Five things I learned from prize-winning journalism

I did something last year that I hadn’t done before in all my years as a journalist: I read (or otherwise consumed) virtually all of our profession’s prize-winning work.

The task was awe-inspiring; it gave me a new bar for measuring my own work as an editor.

“Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism 2013,” an e-book from The Poynter Institute

It was also daunting. As co-editor of Poynter’s first e-book, “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism 2013,” I knew the book could feature interviews with the creators of only 10 pieces. To say the selection process was tough is an understatement. But I believe the stories we ultimately chose are a fair representation of the larger body of work in at least this way: They prove that despite journalism’s challenges and its shifting landscape, the talent, tenacity and passion to do meaningful work is ever-present.

Now a new contest season is upon us, and Poynter is deeply ensconced in seeing what else can be learned from colleagues whose work will be showcased in our 2014 edition of the book. In the meantime, I wanted to offer this: Five things I learned from last year’s jaw-dropping journalism.

Some are new insights; others are reminders of old nuggets that shouldn’t be forgotten but sometimes are.

1. Collaboration really is the thing.

There’s still a lot of talk about “legacy” platforms and the digital newcomer. I sometimes think of this as the 10,000-pound gorilla teaming up with Mighty Mouse. But organizations that truly believe in an old adage — “The whole is larger than the sum of its parts” – are winners in the new media landscape.

No place was this more evident than in The Denver Post’s coverage of the shootings at the theater in Aurora, Colo., and The New York Times’ account of an avalanche in the Cascade mountains in Washington.

At The Post, the tweets of reporters and photographers on the scene of the theater shootings were used to build stories in the office. The paper served the breaking news story’s immediacy on the Web, then came back with context in print. Planning for both platforms was simultaneous and coordinated. Said News Director Kevin Dale: “I’m a fan of practicing solid breaking news, social media, multiplatform journalism every single day. If that is the daily mission, the staff can respond to any story.”

As for John Branch’s “Snow Fall,” which received its own avalanche of praise, it married fine writing with the skills of videographers and photographers and Web geniuses to achieve a fully-realized, multimedia presentation — what many called 21st century storytelling.

2. In places where outsiders’ eyes are not allowed, it’s possible that people are being victimized.

That’s an investigative truism, isn’t it? Certainly Alexandra Zayas of the Tampa Bay Times found that to be the case in Florida group homes that claimed a religious exemption and thereby escaped state oversight. In her series, “In God’s  Name,” she found that kids were being bruised and bloodied and shackled for days.

Inside a massive court system that operated out of sight of the public in California, two prize-winning broadcast journalists pulled back the veil to expose a system that teetered on the edge of causing injury by being asked to do too much with too little.

Correspondent Jennifer London and investigative producer Karen Foshay, freelancers working for the nation’s largest independent public television station, KCET, got inside Dependency Court of Los Angeles County, where custody decisions are made.

Large-scale cutbacks were pending for a court that decided the fate of 25,000 children a year — the one courtroom in which news cameras had never been allowed. Foshay’s and London’s report, “Courting Disaster,” showed that judges spent, on average, less than 10 minutes deciding the fate of a child and his or her family.

3. Even in the digital age, old-fashioned skills are paramount.

How refreshing it was to hear self-proclaimed “document nerds” describe the importance of interviewing skills and knowing how to be human.

Observed  Sam Roe, a member  of The Chicago Tribune team that created “Playing with Fire,” an exposé on the dangers of flame retardants:

“In an era of journalism when so much focus is paid to improving digital skills, I think it’s important to emphasize that developing good interviewing abilities remains, in my opinion, far more crucial. Stories often rise and fall on the ability of the reporter to go toe to toe with the subjects on their investigations, many of whom are tops in their fields.”

Reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski echoed that sentiment. Her series “Children in Peril,” published by The Times of Northwest Indiana, required her to get families whose children were severely mentally ill to open up.

“One of the most important things is being able to talk to people, interact with people,” she said. “I think that gets lost in the conversation about everything else. The other stuff is important, but at the end of the day we are talking about people, and you have to be able to interact with people.”

4. One question we should be asking our subjects is, “What story do you want to give?”

Intimacy is a quality often found in distinguished work. It requires access, and access is a product of trust. Photographer Aaron Huey, who spent years documenting life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, says he gains trust by entering communities “not saying, ‘ I have a story I want to get,’ but instead asking, ‘What story do you want to give?’”

Huey’s photos for National Geographic, “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee” won recognition from his peers. His creation of the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project gave the Lakota a chance to be authors of their own story.

5. There is a place – indeed, a need – for longform and intimate journalism in the age of Twitter.

While tweets can communicate verified facts, stories can convey meaning. And longform – once simply called “narrative storytelling” – affords the time and space to communicate a story’s nuances and layers. It provides context and interpretation and helps us make sense of that which seems inexplicable.

Author Bill Buford, once The New Yorker’s fiction editor, put it this way: Stories “protect us from chaos…. they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle and end of our personal and collective trajectories.”

In its coverage of the Aurora shooting, The Denver Post fed its audience breaking news online and through social media. It delivered context in a narrative account of the Aurora shooting and in an intimate profile of the alleged shooter.

Michael M. Phillips of The Wall Street Journal won the Ernie Pyle award for his collection of stories called “War’s Wake,” which explored the impact of America’s longest-running wars. These pieces were up close and personal, intimate accounts of the struggles encountered by soldiers and their loved ones. They made the personal universal.

Phillips says intimate stories are everywhere; they hide behind the headlines of the day. We just have to learn to see – and go after – them.

When we tell intimate stories – when we go after emotional truth and not just facts – our coverage of a news event becomes more complete, and therefore more accurate.

Jan Winburn is Poynter Writing and Editing Fellow and senior editor for enterprise at CNN Digital, where she is bringing longform storytelling to a brand known for breaking news. Before becoming an online journalist in 2009, she spent 30 years as an editor and writing coach at newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun, The Hartford Courant and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Related: Learning from prize-winning journalism: tips for executing an investigative journalism project | Learning from prize-winning journalism: how to cover a breaking news story

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