11/18/2008 - Against a dismal economic backdrop for the news industry, the nation’s statehouse reporters gathered Saturday (Nov. 15) to honor the best of their work at the ninth annual conference of CapitolBeat, an association of reporters and editors who cover state government.
For the second straight year, Illinois reporters dominated the reporting contest, winning 12 awards — twice as many as reporters from the next closest state, California.
Governor Rod Blagojevich “was actually responsible for several (awards) tonight,” joked contest chair Linda Kleindienst, referring to Illinois’ beleaguered Democratic governor, who has come under fire this past year for a messy budget battle. He was also in the news for the troubles of some of his top advisers, including Chicago developer Tony Rezko, who have been convicted of fraud and bribery. Blagojevich was the subject of at least three of the winning reports.
An Illinois reporter also claimed the contest’s top prize, the John Aubuchon Freedom of Information Award. Scott Reeder, the Springfield bureau chief for the Small Newspaper Group in Kankakee, Ill., won for “Hidden Violations,” a series that looked at Illinois’ poor record of dealing with teacher misconduct.
Reeder filed 1,800 open records requests with more than 1,000 government agencies in 50 states to create a national database to compare Illinois with its counterparts.
“Imagine one reporter working for a group of small newspapers shaking up one of the nation’s largest education bureaucracies,” said Gerald Taylor, publisher of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, both in Illinois, in nominating Reeder. “This would be a remarkable achievement under any circumstances, but it is particularly noteworthy that this was accomplished by a reporter working for a smaller news organization with limited resources.”
The celebration took place as the journalism world suffers more layoffs and cutbacks. Kleindienst, the longtime Tallahassee bureau chief for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, recently took a buyout. The Chicago Tribune’s Jeffrey Meitrodt, part of a five-person team that won for Blagojevich coverage, was laid off in August amidst budget problems at the paper. The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., won three awards, but of the five reporters who were honored Saturday, four have accepted buyouts as part of a downsizing that will reduce the newsroom staff by about 40 percent.
Other multiple winners included the Associated Press (with seven awards), the Northwest News Network that covers Oregon, Washington and Idaho (four), Illinois Issues magazine (three) and WUIS/IL public radio in Illinois (three). Alaska’s KTUU-TV also won three awards, all of them to Bill McAllister, who left the station in August to become Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s chief spokesman.
Stateline.org took home four awards for online publications, including first and second place, respectively, in beat reporting for tax and budget reporter Pamela M. Prah and crime and courts reporter John Gramlich.
Gramlich also won third place for in-depth reporting for a series on the death penalty, and Louis Jacobson was the only online column winner for his “Out There” columns on state politics.
CapitolBeat also gave its first-ever college journalism award to Evan Shields of Indiana’s Franklin College for a story that surveyed the state’s legislators and their property taxes. It found that only four of 18 lawmakers whose taxes decreased acknowledged it.
Winners came from 21 states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.
View the full list of CapitolBeat winners on Stateline.org.