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Home > Publications > Quill > Sigma Delta Chi Awards Winners - Online Reporting


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Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Sigma Delta Chi Awards Winners - Online Reporting

By Scott Leadingham

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

Deadline Reporting (Affiliated)

Winner: Staff, Pressconnects.com

“Massacre on Front Street”


For a small daily newspaper and Web outlet, staff shortages can present challenges on any average day. When news breaks and becomes the largest national story of the day, the shortages can present formidable obstacles.

That’s exactly what faced the Binghamton, N.Y., Press & Sun-Bulletin and its website, Pressconnects.com, on April 3, 2009. When a gunman stormed through the American Civic Association office, killing 13 innocent people, the news staff knew it had a massive task ahead: provide up-to-the-second coverage online while preparing deep coverage for print. And the staff did it with far fewer people than required for such a Herculean undertaking. A designer and photographer, out of four total people in those roles, were away on furlough.

Staff members pressed on, putting all their resources into extensive breaking news updates and continuing online coverage.

A report by staff writer John Hill was part of the package:

Having already blocked the rear door with his car, the man entered the building through the front door firing. He immediately shot a receptionist. … The woman, shot in the abdomen, played dead while the man shot and killed another receptionist, then moved left into a classroom to continue his shooting spree.

From under her desk, the injured receptionist called 911 at 10:31 a.m., telling a dispatcher she had been shot and that a man with a handgun was in the building and had fired several more shots. Binghamton police were on the scene two minutes later. By that time, all the shooting was done.


The resources devoted to the Web paid off. People from all over the world, including other media outlets, flocked to Pressconnects.com for news updates. The site went from an average 225,000 page views per day to 1.4 million in a single day.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline1

_____________________

Deadline Reporting (independent)

Winner: Doree Armstrong, Cory Bergman, Kate Bergman & Dale Steinke, PhinneyWood.com

“Three-Alarm Fire Destroys Greenwood Businesses”

Firefighters attacked this fire on all sides, with three ladders in the air. Central Greenwood is shut down to traffic in all directions, radiating out about three blocks from 85th and Greenwood. Buses were being rerouted to 3rd Avenue from about 80th to 90th Street. Hoses are stretched as far as three blocks. …

Standing across the street, staring with a stunned expression into the burned out building, Green Bean manager Summer Mohrlang said many would be devastated by the loss of the popular coffee shop. “I’m hoping it’s not arson. I hope it’s an accident,” she said. “I’m really sad for the businesses on either side. This is all they had.”


It was arson that day in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, and the effects of such a large-scale fire were felt throughout the community, as covered by the local site PhinneyWood.com. It took 100 firefighters to contain the massive blaze.

The coverage by PhinneyWood was the most extensive of any media outlet in the area. That’s saying a lot considering it’s run by people in their “spare” time who work other jobs. The site is run by freelance writer Doree Armstrong and her husband, Dale Steinke, who at the time was the interactive news and operations manager at KING 5 TV.

Armstrong noted that winning the award has put a “spotlight” on the power of neighborhood journalism. “Blogs haven’t always had a reputation for true journalism, but that’s definitely changed now,” she said.

Judges called the effort “an exceptional collection of work and a model of creative, multimedia coverage.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline2

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Non-Deadline Reporting (Affiliated)

Winner: Jeff Klinkenberg & Maurice Rivenbark, St. Petersburg Times

“Real Florida”

It’s a match made in heaven, or at least the heavenly, peaceful surroundings of the Everglades. Feature writer and columnist Jeff Klinkenberg has been working in newspapers since age 16. Now, at 61, he’s an institution of sorts for the St. Petersburg Times through the human stories he tells that capture “real Florida.”

Words can capture only so much, and teamed with videographer/photographer Maurice Rivenbark, the stories become that much more engaging, memorable and impactful.

In 2009, Klinkenberg and Rivenbark introduced readers and viewers to a litany of colorful characters, including an amputee learning to cope with his predicament by mentoring a younger amputee and a male Tallahassee bike rider known for wearing nothing more than a bikini bottom. And there was the story of Dawn, the “Spanish moss lady”:

Dawn is 52. She wears a purple bandanna, a long-sleeve shirt and black trousers over her robust frame. She looks you in the eye, talks at a dizzying clip, keeps a shotgun near the front door. Spanish moss tendrils lie upon her shoulders like little worms.

She is a visitor from another time. In Dawn’s opinion, and she is seldom quiet about hers, Florida has too many cars on the roads, too few critters dwelling in our shrinking forests, and – pay attention – too many citified, fancy-pants people who know nothing about Spanish moss.


Executive Editor Neil Brown lauded the duo’s work in introducing it to the judges. “In the future, people will look to collections of Jeff Klinkenberg’s stories and Maurice Rivenbark’s multimedia presentations to find out what Florida was like before they paved paradise,” he wrote.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline3

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Non-Deadline Reporting (independent)

Winner: Ben Protess & Lagan Sebert, Huffington Post Investigative Fund

“Credit Rating Series”

It didn’t take long for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund — the news and investigative unit spun off of the blogging and opinion site The Huffington Post — to storm onto the scene as a serious player in online journalism. Launching in the prime of the economic downturn and fallout of a credit crisis, the Investigative Fund was in an ideal position to sink its teeth into reporting on significant public events.

Reporters Ben Protess and Lagan Sebert found that credit rating agencies, tagged as partially responsible for some elements of the financial meltdown, were using, of all defenses, a free-speech argument.

For two decades, the nation’s top credit rating agencies have managed to fend off a crackdown from Washington by relying on a surprising ally — the First Amendment. …

With help from two of the most storied constitutional lawyers in the country, the raters have successfully argued that when they make a mistake — say, awarding the top triple-A grade to a multibillion-dollar bundle of bonds that later default — they cannot be sued or held accountable.


That’s because ratings are opinions, the agencies claim, protected by the constitutional right to free speech.

The pair reviewed court filings and hundreds of pages of congressional testimony and Securities and Exchange Commission documents to uncover court strategies used by the raters — and to uncover their flawed reasoning.

Subsequent to the series that highlighted regulatory shortcomings, congressional leaders changed the loopholes in a bill that passed the House in December, and the Senate approved regulations to tighten restrictions on credit rating agencies.

Protess and Sebert noted that the most difficult aspect of their reporting was getting people who were under judicial order not to speak to talk and share documents. Their persistence and relationship building eventually convinced sources to talk — an old-school journalism lesson that stands the test of time and medium.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline4

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Investigative Reporting (Affiliated)

Winner: Staff, Chicago Tribune Online

“Agent Orange: A Lethal Legacy”

Although nearly four decades have passed since the end of U.S. combat operations in Vietnam, the effects on veterans and the Vietnamese population are still being felt. The use of toxic defoliants, or the infamous “Agent Orange,” by the U.S. military has had devastating physical, psychological and environmental impacts — for soldiers on both sides of the conflict, their families and young children born 30 years after the conflict ended.

With the “Agent Orange: A Lethal Legacy” series, the Chicago Tribune told the stories of U.S. Vietnam veterans receiving disability payments far beyond those of their Korea and World War II counterparts. Why? Agent Orange. U.S. taxpayers spend nearly $2 billion a year compensating veterans with defoliant-related illnesses.

U.S. veterans seeking compensation for their illnesses face delays and a maddening bureaucracy. Adding to their frustration, the federal government never has gotten to the bottom of Agent Orange’s full impact, failing to follow through on requests for large-scale studies on how defoliants may have affected veterans’ health.

In Vietnam, children sing songs of the devastation caused by Agent Orange and government officials wonder how the U.S. can avoid fully addressing the health and environmental havoc wreaked by the chemicals, even as the two nations foster stronger trade and military ties.


Thanks to assistance from the Fund for Investigative Reporting, the Tribune sent reporters through eight Vietnamese provinces, collecting video, photography, stories and first-hand accounts of how the dioxin has affected rural populations. The result is a comprehensive investigative online digital presentation, combining hard data, U.S. government statistics from the National Archives and haunting narrative.

Judges were impressed by the scope of the work and the in-depth narrative and data-driven journalism. They called the Tribune’s reporters on this series “a force to be reckoned with.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline5

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Investigative Reporting (INDEPENDENT)

Winner: Abrahm Lustgarten, Joaquin Sapien & Sabrina Shankman, ProPublica

“Buried Secrets: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat”

Public infrastructure in the United States is supposed to lead the world. Water supplies should be safe. Turning on the tap shouldn’t result in sickness. Drinking from a private well shouldn’t cause cancer. Time and time again, however, journalists uncover obscene cases of pollution that threaten the safety and integrity of water systems.

Non-profit investigative outlet ProPublica added its name to that media list by highlighting the largely unregulated practice of hydraulic fracturing — a method of natural gas extraction — and its after effect of leaving harmful chemicals in underground waters supplies. The 20-month investigation, with 60 published reports and numerous explanatory graphics, highlighted a history of industry pressure to win exemption from government regulation.

For more than a decade the energy industry has steadfastly argued before courts, Congress and the public that the federal law protecting drinking water should not be applied to hydraulic fracturing, the industrial process that is essential to extracting the nation’s vast natural gas reserves. In 2005 Congress, persuaded, passed a law prohibiting such regulation. Now an important part of that argument — that most of the millions of gallons of toxic chemicals that drillers inject underground are removed for safe disposal, and are not permanently discarded inside the earth — does not apply to drilling in many of the nation’s booming new gas fields.

Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten said this investigation opened his eyes to the “complexity of our energy policies and the politics of environmental action.” He saw those politics first hand, being stonewalled by gas-industry representatives who even urged lawmakers not to cooperate with his reporting.

Judges commended the work for exposing risks in gas exploration and prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to examine threats posed by hydraulic fracturing.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline6

_____________________

Public Service in Online Journalism (Affiliated)

Winner: Staff, NationalJournal.com

“The Promise Audit”

In politics, fewer things lead to voter dissatisfaction and distrust quicker than broken promises. And with a president who rode to office on the heels of heavy promises of “change,” there are high expectations to fulfill.

Keeping track of politicians’ campaign promises can be a heavy task, but National Journal was devoted to the charge. The online staff compiled 250 such promises President Barack Obama made during the campaign and rated them against actions during his first year in office. However, the project is ongoing through the full term.

National Journal explained the audit to readers this way:

If Obama has made no effort to complete a promise, he gets 0 percent for that promise. If he’s taken some identifiable steps short of legislation or an executive order, he gets 25 percent. If legislation has been introduced or significant progress is apparent, he gets 50 percent. A 75 percent mark is awarded if most elements of completing a promise are in place but more work needs to be done. A 100 percent mark is given when the promise has been fulfilled.

To track updates, reporters give brief progress reports whenever the president advances on or retracts on a promise. The reports link to aggregated online sources where readers get more in-depth background. Or, since the progress reports appear in a timeline format similar to a Twitter feed, any busy Capitol Hill staffer or equally busy citizen can briefly review and understand the administration’s progress through the first year (and beyond).

Judges spoke highly of the initiative, saying “it takes a strong team effort to keep everything up to date — but that helps make Promise Audit a true public resource and service.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline7

_____________________

Public Service in Online Journalism (independent)

Winner: Kristen Lombardi, Kristin Jones, Gordon Witkin & David Donald, The Center for Public Integrity

“Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice”

Reporters Kristen Lombardi and Kristin Jones spent 12 months surveying campus crisis service programs and college administrations’ responses to sexual assault crimes. What they found and documented for The Center for Public Integrity highlighted an alarming and largely overlooked and taboo trend: that reporting, investigation and discipline of sexual assault on college campuses is woefully lacking.

One national study reports that roughly one in five women who attend college will become the victim of a rape or an attempted rape by the time she graduates. But while the vast majority of students who are sexually assaulted remain silent — just over 95 percent, according to a study funded by the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department — those who come forward can encounter mystifying disciplinary proceedings, secretive school administrations, and off-the-record negotiations. At times, policies lead to dropped complaints and, in cases like Russell’s, gag orders later found to be illegal. Many college administrators believe the existing processes provide a fair and effective way to deal with ultra-sensitive allegations, but alleged victims say these processes leave them feeling like victims a second time.

Impact of the series was far reaching, with over 150 print, online, TV and radio outlets reporting elements of the center’s investigation. Fueled by the extensive reporting, advocacy groups like Security on Campus launched the “Campus Sexual Assault Free Environment (SAFE) Blueprint,” a legislative proposal to update two federal laws requiring schools to respond to sexual assaults and provide more rights to victims.

Lombardi wrote that working on the project changed her perspective as a journalist and how to approach sensitive topics of drastic consequence to victims. “Working with such sources has left me with a deeper appreciation for anyone who has the courage to go public, which is a good thing to have as a journalist,” she said. “You shouldn’t take people for granted.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline8

_____________________

Column Writing (Affiliated)

Winner: Charlie LeDuff, The Detroit News

Anthony Alls never saw it coming. ... While Alls was stooped over the quarter-panel, someone approached from behind and unloaded six shots into his back. …

Alls, authorities believe, was killed to keep him quiet. He was the witness to the murder of his friend at a Southfield nightclub in the early morning hours of Aug. 9. Alls was a rarity — he was willing to testify. In fact, he had been subpoenaed to appear in court just a few hours before his murder. … But dead men don’t talk. And without a living witness, the suspects may be released.


That’s only a taste — a wholly unrepresentative one — of the full breadth of what Charlie LeDuff’s columns entail. Detroit News online managing editor Pam Shermeyer describes the Pulitzer winner’s work as veering “between the serious and the absurd, but always with an intent to find the truth and tell it in vivid fashion. One week it’s a stark depiction of the ripple effects of crime in Detroit; another week he’s barbecuing raccoons with a man who shoots them for a living within the city limits.”

His style is informative narrative, flecked with participatory and experimental journalism, not being afraid or shy about inserting himself into the engaging and telling videos that accompany his online work.

The range of topics covered — serious to laughably offbeat and eccentric — is as wide as his experience. LuDuff has reported for The New York Times, covered the war in Iraq, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with migrants to report a story and worked as a gang counselor in a school program for troubled youth.

Judges complimented the realness of LeDuff’s columns, saying he “takes you to the place where he is writing about and throws you into it.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline10

_____________________

Column Writing (INDEPENDENT)

Winner: Jill Lawrence, Politics Daily

“Sharp Eye on Washington, Minimum Snark”

Jill Lawrence, a former USA Today national correspondent and Associated Press political writer, has found new space as a Politics Daily columnist. She brings with her a career of understanding and dissecting Washington, D.C., including being named one of Columbia Journalism Review’s top 10 campaign reporters in 2004.

Column ideas originate very naturally, Lawrence said, from news events, conversations with colleagues and sometimes “toying with thoughts in my own head.” In 2009 she dissected the health care debate, analyzed how and why Nancy Pelosi evokes such strong hostility from critics, and surveyed the cars in her neighborhood and posited that liberals should “ditch the Volvo” and buy American cars. Another column stemming from a lunch with evangelical pastor Rick Warren reviewed the church leader’s modest living but seemingly large and prominent social circle:

Listening to Rick Warren is always a struggle for me. It’s not because of his religion or political views, neither of which I share. It’s because of the tension between his persona and his good works. …

It was just the start of 90 minutes in which Warren may have broken a record for famous names dropped during one meal. The scale and nobility of the international work he leads through his southern California megachurch, whether it’s starting schools, training health workers or adopting orphans, are mind-boggling. Yet so are the health of his ego and the altitude at which he lives.


Judges pointed to Lawrence’s depth and writing style in selecting her, saying she “deftly mixed the personal and the political in a temperate, easy-to-digest style that provided online readers with much-needed reportorial commentary that was sometimes pointed, sometimes humorous and always fair.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline11

_____________________

Digital Media Presentation (Affiliated)

Winner: Staff, The Associated Press

“AP Economic Stress Index”

Common throughout 2009 were daily news accounts of the economic downturn and its effects on large financial institutions and people all across the country.

Foreclosures, news consumers were told, affected every community and people from all walks of life. But without truly localized outcomes apparent, some impact was lost to those who couldn’t see effects directly in their own community.

Staff at The Associated Press sought to fix that through its “Economic Stress Index,” an online map-based tool visually showing economic and demographic data for every county in the U.S. Utilizing experts in demographics and economics, AP staff built an index that reviewed monthly reports on unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies, and reported the results on an interactive map that graphs the economic past and present of all counties.

The project was truly a broad-based team effort, involving AP staff from all parts of the country in varying roles. Kathleen Carroll, AP senior vice president and executive editor described the roots this way:

“The project started with South Editor Brian Carovillano, who worked with Central Editor David Scott, Orlando correspondent Mike Schneider (a skilled data mapper) and Raleigh reporter Mike Baker on a way to visually map the recession’s impact. South multimedia editor Peter Prengaman, artist Carrie Osgood, developer John Balestrieri, newsroom innovation editor Troy Thibodeaux, interactive producer Jake O’Connell and database editor Allen Chen made it come to life.”

Judges called the project “a significant undertaking that does a solid job of utilizing interactive multimedia to show how the recession has impacted each and every community in the U.S.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline12

_____________________

Digital Media Presentation (Independent)

Winner: Kim Komenich, Kwan Booth & Josh Wilson, Newsdesk.org/Independent Arts & Media

“The Bay Area Toxic Tour: West Oakland”


Independent Arts & Media, which operates Newsdesk.org, says in its tagline, “Democracy Needs Independent Voices.” That’s apparent in the digital presentation the outlet put together called “The Bay Area Toxic Tour.” It focuses on the impacts of pollution from the Port of Oakland on the health of the marginalized, mostly black, West Oakland community. They believed other Bay-area news outlets were overlooking or underreporting this important public-health issue.

The project incorporates text articles, video, audio and picture slide shows to show in stark detail that ship pollution from the port has health consequences for local residents. But as the presentation showed, local regulations are mostly ineffective against vessels governed by international maritime law.

Booth wrote in one article:

A 2008 study by the California Air Resources Board indicates that West Oaklanders are exposed to diesel toxins at almost three times the levels of the rest of the city. As a result, children living in the 94607 zip code are seven times more likely than other California youth to be hospitalized for asthma and related issues. …

“There’s a lot of talk. People talk about how ‘this needs to be done, we’re going to do this’” said Shirley Burnell, a community activist and co-director of West Oakland Acorn, “but still things are being pushed out. Instead of doing something today or tomorrow or next week we’re still talking years.”


More than just a multimedia journalism venture, the work of Komenich, Booth and Wilson is notable for its truly grassroots effort — from the appeal of the content to the way it was funded. By using Spot.Us, a Knight Foundation News Challenge project pioneering and enabling crowd-funded journalism, Newsdesk.org raised nearly $1,800 to cover the project’s expenses — including hiring freelancers Komenich and Booth.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline13

_____________________

Specialized Journalism Site

Winner: Staff, CNNMoney.com

With a global recession in full swing, and constant questions about the macro- and micro-economic health of world financial institutions, CNNMoney became a top destination for finance-related news. In 2009, over 30 million readers used the site’s numerous interactive and explanatory tools to understand the complex monetary questions arising daily and disseminating from every corner of the country.

Combining content from CNN, Fortune magazine and Money magazine — all Time Warner properties — CNNMoney aims to be a one-stop destination for all things financial and business. Its appeal is wide — from profiles on leading Fortune 500 CEOs to practical, important explainers on personal finance and retirement planning.

In 2009, the site added “The More Money” blog, in which Money writers brought readers the latest thinking on personal finance topics, including investing, retirement planning and real estate. Another key addition was the interactive feature “Obama’s Money Moves,” which explained and rated the monetary initiatives of the administration and judged their effectiveness compared to initial unveiling.

Special projects are also at the heart of content, and in 2009 the site launched “Best Places to Live,” with access to a database of demographic data on more than 1,000 U.S. towns. Readers could see their own city data and compare to other locations based on criteria such as weather, crime and outdoor activities. Video gave users a look into life in places that rated highly with Money’s editors. Through a partnership with Facebook, users could share stories about their hometowns and engage others in a more streamlined, social way.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXOnline14

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