The entries that we considered for this second Murray Kempton Award competition for undergraduate journalism included many interesting, significant and well executed stories. It's evident that student journalism flourishes at CUNY, and that's heartening both for the future of the profession and for the inquiry that is at the heart of both education and an informed citizenry.
Each of us came to the judging conference with a list of top contenders and we discussed them all thoroughly. We decided to award one prize each in news and commentary and two prizes in the enterprise/features category. All entries were read "blind," in identical, plain text format without bylines or college identifications; although in some cases it was obvious from the article which campus was being discussed, that played no role in our discussions.
In an effort to help future entrants, here is a brief discussion of the factors that went into our decisions.
The contest rules state that "the journalistic work must be about matters of importance to the college community, interpreted broadly." The evaluation criteria include "originality; creativity; clarity in presentation; readability or audio/video storytelling; enterprise in reporting; journalistic significance, and accuracy of spelling and grammar."
Beyond those considerations we looked for stories that expanded our understanding of issues. We were intrigued with articles that ranged from controversy over tuition at public universities to immigration and the political implications of clothing choices. As it turned out, two of the winning entries dealt with campus and student concerns and two with sociology and life in New York City.
With a different mix of entries, different judges and a different flow to the discussion, some of the other stories could have been winners, and we encourage entrants to future competitions to continue to tackle all issues, whether on campus or not.
We welcomed stories with thorough, even-handed reporting. A case in point is the winner of the news competition, "When Army Recruiting Gets Personal" by Tiffany Charbonnier of Brooklyn College. Tackling an issue of broad significance on campus and beyond, she looks at all sides of the hot topic of military recruitment. She doesn't belabor the most telling line - one that implicitly recognizes the differences in class, race and economics that separate CUNY from other colleges and universities in New York City - when an Army recruiter says, "A lot more people go through the CUNY system than anywhere else, and that's why we would target it more than other city schools."
In features, we found two worthy articles. The first is the well constructed story, "Heart of Glass: Suzanne Glass," by Jaillan Elgallad of Brooklyn College. This personality profile gets to the essence of a Brooklyn College teacher, novelist and playwright. While stories about writers aren't rare, those about great teachers are harder to find, especially those depicting how they operate in the classroom and relate to their students. One can only admire a teacher who starts her class by asking students to "[rip] her story apart" before submitting it to the Financial Times and then accepts their suggestion that she change a subhead. The insight that Elgallad brought to this profile of a dedicated teacher gives it heft and significance.
The other features winner is "Bushwick: Ethnographic Profile of a North Brooklyn Neighborhood," by Jessica Lawson of the CUNY Baccalaureate Program, who wrote it while at Hunter College. This is an ambitious piece involving extensive on-the-street reporting. It explores what happens to a neighborhood as it plummets from middle-class safety to the dangers of urban decay, crime and drugs, and then rises again on the double-edged sword of gentrification. Although some long-term, low-income, Latino residents are being pushed out by wealthier, hipper newcomers, she makes clear that Bushwick remains very much a work in progress.
In commentary, we were taken with by the sassy tone that Hannah Levine of Hunter College took in "I'm Drinking Red Bull 'Cause I Want Your Body: Diatribe of a Disgruntled New Yorker." In this passionate, engaging piece, a woman describes what it's like to suffer the indignities of wolf whistles and cat calls, tells how she decides to stand her ground and relates what happens next. Levine keeps it light and sparking, making this commentary a delight to read.
A few words of guidance to future entrants: First, be sure to tell both sides of the story (and more sides if they exist). Second, even a story that's intended to show reaction to an event needs context; a string of quotes alone, no matter how vivid, needs a framework to explain why the people are speaking. We suggest that future entrants also read the judges' statement from 2008 on this website under Archive, which deals with other facets of what makes for good reporting and journalistic writing.
Each of us had the privilege of working with Murray Kempton, and we feel confident that he would have been proud to lend his name to this competition and to these four winners. One of the things Murray often said about New York Newsday was that he found himself energized all over again by the enthusiasm of the young reporters working there. He would have felt the same way about these students and these entries.
Ronald Howell, associate professor, Brooklyn College
Anthony Marro, former editor, Newsday and New York Newsday
Neill S. Rosenfeld, curator, the Kempton Awards