign death certificates for murdered prisoners, and against students whose educational and professional careers were threatened for speaking in opposition of the Iranian government.

Despite press restrictions and intimidation, Fassihi used her Iranian-American background and connections to get inside the political crisis to tell stories that would not have otherwise been told.

Judges said: “The personal stories assembled by Fassihi are brutally candid, from confessions of a Basij enforcer who bashes the heads of counter-revolutionaries, to the tales of Iranians émigrés harassed by agents who probe Facebook and Twitter accounts. Fassihi paints a portrait of political and religious totalitarianism as real and horrifying and mesmerizing as a slow-motion car wreck.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper18

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General Column Writing (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times

Kidnapping. Torture. The life of a young girl, Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times wrote in a column about a young Cambodian girl brutalized by a brothel owner. In other columns, he shares the horrifying details of impoverished girls and women who are victimized, raped, beaten, ostracized and murdered or left for dead. Kristof has met many of these women, traveling to Third World countries to report on outrageous brutalities.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Kristof is one of the good guys. He is not content to sit on the sidelines and watch while governments allow their people to be subjected to abuse, ridicule and exile. Instead, he gives a voice to the voiceless and uses his writing and reporting talents to shed light on the victimization of girls and women and to demand change.

Kristof brings his victims to life through multimedia, adding audio and video to his blog and YouTube channel as well as encouraging readers to support the causes of these victims.

He puts the onus back on the government to impose sanctions against nations that brutalize women, and he calls for government action and reform. In one column he writes:

Barack Obama’s presidency marks a triumph over the legacy of slavery, so it would be particularly meaningful if he led a new abolitionist movement against 21st-century slavery — like the trafficking of girls into brothels.

Judges said: “Nicholas Kristof has opportunities, resources and an audience that are the envy of many writers. With these entries, he has brought stories of almost unbearable pain and suffering to an audience that needs to hear them. His first-person encounters with some of the world’s most abused and discarded inhabitants have the power to shock, inspire and initiate change.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper19

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General Column Writing (Daily Circulation 50,001-100,000)

Winner: Sean Kirst, The Post-Standard


Sean Kirst of The Post-Standard looks like an average guy, maybe the guy next door or your sister’s high school sweetheart. When you read his work, however, you will find that he doesn’t write like the guy next door, nor does he think like him. With an appealing, easy-to-read style, Kirst looks at national events and localizes them in a unique, insightful and inspirational way.

For example, take his “Mother collapsed at the wheel …” column. In this story, he recounts the tale of a mother’s collapse behind the wheel and her 11-year-old daughter’s attempt to save them both. Instead of telling the expected story, he takes a different track. He tells the story through the eyes of Steve and Daphne Valentine who, on their way to a soccer game, happened upon the runaway car and helped turn the potential tragedy into hope.

Kirst sticks to the facts and weaves such a fascinating tale that readers are left with a better understanding of why Caroline Kennedy walked away during a press conference or how Frederick Douglass would have enjoyed Obama’s inauguration. Readers might even leave with a smile or a little bit of hope — the mark of a skilled story-teller.

Mother and daughter were on their way home … when Catherine collapsed. Lizzy … reached over and grabbed the wheel with one hand. With her other hand, she unsnapped her mother’s seat belt, which allowed Lizzy to shove her mother’s foot off the gas pedal … then did her best to steer the van to the side of the road.

Yet Lizzy, a fifth-grader, couldn’t reach the brake. Car after car went speeding past. No one looked over as the little girl pushed down the horn, held grimly to the wheel and screamed for help.

Not far away, Steve and Daphne were hurrying along, worried that stopping by their cousin’s had made them late.

Hardly. As Lizzy knows, they were right on time.


More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper20

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General Column Writing (Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Tracey O’Shaughnessy, Republican American

“Sunday Reflections”

With the prose of an expert writer, Associate Features Editor Tracey O’Shaughnessy of the Republican American writes her non-political Sunday Reflections column, hoping to broaden the conversation with readers on relatable topics like religion, insurance and health care. In one 2009 column, she calmly tells the story about a neighborhood’s brush with murder and how life continued to go on in spite of the circumstances. In another, she recounts the $30,000 bill she received after her son had pins put in his leg to repair a broken femur.

In each column, O’Shaughnessy makes an observation about a newsworthy topic and brings it to the masses in a conversational way that makes readers feel as if they are sharing a cup of coffee with her. She comes across as caring, concerned and sometimes confrontational, reminiscent of Seth Meyers’ “Saturday Night Live” bit “Really?”

“My effort is always to use my experience or observations as a portal to broaden the conversation,” O’Shaughnessy said. “This column tries to cast a line to readers to involve them in the broader cultural debates of the day and demonstrate that they play an intrinsic part in the creation of the society in which we live.”

Judges note: “Tracey understands that the essence of all journalism is storytelling. With a mastery of the language she lures readers in, taking them by the hand and walking them through stories filled with interesting characters and experiences. The readers barely realize they are being persuaded to see the world differently until the journey is finished. This is column writing at its best.”

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General Column Writing (Non-Daily Publication)

Winner: Ray Hanania, Southwest News-Herald

In a series of 2009 articles, columnist Ray Hanania of the Southwest News-Herald offers an investigation and insight into the treatment and subsequent arrest of an Arab family under suspicion of board of health violations at their neighborhood grocery store. Naim Massad was arrested for “storing food in an unsanitary location,” and his wife and son were arrested for protesting Naim Massad’s arrest. The incident drew backlash from the Arab-American community in Oak Lawn, Ill., as well as those accused of discriminating against the Massad family.

After a month of research and numerous challenges in validating the claim of racial discrimination, Hanania published the articles detailing the family’s story, an Arab-American family living in a town that was 93 percent Caucasian. Key players included neighboring merchants, the local health department and the police department, all of whom had a role in the unfolding drama.

During the series, the newspaper and Hanania received reader complaints that the stories should be pulled. In addition, Hanania received accusations that he himself was a racist. Remaining firm, Hanania and the paper stood behind their work and let the series continue.

Using FOIA requests and solid investigative reporting as tools, Hanania brought to light a situation that might otherwise have been ignored. Not swayed by naysayers, Hanania persisted until the story was made public and justice — to the extent possible — was served. Since the story ran last year, the Massad family is back in business and has not reported any further incidents of discrimination or unfair treatment.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper21

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Sports Column Writing (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: John Canzano, The Oregonian

We’re talking about a young woman who graduated from Portland State with honors last month. She should be hanging her diploma today. … But instead, she’s dead. Katie left us with lessons. And the hope here is that we don’t ever forget them. We’re mortal. So live deep, and dare to know. Think of your life, and not your death, as the destination.

This is an excerpt from a story columnist John Canzano wrote about 24-year-old Katie Shearer, a devoted Portland Trailblazers fan who died of cancer. In this gut-wrenching column, he goes beyond the typical sports column in explaining how the team stepped up to win Katie’s last game. He also showed how Katie had stepped up to take control of what was left of her life. In his writing, Canzano captured an amazing spirit and brought readers a story that everyone could relate to.

His journalistic talent doesn’t end there, however. In addition, Canzano, a popular columnist at The Oregonian, is also a watchdog, asking hard questions, probing for answers and revealing the ugly side of sports as in his column “The ugliness in basketball starts here,” about overzealous coaches and recruiters in the game for the wrong reasons. He was also on hand to cover the infamous punch delivered by LeGarrette Blount to Boise State’s Byron Hout on the field following a game.

Canzano wrote: Blount should be served up by first-year head coach Chip Kelly as a reminder of everything the program should never become. It was cheap. It was embarrassing. It was disgusting. Dress all that ugliness in gorgeous all-white uniforms, rank it in the Top 25, put it on national television, and it still stinks.

Judges called Canzano’s work “a great mix of emotion, sensitivity, outrage, initiative and moral sense. Canzano sounds just the right notes, with a straightforward and incisive style.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper22

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Sports Column Writing (Daily Circulation 50,001-100,000)

Winner: Mike Hlas, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids)

Sports editor J.R. Ogden describes 20-year veteran writer Mike Hlas this way: “[He] has a unique and distinctive style that gives readers a deeper understanding of the events we cover and the games we play … he brings an experienced voice into the columns he writes, using his understanding and knowledge of the game but also looking ‘outside the lines’ to put the events into perspective, challenging fans to think about more than just the score.”

An excellent example of this is Hlas’ coverage of Aplington-Parkersburg High School coach Ed Thomas, who was murdered by a former student and football player. Hlas covered the issue with compassion, paying tribute to Thomas while also putting his death in a greater context.

Falcon football has been about winning, absolutely. But it’s been about how the things that make people true winners. Wow, was that ever evidenced after the tornado, when the team and its town fought back like state champions.

“You get beat up, battered,” Thomas told the New York Times last fall, “but you get back off the ground.”

Thomas, who lost his home in that tornado, spent the last year of his life helping kids and an entire town get back off the ground. He succeeded marvelously.

Judges said: “Mike Hlas demonstrated a gift for finding the humanity of sports people outside the lines of the field, whether it was about a fall from grace for an iconic broadcaster, the murder of a popular coach, or even interviewing the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. His distinctive style and compassion for his subjects exemplified important sports commentary where the score was secondary.”

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Sports Column Writing

(Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Mike Benischek, Poughkeepsie Journal

With an off-beat wit and matter-of-fact tone, Mike Benischek of the Poughkeepsie Journal makes his column a “must read” in the daily paper. He not only has an incredible grasp of local college basketball (as a graduate of nearby Marist College), but he follows the big leagues as well. In one column, he admits that he is not a fan of Yankee Alex Rodriguez, but he later compares A-Rod to Clark Kent and Superman. It takes a bold man to admit he was wrong, and a humble one to say so in print.

Alex Rodriguez has had to walk through fire over the last few years and, specifically, the last 15 months. We’ve all watched him lose the powers, privacy and mystique of a man who once seemed to be more than human. And yet, he lived to tell the tale. Better than that, he lived to drive in six World Series runs and score five more.

Perhaps even more astounding is that Benischek is only 27 and has done every job in the sports department including writing, editing, page design and video editing. He is not afraid to state his opinion or to tackle a tough subject. Admitting to doing his best work after 4 a.m., he explained his writing process:

“I simply try to provide our local readers with what they need on a given day. Sometimes, when it’s necessary, I can be a voice for their outrage. Other days I can simply entertain or tell a story. But, as with anything in our business, it’s all about providing the readers what they need.”

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Public Service Journalism (Daily Circulation 100,001+)

Winner: Sally Kestin, Peter Franceschina & John Maines, Sun Sentinel

“Trust Betrayed”

In October, a baby suffered severe burns at a Lauderhill day care while under the watch of a woman on felony probation who was working without a background check. In Central Florida, a toddler nearly died after being left in a sweltering van by a day care employee whose lengthy theft record should have barred her from working at the center. And in West Palm Beach, an employee worked at a YMCA for two months before a background screening revealed he was facing child sex charges in California.

In 2009, Sun Sentinel reporter Sally Kestin came across a complaint in a public policy report that argued that the state was underutilizing a “second chance” law that granted felons an opportunity to hold “positions of trust” if rehabilitated. Acting on instinct, Kestin and her team began a six-month investigation revealing horrifying abuses of this law in a three-part series titled “Trust Betrayed.”

The journalists learned that day care and nursing home employees worked on the job for months before background checks were initiated. They also learned that thousands of employees had been granted exemptions under the “second chance” rule; of those employees, 99 had been convicted of murder or manslaughter, 12 were registered sex offenders, and 200 had harmed a child. The Sun Sentinel team exposed this frightening trend, despite the difficulty it faced when seeking data. The team was not intimidated, however, and it told the stories of our most vulnerable citizens: children and seniors. Their work prompted governmental investigations, reviews and proposed reform measures.

Judges wrote: “Bold, aggressive and tenacious coverage. This is an outstanding example of the critical public service journalists strive to achieve. We were moved by the powerful storytelling using real-life examples to document the danger faced by society’s most vulnerable members. The team demonstrated overwhelming persistence in securing the databases, interpreting the information and then making it available to the public online in the face of strong government resistance.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper23

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Public Service Journalism (Daily Circulation 50,001-100,000)

Winner: Diette Courrégé, The Post and Courier

“Failing Our Students”

Ridge is 16. … Ridge reads at a third-grade level. He is among thousands of Lowcountry students who make their way through schools without ever learning to read beyond an elementary-grade level, Diette Courrégé of The Post and Courier wrote.

In her series titled “Failing Our Students,” Courrégé explained that the Charleston County, S.C., School Board passed a policy that would make teaching kids to read the district’s No. 1 priority. Why the seemingly obvious stance? Because in Courrégé’s shocking investigation, she learned that one out of every five high school freshmen read at or below the fourth-grade level, and one in seven adults is functionally illiterate. The school board’s actions came as a direct result of Courrégé’s work.

“Her stories not only shocked the public,” her editor wrote, “they shocked the superintendent and the school board, and led them to make literacy the top goal at every grade.”

Courrégé began the series with an in-depth look at the life and academic career of Ridge Smith, who made it to high school without ever learning to adequately read. Courrégé scoured his academic record, spoke to Ridge and his family, and interviewed past teachers who agreed to speak on the record. Despite the challenges obtaining his records, Courrégé was determined to tell his story and — through him — the story of thousands of other children.

Judges note: “Excellent initiative and reporting over an extended period of time to look at the problem and to effect positive change that will impact the community for many years to come. These articles put a local face on the problem and caused the community to take ownership and action.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper24

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Public Service Journalism (Daily Circulation 1-50,000)

Winner: Brian McGillivary, Traverse City Record-Eagle

“Meijer’s Secret Plan”

For more than three years, award-winning investigative reporter Brian McGillivary has broken dozens of stories about Meijer Inc., a retail giant from Grand Rapids, Mich., and its attempts to bully government officials into greenlighting large development projects. In “Meijer’s Secret Plan,” McGillivary exposed the retailer’s efforts to use its political muscle and deep pockets, including frivolous lawsuits, undisclosed campaign contributions and the funding of a public relations campaign to demand an election recall.

Writing the series presented its own challenges, including attempting to prove illegal activity, the loss of Meijer’s advertising revenue of $250,000 and private investigations by Meijer into the backgrounds of the publisher and editor of the Record-Eagle. McGillivary and the newspaper, however, were not dissuaded from pursuing the story.

A representative from the Record-Eagle wrote, “This story is about a corporation’s attempt to usurp the democratic process by secretly staging a coup to remove an entire township board and replace it with its corporate collaborators. The sole purpose of which appears to be the intent to punish local officials who sought changes in Meijer Inc.’s plan to drop a cookie-cutter site plan of its big-box store in one of the main corridors entering the Traverse City community. It also shows how this politically powerful company secretly uses the media to accomplish its goals.”

“It gives me a chill, how much money they can spend to ruin other people,” said Acme Clerk Dorothy Dunville, a target of the February recall.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper25

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Public Service Journalism (Non-Daily Publication)

Winner: Kirsten Grind, Jeanne Lang Jones, Alwyn Scott & George Erb, Puget Sound Business Journal

“WaMu and the Foreclosure Crisis”

Kirsten Grind and the Puget Sound Business Journal team took an in-depth, insider’s look at the rise and fall of the Washington Mutual empire. In 2001, the Seattle-based WaMu seemed to be at the peak of its success. Behind the scenes, however, the cracks of its once solid financial foundation had begun to crack, Grind revealed in her series on the foreclosure crisis.

With painstaking research and persistence, Grind interviewed 10 people close to WaMu and CEO Kerry Killinger, including top executives who had worked with Killinger for the last 20 years. In addition, Grind and the PSBJ team reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including SEC filings, property records of customer foreclosures, and court cases.

Though Killinger refused several requests to be interviewed, Grind was able to piece together the downfall of WaMu. She presented the depth of that story to readers in a digestible form — many who had been WaMu customers — to help them understand what went wrong.

Grind explained, …without exception, former and current executives interviewed for this article pointed to Killinger’s changes in the late 1990s as one of the chief causes of the company’s eventual downfall. One of the main reasons is that it gave much more power to the company’s mortgage division and the executives who ran it over the next 10 years, executives said…Ultimately, the changes paved the way for the mortgage unit to transform into a ‘culture of unmitigated greed.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXNewspaper26

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