DFMie judges explain why Jenny Kane won

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Jenny Kane of the Farmington Daily Times won the May DFMie for the Texas/New Mexico cluster for her coverage of financial problems of a Navajo Nation school district.

Since her award-winning coverage, Kane has left the Daily Times for a job with the Virgin Island Daily News.

Judges explained why Kane was a winner:

The work of Jenny demonstrates the tenacity a reporter must have in order to keep a story alive. It also sounds like she’s not getting straight answers from district officials, so I hope an award will inspire her to continue pushing. The story also must have inspired the community to speak out and convince district officials not to close the school — how else did they ‘miraculously’ found the extra funds. In the end, her story was likely what prevented the school’s closure, which is one the highest form of accomplishment for a journalist.

Another judge:

Having written about some Native American issues myself, I know how hard it is to follow stories and get information. I was impressed by the diligence as well as the overall journalistic style. In an era when ‘quick’ stories are the norm, you can tell Jenny did real reporting and digging for story sources and angles.

DFMie judges praise interactive reporting on Zoot Suit Riots

An interactive package about the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 won the May DFMie for the Los Angeles News Group.

Judges explained their choice:

The LA Daily News package remembering the Zoot Suit Riots had be enthralled. The reporting and writing was top-notch and the dissection of the attitudes behind the riots was terrific. To interview a man who remembered the 70-year-old riots provided a special bonus. The interactive map was a real treat for online readers. While the package might not seem to have as much community activism to it as other entries, I would argue that the continued analysis of race relations is a strong benefit to the society as a whole.

Another judge:

Didn’t know about them but the coverage was extensive and I was informed and entertained reading them.

DFMie judges praise Berkshire Eagles’s sensitive coverage of veterans issues

The Berkshire Eagle wins the May DFMie for the Northeast cluster for its thoughtful, sensitive coverage of veterans issues after a former Marine’s suicide.

A judge’s comment:

It is hard to get people to talk after such an emotional event, but I like how this story was able to show so many sides of the tragedy. I also appreciate the ‘public service,’ way of thinking by helping to seek ways of getting assistance to those who need it.

Another judge:

The coverage is casting a light over a problem many say exists but few document: how many days do our veterans spend trying to get services? The coverage also includes resources on trying to spot suicidal tendencies and where can people get help, a valuable public service.

Berkshire Eagle wins DFMie for coverage of veteran’s suicide

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By Kevin Moran

Managing Editor, Berkshire Eagle

The Eagle is humbled for the DFMie acknowledging its ongoing coverage of a veteran’s suicide. Given the sensitive nature of the story that we covered, and covered with as much care as we did, we will be donating the cash award to a group that helps veterans.

We’re also sensitive to the fact that this review of how and why we reported this story could prove to re-upset family and friends. That’s why — ultimately — we thought it best to present a straightforward essay on how we put this together.

Background …

Newsrooms don’t often report on suicides. This one, however, was different. Ultimately, we were able to tell the story of a Marine veteran who heroically had saved lives in Afghanistan only to return home and be stymied by a backlog of Veterans Affairs claims. His post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression are what caused the suicide; however, it was a failed system — the claims backlog — that contributed to his inability to get the help he needed from the country he served.

The start …

Local authorities on May 12 confirmed they’d located the body of a man on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, a public place frequented by hikers and tourists. Indeed, the search for the body involved a contingent of personnel. Ordinarily, we would report on the search for a missing person, its results, the person’s identity, or the discovery of a body, etc.

Complicating matters, however, is that authorities knew the context of their search: The man had posted a suicide note online. However, we did not know this, and officials weren’t talking.

Initially, however, it wasn’t clear to us that it was, in fact, a suicide. But could the death have been an accident? The local police department’s information conflicted with the district attorney’s. At the end of the night, we had brokered the decision on the most accurate information we had to report: The Eagle’s Dick Lindsay reported that night online that authorities had recovered a body during their search and that the death was not considered suspicious.

Unraveling the background …

On May 13, further investigation of the death by Jenn Smith and Kevin Moran found that — based on social media postings, conversations with friends and other sources — it was Edward S. Passetto, an ex-Marine who killed himself by jumping off a cliff at Monument Mountain.

But why? We made contact with a fellow Marine, who shared a letter Passetto had written — an open letter to President Obama, he called it — before his death. The letter was stunning because Passetto detailed frustration over his long struggle to receive the benefits he felt were due him after serving in Afghanistan. We learned that he had saved the lives of men in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan; the incident left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. What’s worse, Passetto had languished in the Veterans Affairs pipeline for two years. Passetto wrote that he “felt abandoned by my own country.” And Eagle Managing Editor Kevin Moran wrote the story confirming that the death was a suicide but also explaining the story …

In Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Edward S. Passetto saved the lives of two men in a helicopter crash that killed 16 civilians at Kandahar Airfield in 2009. Risking his life, Passetto ran toward the fiery wreck and pulled the injured men — two of only five who survived — to safety. 

After coming home to Pittsfield in 2011 after a medical discharge, Passetto was now a veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, according to a fellow Marine and Passetto’s own letters and statements. 

Passetto spent the last two years “in limbo,” struggling with Veterans Affairs over his disabilities claim, he wrote. He had gone into debt, lost jobs, fallen behind on bills, relied on the GI Bill “to survive,” and “lost my wife and son over my issues both financially and medically,” he wrote. 

In an open letter to President Obama, Passetto asked for help because his two-year struggle with the VA system had made him “feel as if I am abandoned by my own country.” 

Still, Passetto described himself as a “proud veteran.”

“I believe it was Monday morning when I first learned the name of the victim, which stopped me in my tracks,” said Eagle reporter Jenn Smith. “I had just met and interviewed Ed Passetto less than a month earlier, at a flag-raising and veterans awareness week kickoff at Berkshire Community College. We had talked a fair amount about his struggles returning to civilian life after spending seven years on active duty. He was particularly frustrated about the process and delays of receiving his veteran’s benefits.”

Jenn Smith also wrote a sidebar that day …

It will have been a month ago this Thursday since 28-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edward S. Passetto stood before the flagpole at Berkshire Community College to speak about the importance of the American flag and raise it in awareness of Student Veterans Week at the college. 

He spent seven years in the Marines, joining in 2004. He served as a Harrier jet mechanic and was deployed overseas for a tour in both Afghanistan and Iraq. 

In 2011, he became a veteran and was proud of it, saying so at public veterans events, on social media pages, and in the Letters to the Editor section of The Berkshire Eagle.

Being responsible …

Because of the sensitive nature of reporting on suicides and knowing that this news could be a trigger for others, we also included information on “where to call for help” in our coverage: Crisis hotlines and websites, where to find local resources, and information on what to look for if someone is in crisis and how to help.

“This is when my previous connection with local suicide prevention advocates became critical,” said Jenn Smith. “With some support from the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, I ultimately connected with Dr. Jennifer Michaels from Berkshire Health Systems and the Brien Center in Pittsfield, an expert on the issue who is also passionate about helping others and raising awareness.

On Tuesday, May 14, we furthered this aspect of  suicide coverage too with a full-fledged story.

People who face any threat to their mental health, be it a traumatic circumstance, an illness like depression or major life change, can become overwhelmed by their emotions, and be prone to having suicidal thoughts. 

This matter comes to the forefront in Berkshire County since veteran Marine Corps Sgt. Edward S. Passetto died over the weekend by an apparent suicide that took place on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. 

Passetto, who had seen live combat action and rescued men in a helicopter crash, had been battling post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, according to a fellow Marine and Passetto’s own letters and statements. 

‘When people are depressed and isolated they feel very much alone,’ Dr. Jennifer Michaels said, speaking generally about people affected by mental health disorders. She is an attending psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center and medical director for the Brien Center.

On Tuesday, May 14, Eagle reporter Jim Therrien continued to push the story about returning veterans who aren’t getting services they require through Veterans Affairs. Local officials called this tragedy a “wake-up call”:

The death of a Marine Corps veteran who struggled to have his disability claim processed through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could provide “a wake-up call” nationally, according to Rosanne Frieri, the city’s director of Veterans Services. 

Citing the national backlog of some 850,000 pending claims for medical services — including some she has helped local veterans to submit — Frieri said she doubts much will change “until we fix this broken system.” 

The issue was thrust into the public consciousness over the weekend by the apparent suicide of Edward Passetto, 28, of Pittsfield, who as a Marine served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is credited with risking his life to save two people in a helicopter crash. Shortly before his death, Passetto described in an open letter to President Obama his attempts for more than two years to have his disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems allowed by the VA.

On Tuesday, May 14, we also editorialized on the issue:

It would honor Edward Passetto’s memory and the memory of other forgotten veterans if Americans insisted that their appointed and elected officials do justice by the soldiers who are too often abandoned once they set foot again on U.S. soil.

Reaction …

Our initial interaction with the family was rocky. Understandably, they were distraught, angry, upset that this had happened and that we were reporting it. By May 13 and 14, because we had a more complete picture of the situation, we started to build a bridge of communication with the family.

That week, Kevin Moran and Jenn Smith met with Passetto’s mother and a family friend. They were still distraught, but more understanding of our coverage. They assisted us in better understanding Passetto and his troubles, particularly as a returning veteran who was fraught with many issues.

The May 15 story from that interview was powerful but also wrenching: The mother of a Marine Corps veteran was calling for change at Veterans Affairs.

Patricia Passetto wants change in this country and in how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs serves its constituents. 

Her son, 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran Edward S. Passetto of Pittsfield, died on Saturday morning in an apparent suicide on Monument Mountain. He had long struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

On Wednesday, Patricia Passetto met with members of The Eagle staff to champion the legacy of her son and share her frustrations about how people like her son become burdened by the length of time it takes for a veteran’s benefit claim to be reviewed, stamped and delivered.

‘I want to see changes,’ said Patricia Passetto, a Lee resident, who had served in the Navy. Her late husband and Edward’s father, Michael J. Passetto, had served with the Army.

‘I support our military. I support our military men. I do not support our military’s process,’ she said. ‘The whole administration needs to change.’

Community reaction …

By this time, the community had begun to come to grips with this tragedy. Letters to the editor called for changes to the system, for the country to respect its veterans. While a tragedy, many who knew Passetto were moved by his plight and felt he should be honored for his efforts to fight on the homefront for returning war veterans.

For example, Brittany Clark, a former classmate of Passetto, spearheaded a fundraising effort through the family-run Clark’s nursery in Lee. On Memorial Day weekend, the Lee business matched all sales tax on items sold at the nursery, proceeds to benefit area homeless veterans. We made sure to preview these events as part of our coverage. Others coordinated a vigil.

Lawmakers spoke out on this too:

‘He was truly a casualty of war,’ [state Rep. William] Pignatelli said. ‘He struggled with his trauma and the horrors he saw in the Middle East as a returning veteran. No young soldier who served his country valiantly, a hero in this terrible war on terror, should come home and struggle to find the services and the support that he needs. Eddie is gone but will never be forgotten.’

What had been a difficult subject to cover had motivated the community to act to pressure the government to fix the system. We learned and reported that our local congressman had delivered a copy of Passetto’s open letter to President Obama. One can only hope the president read the letter.

Following through …

Through the willingness of his loved ones, fellow Marines and other community members, we were able to share more intimate details of this young man who fought for his country, for his fellow vets but ultimately succumbed to the trauma of carrying on this fight without much positive response in return.

Ultimately, we received the family’s OK for intimate coverage of Passetto’s funeral. 

During his sermon for Friday’s funeral service, the Rev. Jack Sheaffer, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, he called Edward Passetto a ‘hero’ who ‘gave us his life and labor and love.’

The pastor also acknowledged the issues Passetto and others in the U.S. struggle with when faced with unbearable stress and pain.

‘The death of someone who took their own life in their hands it’s not the kind of death we want for ourselves or our loved ones. Here we are, the survivors, having to come to grips with why, but we are not alone,’ said Sheaffer.

He noted how more than a half-million people in the U.S. attempt suicide each year, and 30,000 complete it.

‘It happens to every kind of person, no matter where they are, or what they look like,’ he said.

The Catholic Church used to declare suicide a sin and once denied those who had died by suicide a Catholic service and burial. The church has since amended and eased its stance, and considers people struggling with mental health disorders to not have an awareness of committing a sin.

As much as this was a team effort in the newsroom, this was also a community effort of individuals and organizations wanting to do their part in helping to support others who are confronting suicide and mental health issues as well as veterans’ rights and needs.

It continues …

Into June and to this day, we keep reporting on the backlog confronting Veterans Affairs and how the agency is attempting to clear its backlog of claims.

The nation wants its veterans to receive the benefits they deserve. And we owe it to veterans to continue to keep the pressure on to ensure claims are processed swiftly and veterans get the help they deserve.

Title game livetweeting wins DFMie for Mike Brohard

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Mike Brohard of the Reporter-Herald wins the May DFMie for the Colorado-Utah cluster for his livetweeting coverage of the Colorado state baseball championship.

Judges explain why Brohard won:

My vote goes to Mike Brohard of the Reporter-Herald for his efforts at (1) providing stellar reportage on the Lions’ state championship run and (2) enabling other students, family and school’s supporters to follow their team as if they were right there at the stadium. Mr. Brohard expertly provided play-by-play and commentary on what undoubtedly is a major event for the community. I can’t help but feel that his efforts endeared the Reporter-Herald to the community as more than just a superb provider of news.

Another judge:

Brohard’s effort rose above for me in covering important championship games, quite some distance from home, on a busy weekend with a very small staff.

While some papers may have had the luxury of sending more staff, or dividing up the tasks, Brohard did it all in livetweeting scores and commentary, posting photos on social media and covering the gamer stories online and in print. He executed the reality of digital-first, used community engagement and delivered the goods.

Mike Brohard explains DFMie-winning live coverage of championship game

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By Mike Brohard

The Reporter-Herald

I guess the old guard can learn new tricks.

As the newspaper industry took the turn into the type of information outlet it has become now — one still very much tied to print roots, but very much involved in the digital instant-information age — I know a few people who had been at newspapers for a long time who didn’t know how they would blend or if it all could be done.

Or if we old-timers could learn to keep up.

I say this as I’m closer to 50 than 40 and as one who still remembers what a wax machine and light board are and how they were used. But I digress.

The weekend of the state baseball championships in Colorado also coincided with graduation weekend in Loveland. This year marked the fifth time Mountain View had reached the state final, and I’ve covered every one of those games. But this time around was so much different.

I was on the field before games snapping photos with my phone and posting them on our prep Twitter account, @RHpreps. During games, I was relaying information as it happened, just to keep people up to date. You never really know if anybody is paying attention, and I’ve found one doesn’t gauge that by how many people respond. In fact, few did that day during the two games, but as I found out the next few days back in Loveland, plenty of people were reading.

Students were watching our account as graduation ceremonies were taking place. And at graduation parties when the second game was taking place (the Colorado state tournament is double elimination). It was great feedback for us.

We were getting news to the masses as it happened; they didn’t have to wait until the next day.

One of my employees had suggested instead of individual Twitter accounts, we create one account for all of us for when we cover high school events. We can all log into it, and the community doesn’t have to follow three different accounts. We each have our individual accounts for our other beats, be it Colorado State athletics or our minor league hockey team, the Colorado Eagles. It also allows our readers to pick and choose what they really want to follow without being overloaded with other things.

It’s a new way to cover things for those who have been in the business as long as I have, but it’s been a positive change. Instead of rejecting every new development that came along, it has just taken some time to find out how to use it to our advantage. Through trial and error, I’ve come closer to finding what it information overload and what works. Twitter has been great to use for work, though I still don’t believe everybody needs to know what I’m doing and where I’m at all the time on a personal level. Adding video to stories has been helpful in attracting readers to our web edition.

Now, if somebody could just teach me the best way to use Tout …

Matt Artz wins BANG DFMie for story on robberies in Oakland

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Matt Artz of the Oakland Tribune wins the May DFMie for the Bay Area News Group for his story on Oakland being the “robbery capital of America.”

A judge explained why Artz is a winner:

What hooked me on the Artz story was the gumshoe approach to an enterprise story no one else had done. Like so many good stories, this one started up close and personal: A neighbor was robbed at gunpoint, and a reporter turned vulnerability into curiosity and coverage.

Artz did the legwork to find that muggings and robberies are not only a way of life for Oakland residents, but they are a way of life more in Oakland than anywhere else in the nation.

His coverage had all the bases covered – vital statistics, real victims and real people, reasons and trends and changes, inability of police to handle the situation, photos, facts boxes and the requisite tips on preventing yourself (as best as possible) from becoming a victim.

Good work on an problem that impacts way too many in his city.

Another judge:

‘Oakland: Robbery capital of America’ is one of those stories that can, and likely will, change lives. The reporter used great instincts and determination to nail down what he sensed what a very important story. I like how he applied his reporter instincts to a real-life situation (his neighbor getting robbed). This reporter did not wait to be handed the assignment. He realized if he felt scared of robbery, everyone else probably is as well. Would like to see a little more social media conversation on the topic to accompany the article (and perhaps that happened outside the scope of my reading). This effort will likely apply the correct pressure on the people in charge to motivate the change necessary to reduce crime and improve lives. Well done!

 

Matt Artz explains winning project on Oakland robberies

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By Matt Artz

Oakland Tribune

We had a staff meeting to discuss potential projects about violence in Oakland in late March, which coincided with a rash of robberies in my neighborhood. A couple nights before our meeting, I heard my neighbor scream and curse outside her apartment building. I learned the next day that a gunman had robbed her. The next day my neighborhood watch group sent out an email alert warning us that had been five armed robberies within a few blocks over the past week. I actually live in one of Oakland’s better neighborhoods.

I already knew that robberies were way up in Oakland this year and that homicides and shootings were down. The robberies in my neighborhood made me realize that although we often focus on homicides in Oakland, robberies are the crime that worries most of our readers because anyone can be a victim and robberies occur all over town, rather than being concentrated in the most dangerous neighborhoods.

I pitched a robbery story at the meeting and was given the OK to pursue it. I started reviewing FBI crime statistics that are tracked for every city with more than 100,000 residents. With help from Thomas Peele and Danny Willis, I created a formula in Excel to measure robberies per population. To my surprise, Oakland was tops in the country even before the sharp increases in robberies over the prior 18 months. Chuck Todd and our graphics department were able to make charts of the FBI data and also map the neighborhoods with most robberies from data provided by Oakland police.

Oakland later provided me its report to the FBI for 2012, which tallies all robberies reported in the city including those reported to Bay Area Rapid Transit and school district police. The figures showed that we been undercounting the number of robberies and understating the percent increase in robberies from 2011 to 2012. It also showed that Oakland not only had the highest rate of robberies per population, but it was significantly higher than any other city in the nation.

From there I talked to police, scholars, merchants and residents. I went on three citizen patrol walks, which have gained popularity since robberies started rising. My story included a 20-inch sidebar focusing on Oakland resident Britt Tennell. He witnessed two gunmen attack, rob and shoot a man who was getting into his car at an intersection in one of Oakland’s better neighborhoods. Amazingly, it was the second botched robbery/shooting at that intersection in less than a year. Tennell organized a vigil at the intersection a few days after the second shooting and then began organizing neighborhood walks at night to deter robbers.

In talking to police, I learned that the department’s technology systems are so poor that police won’t vouch for robbery arrest data. The robbery arrest figures provided by the department were far lower than national standards. But a department audit found that some arrests weren’t being manually logged into its system, so police wouldn’t stand by their own figures. Additionally, I learned that Oakland’s police department is so understaffed and underfunded that even as robberies were soaring, the department actually cut back on overtime for robbery investigations. What that meant was that when police arrested someone for robberies on the weekend or late at night, instead of calling out a seasoned robbery investigator, the department had to rely on a regular beat cop to do the key initial questioning of the subject.

DFMie judges explain why Jason Hoppin is a winner

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Jason Hoppin of the Santa Cruz Sentinel wins the DFMie for May in the Northern California cluster of Digital First Media. Hoppin wins for his analysis and reporting on local crime data.

A judge explained the choice of Hoppin’s stories for the award:

A story about a county with a high crime rate that does not send many to jail is very sexy. Not only was it a fine read, it’s a story that would open my eyes and really make me think if I’m a resident of that county. Good statistics to back it up, and the accompanying editorial just made it that much more solid.

Another judge added:

Definitely something the community should be aware of. The breakouts were informative and writing was well organized and kept my attention despite the length.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel is part of the Bay Area New Group for business purposes. But for editorial purposes, it is part of the Northern California cluster. Other NorCal finalists were the Chico Enterprise-Record staff for earthquake coverage and Richard Halstead of the Marin Independent Journal for coverage of a controversial local development plan.

Hoppin discusses his winning project.

DFMie judges explain why Dave Boucher is a winner

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Dave Boucher of the Charleston Daily Mail wins the DFMie for May in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/West Virginia cluster of Digital First Media.

Boucher wins for his series on prescription drug abuse in the town of Oceana, West Virginia, depicted as “Oxyana” in a film about drug abuse in the town. Boucher examined what was true and what was fiction in the film and reported on local efforts to fight drug abuse.

A judge explained why Boucher won the award:

Wow, this was an easy choice to make. … These stories were really well written, and each time the lede captured my attention right away. Combine that with resource after resource, and it was like a book I could not put down. Of course, the subject had a lot to do with why it was so good. But Mr. Boucher did the type of reporting that should make any of us proud. Really a fine, fine job.

Other finalists in the cluster were Chris Dunn, Brandie Kessler and Samantha Dellinger of the York Daily Record for a map of local veterans memorials and L.A. Parker and Matthew Osborne of the Trentonian for live coverage of Operation Dreamlift, which took some local children with special needs to Disney World for a day.