Today’s column is dedicated to our newsroom, a group of dedicated journalists who were honored last week for outstanding journalism — including two of the top awards in the state of Florida.
The Bradenton Herald team was honored with both the James K. Batten Award for Distinguished Public Service and the Gene Miller Award for Investigative Reporting by the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists.
We strive every day to uphold our mission statement, which opens with this promise: “Our commitment is to seek out the truth, report it fairly and accurately, and to embrace the sense of community that defines Manatee County.”
But we rarely take the time to celebrate our successes, consumed instead by the next breaking news item for Bradenton.com, the story that needs more sources, the next photo assignment, seemingly endless deadlines. So this is a moment to cherish.
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The Batten Award, named in honor of the renowned late chairman of Knight-Ridder, “recognizes reporting that corrects a wrong, brings an issue to light or adds significantly to the public debate.” Our health and social services reporter could easily be named Donna “Batten Award” Wright.
She led the way in our winning entry, “Surviving the Squeeze.” The judges awarded Wright and the Herald staff Third Place for all media throughout Florida. (The Miami Herald placed first; the Fort Myers News-Press took second.) We launched the series last October, looking for smarter ways to help our community live through this economic meltdown. The judges wrote:
“The Batten Award is for public service and that’s what the Herald’s series delivered. It demonstrated how the economic meltdown was affecting local citizens and outlined what services and options were available to people in trouble. It also moved readers to help their neighbors and replenish stocks at food banks and the like.”
In the investigative reporting award for small newspapers, named in honor of late Miami Herald reporter and editor Gene Miller, Bradenton Herald reporters Robert Napper, Natalie Alund and Duane Marsteller won First Place for “Loophole Exposed in Predator Law.”
Napper began digging into an arrest report when his background check found that the suspect was a convicted sex offender. What Napper discovered led to a statewide critique of how jurisdictions are alerted to a sex offender’s past. The suspect had been arrested for allegedly molesting a patient at a Bradenton mental hospital — where sheriff’s deputies had taken him, but not told the hospital about his past. The Herald investigation, joined by Marsteller and Alund, revealed a loophole in the sexual predators law that doesn’t require agencies to notify nursing homes, hospitals or other facilities when a sexual offender is taken there.
This contest category calls for “original reporting that exposes a wrong or promotes understanding of a problem, issue, or subject in the public interest.” In honoring the loophole series, the judges wrote:
“These clearly written, solidly investigated reports revealed a hidden risk and put pressure on legislators to tighten rules on sexual predators. This is a compelling example of taking a local story and finding its larger meaning.”
SPJ received more than 700 entries — from print, television, radio and online — that were judged for the 2009 awards by news professionals in other states. Among those, three more outstanding Herald entries were honored in the smaller newspaper category:
n Reporters Brian Neill and Duane Marsteller won First Place in Non-Deadline Business Reporting for “Foreclosed Dreams.” Last year, the Herald began an in-depth look at the impact of housing foreclosures in Manatee County and found a crisis far wider than imagined. Marsteller and Neill examined thousands of documents to find how the fallout has affected our economy and infrastructure. By building his own database, Marsteller produced the only reliable numbers for this area. But the stories really were about the human impact. The judges wrote:
“Excellent package of six stories that were well-written and well-researched by the writers. Good use of photos and graphics. While there is much focus on losses suffered by financial institutions, these stories explore the toll on families and neighborhoods, as well as aggressive subprime lenders that fueled the mortgage.”
n News Editor Brent Conklin won Second Place for Front-Page Design. Our editors on the Universal Desk are usually the unsung heroes. They don’t have bylines, and they work all hours of the night to produce the Herald in print and online. So this award is particularly sweet. The judges wrote:
“Great use of graphics on the Bradenton Herald front pages. Integrated use of photos, charts and maps as visual storytelling breaks from traditional front-page design. A simple color palette keeps the pages clean and crisp.”
n And the entire staff won Third Place in Deadline News Reporting for “Interstate meltdown: Inferno shuts down I-75”. When a fuel tanker exploded on Interstate 75 during rush hour and shut down one of Manatee County’s major intersections last summer, the newsroom went into action. Photographer Grant Jefferies and a team of reporters were at the scene within minutes, and editors had the news posted at Bradenton.com before other media arrived. The first-day news package included hours of developments, impact, alternate routes, interviews with near-victims and witnesses, video, photos and fact boxes. The judges wrote:
“The staff of the Bradenton Herald were quick and thorough in delivering news of this tragic event to the community; beyond describing what happened they offered a wealth of practical information for motorists and shoppers; their persistence over six consecutive days of reporting brought a record response to get the roads open.”
On its web site, SPJ says it holds the Sunshine State Awards every year “to recognize quality journalism in the best tradition of our profession.”
It’s a profession we’re proud to uphold in this community. And I’m proud of a very fine staff of journalists.
Joan Krauter, executive editor, can be reached at (941) 748-0411, ext. 2000.