Newport News and Palestine writers awarded Carmage Walls Commentary Prize

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The editorial staff of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., and the editor of the Palestine (Texas) Herald-Press were awarded top honors in the competition this year for the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize, presented Thursday, Oct. 11, at the SNPA News Industry Summit.

In the over 50,000 circulation bracket, top honors went to the Daily Press Editorial Staff (Marisa Porto, publisher and editor-in-chief; C.W. Johnson, opinion editor; Robert Brauchle; Mike Holtzclaw; and David Ress).

For slightly more than a year, the Daily Press covered and commented on concerns related to Peninsula Airport Commission decisions. The concerns included transparency, the efficacy of undisclosed loan agreements and a secret decision to use public funds as a loan guarantee, putting millions of taxpayer dollars at risk. As a result, in part because of a state audit that coverage sparked, a city manager resigned, the commission director was fired, and training and guidelines were instituted for the commission, including specific measures for clarity of mission and transparency.

Judges said they liked the "push for openness and transparency in the way the board used public money. There was a clear cause and effect reaction to what they wrote and the results from the community. (The editorials and commentary) had clear impact." Also the entry presented "a good strong local issue ... It's the kind of thing where an editorial spotlight really has an impact. A good example of local, reported, aggressive, continuous focus."  View their entry

In the under 50,000 circulation group, first place went to Jeffery Gerritt, editor, Palestine Herald-Press, Palestine, Texas.

The five editorials in Gerritt's entry changed the culture of the local city government and city council, which the paper said was insular, closed and arrogant. As a result of Gerritt's relentless pressure, public officials in Palestine became more responsive to media requests. The city's media policy changed to enable reporters to talk directly to department heads, instead of having to get everything through Public Information Officer Nate Smith.  View this entry

Second-place honors went to:

Over 50,000 circulation bracket:
Sharon Grigsby, metro columnist, The Dallas Morning News, Dallas, Texas
Six pieces of commentary by Sharon Grigsby (who then was an editorial writer for the paper) focused on accusations of sexual assault by members of the Baylor University football team.  Grigsby, a Baylor graduate, devoted consistent commentary to the sexual assault story since it broke in August 2015.  She employed all of the tools of a talented editorialist: dogged reporting, crystal-clear presentation of the facts, eloquent appeals for transparency and admission of fault for the wrongdoer, praise for the efforts of the aggrieved, and, when all else failed, blistering criticism and appeals to both the public and lawmakers for help.  Read this entry

Under 50,000 circulation bracket:
Chris Cobler, editor, Victoria Advocate, Victoria, Texas

Last year, Hurricane Harvey punished the region like no other storm since Carla in 1961. In the face of this difficult situation, the editorial board turned to editor Chris Cobler and the newsroom to first help the community rally together and then help it learn important lessons from the storm. This evolved into an ongoing special series of news articles and editorials called "Understanding Harvey." The entire package may be seen online here.  Initially, the Viewpoints page approach was to unite the community and recognize the heroes of the emergency relief efforts. After the paper's reporting revealed serious flaws in the local, state and federal response to Hurricane Harvey, the editorial board opinion shifted.  The five pieces in the Carmage Walls entry reflect the campaign the newspaper undertook to help Victoria and the region become better prepared for the next storm that inevitably will strike.  View this entry

Honorable Mentions went to:

Over 50,000 circulation bracket: 
David Plazas, director of opinion and engagement, The Tennessean, Nashville, Tenn.

His editorials explored the secret of booming Nashville housing issues: that only those who can afford the rising housing costs are benefiting from the prosperity. The columns and editorials worked to keep city leaders – especially its mayor – focused on the needs of all residents. This made The Tennessean's role even more important to keep citizens engaged on the issue and decision makers accountable for positive outcomes so that the city does not become just a playground for the rich. The judges called the package, "a real deep dive into some issues that are affecting cities across the country." They called it a "a good example of the evolution of the editorial page." Judges said the issue was "good for the paper to focus on. They took a big swing at it, and they deserve points for that." View his entry

Over 50,000 circulation bracket:
Dwayne Yancey, editorial page editor, The Roanoke Times, Roanoke, Va.

The editorials focused on the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, an area long forgotten in the political sweep of things and devastated by coal's demise and left behind amid the continued political rise of Northern Virginia. Yancey's continuous drumbeat on issues that matter in the region brought to light problems such as mines and schools closing, among many others that no one outside of those most affected noticed. Judges said that Yancey was "the best writer in the group" and "thought provoking." No matter how deep and weighty some topics get in editorials and commentary, writing is still important, and Yancey was someone people can just read and enjoy, and therefore so deserving of an honorable mention. View his entry

Under 50,000 circulation bracket:
Nathan Crabbe, opinion and engagement editor, The Gainesville Sun, Gainesville, Fla.

The subject of the entry is "Gainesville For All: A fight for equity." The focus of the editorials, therefore, was on the Gainesville For All initiative, which set the agenda for public discussion on equity issues. Through Crabbe's editorials, he championed systemic change to long-standing issues of disparities falling along racial lines in a place that is home to the University of Florida and a vibrant entrepreneurial and cultural environment. Judges said the work was well written and "pretty strong mainly because of the analysis. It wasn't just one single topic; it was equity of the whole. It took shape as more than just an editorial." Judges noted that the paper held forums around the topic and really extended community engagement. "They were putting their words to action. They were convening the community." View his entry

The prize is named for the late Benjamin Carmage Walls whose newspaper career spanned seven decades.  Walls primarily owned community newspapers and advocated strong, courageous and positive editorial page leadership. Awards were presented Thursday by his daughter, Lissa Walls (CEO of Southern Newspapers).

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