Ind sweeps LPA's investigative reporting awards

by Leslie Turk

The Independent Weekly took first, second and third place in investigative reporting at the Louisiana Press Association's annual convention and awards luncheon in Marksville.

Independent Weekly Editorial Director Leslie Turk swept the free circulation and special interest division for investigative reporting at the Louisiana Press Association's annual convention and awards luncheon in Marksville Saturday. The paper placed first for its breaking series on the Lafayette Housing Authority, second for a cover story and subsequent pieces that questioned Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin's residency qualification and suitability for public office, and third for a cover on Lafayette Police Maj. Glen Dartez's failure to lend medical assistance to a woman who later died. Dartez, a medic who was off-duty from the PD at the time, retired in the wake of the controversy.

The Independent competes with publications like Gambit, Baton Rouge Business Report, Central City News (Baton Rouge area), Acadiana Lifestyle and The Forum (Shreveport).

Former Independent Weekly staff writer Mary Tutwiler placed first her feature story on the Collins family of Caminada Bay, "The Last Harvest," and photographer Robin May placed first for best news/feature photo for an image of artist George Marks for the cover story, "Rising from the Ashes." That image was also voted Best of Show in the free circ and special interest division by the convention participants.

Former Ind staff writer Nathan Stubbs and Managing Editor Walter Pierce, who wrote stories on LUS Fiber and creationists who are jeopardizing science education in Louisiana public schools, respectively, placed second in best news coverage. Former intern Hope Rurik's breaking story on UL Lafayette's plan to cut down six mature live oaks to expand its housing options earned second place community service/service to readers.

The paper also placed second for best front page and earned top honors for best multi-media element and best website.

The Independent Weekly's ad staff placed first for graphic designer Nicole Manafi's ad campaign for Pack & Paddle and first for Associate Art Director Kevin Pontiff's Takin' Care of Business promotion.

The coveted Freedom of Information Award went to Woody Jenkins, editor of Central City News. "Sometimes it takes a crusader to right a wrong, and this year's Freedom of Information Award winner definitely fits that bill," the LPA said in announcing the winner. The association notes that Jenkins "has waged almost a one-man battle to open the records of city government to the public. The problem is that Central City, a small community north of Baton Rouge, has taken privatization to the extreme. It has, in essence, privatized its entire city government."

The national consulting firm CH2MHILL, according to the newspaper, receives $4 million of the city's entire $5 million budget to handle every facet of the city's day-to-day operations. Problems came to a head last spring, when the city-sponsored a campaign ad for the mayor. Jenkins demanded public records related to the ad, but CH2MHILL and the city refused. They claimed that since the consulting firm is a private company, its records are private, too. And that comes despite a provision in its contract with the city that says CH2MHILL will comply with the state's open-meetings and public-records laws.

The newspaper sued, but a district judge sided with the city. The Central City News appealed and is awaiting a decision.

The LPA points out that the legal battle has imperiled the newspaper financially, and the mayor and his allies have started a competing newspaper and encouraged an ongoing boycott of the Central City News, but contest judges were impressed with Jenkins' tenacity "in the face of major obstacles."

"Often, he was the only person in the room fighting for the public's right to know," the release notes. "The stories have implications that go beyond the battle in Central City; they offer lessons for anyone dealing with the trend toward privatization of government services."

The Advocate, American Press, The Courier (Houma), Ruston Daily Leader, The Livingston Parish News (Denham Springs), the Tri-Parish Times (Houma), Plaquemine Post/South, and the Zachary Plainsman News earned Newspaper of the Year honors. The designation for the Newspaper of the Year is based on the number of points earned in the Better Newspaper Editorial Competition and the Better Newspaper Advertising Competition for 2010 with awards being given in individual contests for first, second, third places and honorable mention. The editorial contests range from news story writing to graphic design while the advertising entries were judged based on design, creativity and effectiveness. The Kentucky Press Association judged both competitions this winter.

Earning sweepstakes awards in the editorial competition were The Advocate, The Daily Advertiser, The Courier (Houma), Ruston Daily Leader, The Livingston Parish News (Denham Springs), the Tri-Parish Times (Houma), Plaquemine Post/South, and the Bunkie Record. The Advertiser's Claire Taylor also won the best investigative reporting honor among daily newspapers in Division 2 for her coverage of the LHA debacle.

The LPA's 131st annual Louisiana Press Association convention was this weekend at the Paragon Casino.