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The Backstory

The Sidney Hillman Foundation talks to the monthly Sidney winners about the impact of their work, and the stories left untold.


DECEMBER: Huffington Post reporters Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim discuss “The Poorhouse: Aunt Winnie, Glenn Beck, and the Politics of the New Deal,” their over six-thousand word investigation into the legacy of Social Security in the United States.

1.) Why did you decide to look into Social Security?

President Obama went on 60 Minutes in November and positioned himself as more aggressive in going after entitlement spending, saying, "We're gonna have to, you know, tackle some big issues like entitlements that, you know, when you listen to the Tea Party or you listen to Republican candidates they promise we're not gonna touch." Wait - so who is going to touch Social Security, and why are they going to touch it? And why do we have it in the first place? Meanwhile, what on earth is Glenn Beck talking about?

2.) What surprised you as you did your research?

First, the simple fact that unless they were rich, old people in the old days had two choices: live with the kids or go to the poorhouse. Second, the way rhetoric about the deserving and undeserving poor hasn't changed a bit in 100 years - the only thing that's changed is who's talking and who's deserving. Progressives in the 19th Century pushed poorhouses as a more appropriate way to deal with poverty than giving financial aid, an idea flowing from the uglier, social Darwinian elements of that movement. Their comments on the negative effect of aid on the jobless sounded as if they could have come from a GOP floor speech circa 2010.

3.) What has the response been since you published it?

Several people have written us to say the story about Aunt Winnie struck them. Their responses struck us - especially the one from a man who wrote: "Your piece brought back long forgotten childhood memories of my grandmother sending me to the houses of people living on the place and near it with boxes of food and clothing. I remember how apologetically grateful they were, both black and white, and, for some reason, it makes me feel guilty, even after all these years."

4.) Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

We had several thousand words on how the corporation flipped the Constitution on its head to become a person, but decided to cut it to focus on the Social Security Act and poorhouses. Hopefully it'll see the light of cyberspace one day soon.


NOVEMBER: NPR Rural Correspondent Howard Berkes discusses his seven-month-long investigation into the activities of coal production company Massey Energy, whose serious and consistent safety violations recently led the U.S. Labor Department to seek an unprecedented injunction to shut down one of its mines.

1.) How did the story about Massey Energy's Freedom Mine Number One fit into NPR's ongoing investigation of mine safety?

The safety record of the Freedom Mine and the Labor Department's interest in that mine came to my attention during NPR's ongoing investigation of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in April. Both Freedom and Upper Big Branch are owned and operated by Massey Energy. I had learned that Freedom was targeted for the first ever attempt to use the toughest enforcement tool the Labor Department possesses for coal mines with repeated and persistent safety violations. Using the federal and West Virginia Freedom of Information Acts, and federal records that were already public, I gathered hundreds of pages of documents about the mine, which indicated dangerous conditions underground that mine management failed to systematically correct even after repeated warnings, hundreds of violations, citations, orders and fines, and management's promises to do better. 

The record at Freedom raises important questions about Massey Energy's insistent claims that safety is its number one priority. It also raises questions about the Labor Department's failure to use this enforcement tool before. For 33 years, the agency has had the power to haul coal mining companies into federal court and seek judicial seizure and supervision of coal mines with horrendous safety records and a failure to respond to other regulatory sanctions. The Labor Department only moved on Freedom because of the scrutiny its mine safety regulation has been under since the Upper Big Branch disaster. And Freedom now becomes the test case of whether this enforcement tool will actually work.

I had been looking into Freedom so long that we had analysis, data and perspective ready to go when the case was finally filed.

2.) What surprised you as you did your research?

It was clear that this was an old and dangerous mine with the type of rock structure that was especially susceptible to roof falls. There were eight roof falls since the Labor Department targeted Freedom for federal court action. Internal e-mails obtained by NPR showed it took the agency nearly five months to file the court action after Freedom was identified as "a test case" by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. One of the rock falls during this period would have killed two miners if they hadn't been away from their work area due to a power outage. It was also surprising to see the persistent failure of Massey Energy to do what was necessary to make the mine safer. The repeated roof falls, the vast accumulations of explosive coal dust and dangerously high readings of methane gas all made for dangerous conditions. The safety violations, federal and state inspections, citations and face-to-face conversations with mine managers indicated the combination of conditions necessary for another massive explosion like the one that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch.

3.) What has the response been since you published it?

The Labor Department said it was going to seek federal court action for other coal mines but that hasn't happened. That may be due to the fact Massey Energy announced that it would close the mine. The case is still active because it will take Massey months to facilitate a shutdown and the mine will presumably continue to be unsafe for the mine workers dismantling and removing equipment underground. Perhaps the Labor Department is waiting to see how a federal judge responds to arguments made by its own attorneys and Massey Energy. In any case, the coal mine safety data gathered by my colleague Robert Benincasa and our reporting on the persistent safety problems at other mines raises questions about the Labor Department's failure to file more cases.

Also, I'm not sure the agency would have filed the Freedom case if I hadn't been so persistent in asking questions, seeking documents and seeking interviews with agency officials (none of which were granted) about Freedom's record and the agency's intentions. The Labor Department knew I was looking into Freedom. The agency knew I had the internal e-mails and it knew I knew the mine had been targeted. Its failure to file a case would have been the subject of an NPR story.

Since the story and the Labor Department's action, long-time Massey CEO Don Blankenship announced he was leaving the company. Freedom was a short drive from his office in Belfry, Kentucky, and he conducted a safety briefing himself at the mine the week before the Labor Department acted. It may be that the Freedom story and case helped the Massey Board recognize that Massey's safety record is an ongoing public relations problem and that Blankenship may be part of the public relations problem. That's a lot of baggage for a prospective new owner and Massey Energy has acknowledged the board is considering selling the company. The Wall Street Journal's reporting suggests Blankenship left because he opposed a sale. It's possible that Freedom helped underscore the safety issues and regulatory and public relations exposure at a sensitive time.

4.) Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

The fact that we can supplement our radio stories with web stories, maps, charts and additional data gives our radio listeners and web readers the opportunity to read what we couldn’t fit in the radio piece. NPR is very aggressive in using web resources to supplement the natural limitations of radio. "Quotes" are more powerful when we hear them on the radio but there is a limit to the complexity a radio story can provide. Using both the web and radio as complementary platforms for these stories gives us the chance to include more of what we learn.

5.) Do you expect the actions of the Department of Labor to have any long-term effect on the mining industry or Massey Energy?

That remains to be seen. The industry, Massey Energy, the regulators, coal miners, the administration and the rank and file mine inspectors underground are all waiting to see whether a federal judge will accept this regulatory role. This is unprecedented and, as my Freedom story notes, there is great risk. If a federal judge rejects this role or rejects the Labor Department's arguments about the mine, the agency may be reluctant to ever use the enforcement action again. Mining companies would then have no incentive to change what they do now, which is to contest thousands of citations, violations, orders and fines. Persistent resistance to mine safety regulation will likely continue without tougher enforcement. Just last week, Congress failed to enact tougher mine safety regulations. The Freedom case and story help draw attention to the failures of the existing regulatory system. It's too early to say whether the conditions at Freedom and the attempt to get federal court supervision will change anything.


 

OCTOBER: Pamela Colloff discusses her story about Anthony Graves, who served eighteen years in prison in Texas for a murder he did not commit. 

1.) Why did you decide to look into the case of Anthony Graves?

Graves’s conviction was overturned by a federal court in 2006. That’s unusual, and so I
became interested in finding out more, particularly because it was a death penalty case.
Graves was not released after his conviction was overturned; the original charges against
him still stood, so he was transferred from death row to the Burleson County jail in
Caldwell, Texas, to await retrial. I read up on his case, and my initial plan was to cover
his retrial. But years passed, and his case never went to trial. By this spring, he had been
sitting in the county jail for four years, so I began looking more deeply into his case.

2.) What surprised you as you did your research?

Graves had no motive. No physical evidence connected him to the crime. The only
eyewitness who could place him at the scene of the murders was the crime’s prime
suspect, Robert Carter, who later recanted his statements about Graves. It was hard to
believe that anyone could be sent to death row based on the “evidence” in this case.

I began by reading through the entire case file, which took a while, since the case is
eighteen years old. Then I interviewed people, including witnesses who had testified at
trial or who had talked to investigators shortly after this crime was committed. What was
astonishing was that the more I looked at the case, the less sense it made.

The fact that Graves had nothing to do with this crime was only confirmed by the work of
Nicole Casarez, who took an interest in his case in 2002. She had amassed an incredible
amount of information on the case. She and her students at the University of St. Thomas
in Houston had done a staggering amount of work. They never found a shred of evidence
that led them to believe that Graves had any involvement whatsoever in this crime.

3.) What has the response been since you published it?

The article generated a lot of media coverage, particularly in Texas, and helped focus
attention on Graves’s case. Incredibly, on October 27th, Burleson County district attorney
Bill Parham dropped all charges and Graves was released from jail.

This fall, Parham and his special prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, re-investigated the case.
They came to the same conclusion that Casarez came to, and then I came to: Graves was
innocent. Parham was clear that he was not dropping charges because too many witnesses
had died or because the evidence had become degraded. “There’s not a single thing that
says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he told reporters. “There is nothing.”

4.) Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

Unless you sit and read the entire case file, it’s hard to grasp just how many bad actors
there were in this case, or just how many times Graves was failed by the criminal justice
system, all the way up through the appellate courts. I wish I could have included more
of the court rulings in my article, but I was not writing a book. I also wish that I could

have written about Graves’s time on death row more extensively so that people could
understand exactly how awful the past eighteen years of his life have been.

5.) Do you expect the outcome of this case to have any effect on the criminal justice
system in Texas?

Days after charges were dropped, Governor Rick Perry commented that Graves’s release
showed that “the system is working.” No commission has been set up to examine what
went wrong in this case, and as far as I know, no legislation has been drafted that would
rectify some of the systemic problems that contributed to Graves’s conviction. So
unfortunately I don’t have a lot of faith that his release will result in any kind of reform.


SEPTEMBER: Dan Savage discusses his It Gets Better Project, created to give hope to LGBT high school students.

1.) Why did you decide to start the It Gets Better Project?

I was thinking about the suicide of Billy Lucas, soon after reading about the suicide of Justin Aaberg, and I had the reaction I've always had when a gay teenager kills himself: "I wish I could've talked to that kid for five minutes and been able to tell him that it gets better."

But we're not allowed, as gay adults, to talk to these kids. We would never get permission, or an invitation. Their parents, preachers, and teachers don't want gay adults reaching out to gay kids to give them messages of hope or share coping skills or to prove that what they've been told about being gay is a lie by showing them what of our lives are like now.

And then I realized that I was waiting for permission that I didn't need anymore—in the YouTube era, I could, into a video camera, talk to gay kids who are being bullied, and give them hope, advice, coping strategies, and share my life with them.

2.) What has the response been since you started the project?

We're completely overwhelmed—in every sense of the word. We haven't been able to keep up with the pace of submissions. We want to review every video before we post it, and there are so many that we literally can't keep up. It's also been emotionally overwhelming. Some of the stories are heartbreaking.

3.) What surprised you about the response, or in setting up the project?

I guess I'm surprised that someone didn't think of this sooner—clearly I wasn't the only gay person out there thinking, "I wish I could've told him—Billy, Justin, Seth, Asher—that it gets better." A lot of LGBT people were feeling that way, but not reaching out because no one had extended an invitation or given them permission to talk to these kids. Until we launched the IGBP and essentially gave ourselves permission to reach out to these kids whether their preachers, teachers, and parents like it or not.

4.) What impact do you hope the project will have within a year's time?

Well, in a year's time, in ten year's time, all the videos will still be online, and still accessible to kids who need to hear their messages of hope, or learn what they can do to cope from people who've been there, or find out about how they can make it better in their schools right now. Unlike red ribbons, which are now moldering in dresser drawers and landfills, the videos will continue to do exactly what they're designed to do even after their "moment" has passed. People will move on to other causes, other issues that we need to raise awareness about, but the videos will still be there, still useful, still accessible.

5.) What aspect of the project do you see yourself pushing further?

We want to make it a fundraising engine—not for us. YouTube is free. But for things like The Trevor Project and perhaps the ACLU, which does amazing work defending the rights of LGBT high school students.


AUGUST: Ronnie Greene discusses his stories (part one, part two) about how a tiny Florida town challenged the Lockheed Martin Corporation to compensate it for the devastating pollution caused by a defunct plant.

1.) Why did you decide to look into Tallevast, Florida and its fight with Lockheed Martin over environmental contamination?

I began exploring issues in Tallevast in 2008, and the timing coincided with the publication of a book I had just completed, Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, And Margie Richard's Fight To Save Her Town.

Night Fire explored how a four-street minority community in Norco, Louisiana -- not far from New Orleans -- had spent more than a decade battling chemical plants and refineries that literally towered over their neighborhood, Diamond. As Night Fire was being published, I asked experts about other cases of environmental justice in the U.S. One pointed me to Tallevast, describing the town's battle with industry and government as perhaps the most significant in the country.

I wrote a takeout about that struggle in 2008, but kept thinking back to the issues and the people. This year, I made two return reporting trips, which formed much of the basis of the Toxic Town series.

2.) What surprised you as you did your research?

Many things were surprising, but perhaps none more than the fact that the town had been polluted with a cancer-causing chemical -- but no one told the residents. Not the state, not the county, not industry. When I asked the state of Florida why, an official explained that there were no regulations on the books requiring notification. That later changed -- through a bill inspired by Tallevast's plight -- but it had come too late for the residents of this historic black hamlet.

Another surprising thing was how I kept seeing parallels to the environmental struggle in Louisiana. There, after a decade confronting Shell Oil, the Diamond residents scored a historic, long-sought relocation from big industry; Diamond homes stood just 25 feet from the fenceline of a Shell Chemical Plant. Tallevast residents have also sought relocation, but Lockheed Martin has, to date, refused -- just as Shell initially refused relocation requests in Norco. As in Louisiana, the people of Tallevast have turned to the courts in a bid for justice. And, as in Louisiana, there is palpable concern about the community's health and its connection to industry. Lockheed Martin, which owned the shuttered beryllium plant at the time of the leak's discovery, said it has capped the pollution.

But mostly, the lessons from Tallevast are told through the residents and their quest to preserve the legacy of their blue-collar town. Nearly everyone in town is related to someone else; the family trees stretch back generations. Though the town is blanketed by this underground plume, and residents are seeking relocation, many are heartbroken by the prospect of one day leaving Tallevast. When they do, the family trees will no longer sprout.

3.) What has the response been since you published it?

From the start, I've felt this was an important story to tell, hearing from all sides in the divide -- community, government, industry. The response from readers has supported that view.

On another front, Lockheed Martin and the residents this month announced a settlement, in principle, to a major contamination lawsuit that was to go to trial in October. The settlement terms are confidential, and neither side is talking. But this is a significant step, the first time the residents and the Fortune 500 company have come to terms on a major issue dividing them. What this means for other issues -- several lawsuits remain pending, as does the community's relocation request -- remains to play out.

 


JULY: Edward Luce discusses his story about the crisis in middle class America.

 1. Why did you decide to look into the crisis facing middle-class Americans?

The struggles of America's middle classes has struck me for a while as the central fact of America's political economy. Prior to the Great Recession, the stagnation of median incomes was something that I wrote about for the FT. But the abrupt removal of that cushion of rising asset prices, and inflated house values, has added an urgent new dimension to the problem. The difficulties of middle America can no longer be disguised through easy credit.

2. What surprised you as you did your research?

I am continually surprised at how difficult daily life is for the typical middle class family in America. I'm in awe at how hard people work, how many jobs they do and yet how close their are to bankruptcy and ruin. In Europe we've been raised to think about America as a wealthy nation, which of course in aggregate it is. It is a constant shock to me to observe what a struggle life is for such large numbers of Americans to keep their heads above water.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

The piece has clearly tapped into a broad vein of concern around America and beyond. I have had as much response to this article as to any I have written since moving here in 2006. The response has been largely positive and also constructive. Many people have emailed to tell their very poignant and illuminating stories or to recommend original ways of looking at the situation. In my experience feedback from readers is a constant source of good ideas (usually better than trying to think them up myself).

4. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

Yes. But as a reporter, you often have way more material than you have room to use. Being selective is part of the process.

5. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

There are so many angles to this story that it would be a difficult choice. But the stagnation of college completion rates in the US and the rising cost of further education is a theme I would like to pursue in much more detail. America has always championed the cause of equality of opportunity, which hinges on providing an education system that can provide roughly equal advantage to the majority of children from a young age - a feature that is no longer anywhere close to being true in the US. Reporting on attempts to change this - both at the college level and K-12 - are worth any amount of effort. The success or failure of these reform efforts will play a huge role in determining whether America can bely its doubters.

 


JUNE: Mac McClelland discusses her story about the wives of fishermen who have been affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

1.Why did you decide to look into fishermen's wives?

Originally, I was just looking into counseling for everyone in the area; I'd heard, from living here the last couple months, that clinics still providing services for Katrina victims were having to retool and ramp up their efforts for locals newly traumatized by the oil disaster. But no sooner had I talked to any of the counselors than I realized that most of these services were going to women, whose husbands are more reluctant to seek psychological assistance.

2. What surprised you as you did your research?

I got emotionally overwhelmed faster than I would have guessed. I lived in New Orleans during Katrina, and am well aware of what it's like when that deep hopelessness sets in, but I hadn't expected it to be so much worse this time around. The scope of this disaster and the scale and duration of the impact it's going to have on affected people has just slammed the whole coast with despair. I had to sit on the notes for the story for two weeks, because every time I tried to write it, my own Katrina trauma issues rushed in, and I got too upset.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

One of the counseling organizations thanked me for portraying the situation so frankly and honestly, which meant a lot. Also, one of my readers sent a giant shipment of toilet paper to one of the clinics, in response to my reporting that these hard-on-cash families couldn't procure it with the grocery vouchers they get from charity.

4. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

My editors were great about letting me include as much detail and information as I wanted, no matter how long I went on or how depressing it got. But I'd love to spend more time with the women involved; I could've followed any one of them for weeks.

5. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

I definitely want to keep an eye on these clinics' financial situations. As it is, they're woefully underfunded, and now - in the midst of the media coverage of the spill - should be the easiest time to get grants and donations. It's very possible their funding needs will continue to be unmet, and budget constraints on these crucial mental-health services could be devastating for the region's survival and recovery.


 

 

 MAY: Michael Powell discusses his story about the effects of the recession on the African American community in Memphis.

1.Why did you decide to look into the effects of the recession on African American communities in Memphis?

A year ago, I wrote a piece with a colleague, Janet Roberts, on the foreclosure epidemic in New York City and its devastating effect on African Americans homeowners; banks have given blacks sub-prime loans at rates far greater than for white homeowners. Then I wrote of the City of Baltimore and its lawsuit against Wells Fargo, in which city officials charged that the bank’s discriminatory practices deepened Baltimore’s foreclosure problems.

The subject, race & foreclosure, came to haunt me. Given our nation’s terrible historical legacy with race, I was struck that we – policy makers in Washington, bank and mortgage officials and so on – had unleashed a whirlwind once more, to devastating effect.

I saw in Memphis a lens through which to examine this problem. Memphis now had an African American majority, and it was a place where blacks had made real economic strides in the past two decades, particularly in building wealth through their homes. That’s all gone now. The tale of that fall—and the role that banks played in it—had a power to it.

2. What surprised you as you did your research?

I had worked as a tenant organizer in a black and West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn long ago, and so I was aware of the toll taken by block-busting, redlining and workaday discrimination. Still, the way in which the Great Recession has vaporized black wealth, the statistical totality of that destruction, surprised and frankly angered me. Because blacks came late to home ownership, much more of their wealth is wrapped up in their homes than for white families.

Beyond that, blacks in Memphis often were the first to get laid off, and often lacked retirement and health plans. It’s useful to be reminded that sometimes our ‘post-racial’ age is not quite so post-racial as we might like to imagine.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

I was surprised, frankly, by the depth and breadth of the response. I received dozens and dozens of emails, and the piece apparently sat atop the most-emailed list (our own Neilsen meter, God help us) for a few days. Some of the readers were angry and some blamed the homeowners, preferring to see a exclusive narrative of individual irresponsibility rather than systemic defrauding. But many more readers seemed genuinely moved, and a number of congressman promised to investigate this.

I’ll believe that when I see it.

4. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

Oh, you always have themes you’d like to expand on, characters you’d love to flesh out. I would have liked to take a single homeowner and a single house and drilled down, walking a reader through the numbers and explaining how a hard-working, bright homeowner could sign mortgage papers that wound up destroying him. The process is not quite so mysterious as some readers suggested in their emails; rather few of us, I'd bet, read the fine print in that mound of closing papers. And I’d like to expand a bit on the role of the banks, Wells Fargo for sure, but also some of the other banks.

5. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

I hope to get back there in the next six months. I’d like to follow a few homeowners, or former homeowners, as they attempt to rebuild their lives. And I’d like to follow that lawsuit.

 

APRIL: Doug Struck discusses his Sidney winning investigation into carbon offsets fraud and new models for investigative journalism.

1.Why did you decide to look into carbon offsets fraud?

Several years ago, while I was reporting for The Washington Post, I went to a conference at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The scientists there were in a tizzy over a scheme by a California company to fertilize the ocean with iron, estimate the carbon sucked up by the blooming algae, and sell that carbon as an "offset." I did not write about it then, but as I kept hearing about offsets offered to counterbalance one's "carbon footprint," I wondered whether other offset projects were as far-fetched and controversial as that idea. After I left The Post, I happened to mention my musings to Joe Bergantino at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, and he seized on it. "Great story," he said, "Now go find some funding to do it."

That was the start of a real experiment in "new models" of journalism. We eventually got financing from a philanthropical foundation, the Deer Creek Foundation, for reporting by the non-profit new England Center for Investigative Reporting. We approached and teamed up with the Christian Science Monitor, one of a dwindling number of news organizations that still have a highly respected foreign staff. The Monitor, which has moved on-line daily but has a weekly print magazine, was commendably open to the idea. Editor John Yemma was willing to work with our non-profit, and we further involved both my students at Emerson College and students at Boston University. So the "model" was foundation-nonprofit-mainstream media-academic, and the resulting story was in print, video, on-line and even radio. It was a hybrid that worked, but involved hundreds of emails among the parties. It undoubtedly could have been done more efficiently by a sole news organization, but they are not doing projects like this as they did before newsrooms were hit with layoffs.

2. What surprised you as you did your research?

I got into the story thinking the theory of voluntary carbon offsets was good, but expecting to find a few bad apples. As we got further into the research, I was surprised to find the theoretical underpinnings of these offsets are as slithery and elusive as financial derivatives. That has lured a wide cast of financial prospectors seeking gold in the wallets of consumers. There are, undoubtedly, some well-intentioned players in the offset market. But I came out of the research skeptical that very many of these offsets really do what buyers think they do. Most don't immediately counterbalance one's carbon footprint by creating a new reduction in greenhouse gases. Too often, buyers are paying for offsets that won't happen, won't happen for years, or already has happened for some other purpose.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

With the widely dispersed audience of our digital age, it's unclear. I do know the package has been trumpeted by some who deny climate change or man's contribution to it. If their reasoning is that the flaws in voluntary offsets are argument that we should do nothing to reduce greenhouse gases, I find that wrongheaded and unfortunate.

4. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

Climate change legislation before Congress could create a cap-and-trade for even more offsets, although ones subject to much more regulation and scrutiny. I would be curious to see if that has passed, has been implemented, and is working with a lot more legitimacy than voluntary offsets.

 


MARCH: Alex Halperin discusses his Sidney winning story about the perils of natural gas drilling.

1.Why did you decide to look into natural gas drilling?

I like stories where environmental ideals bump into economic realities. Initially I wanted to learn more about how fracking [hydraulic fracturing] would affect New York City's water supply, which turned out not to be a big part of the piece. When I started talking to people who'd leased their land for thousands of dollars and still felt ripped off it was pretty clear there was a good story.

2. What surprised you as you did your research?

I was surprised by how divided opinion is. New Yorkers are looking at the drilling situation in Pennsylvania and drawing wildly different conclusions. Some people see an environmental disaster while others perceive an economic miracle. This sounds like a familiar story. But as Sarah Laskow shows in her terrific companion piece An Unnatural Alliance, natural gas, as an abundant and clean burning fossil fuel, is attractive to many pragmatic liberals. Like most of reality, elements of the natural gas story don't fit the usual red state/blue state narrative.

3. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

I'd go deeper into the differences between the contracts signed by individual lessors and those signed by members of landowner coalitions. Bruce Murray sat down at his kitchen table and thought of a few things he'd like the gas companies to do. The landowner coalitions have produced heavily-lawyered, incredibly detailed contracts with more environmental protections and even a more favorable way to quantify the amount of gas produced. Despite the environmental degradation it's very hard to tell someone not to lease their land for $5,500 per acre plus 20% royalties. They're taking a calculated risk in tough times. But it's important to stress that these companies have more information and more resources than the lessors. They drive a hard bargain whether or not a potential lessor is prepared.

 4. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

Most people think fracking is inevitable. I'd love to follow up a few months after it began. 

 


FEBRUARY: New York Times reporter David Barstow talks about covering the Tea Party movement for his Sidney award winning story.

1. Why did you decide to look into the Tea Party Movement?

When the Tea Party movement exploded last summer, it became clear to me and my editors that we needed to take a deep look at this phenomenon and its ideology, members, organization and goals. I set out to do this last fall, travelling the country and attending Tea Party rallies in more than a dozen states.
 
2. What surprised you as you did your research?

 I think what surprised me most was the extent to which the Tea Party movement was drawing in droves of political newcomers, people who had never been activists and had no experience protesting. The other big surprise was the extent to which the Tea Party movement was helping to transform these newcomers in terms of their political thinking. Although typically conservative, Tea Party supporters were flocking to a political ideology intensely hostile to both major parties. They were embracing in particular the ideology of the Patriot movement, a political framework historically associated with militia groups, anti-immigration groups, libertarians and those who have long cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Federal Reserve and the federal income tax.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

The story seemed to touch a nerve. We had more than 1,500 written responses from readers to the piece in less than 24 hours. It quickly exploded in the blogosphere, touching off passionate debate at both ends of the political spectrum. Clearly many Americans are struggling to make sense of the Tea Party movement and its potential implications for our politics.
 
4. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

This is an interesting question. I would be looking for several things in the next year. First is the question of how the Tea Party movement resolves its relationship with the Republican Party. Will it be absorbed by the GOP, or will it retain its independence? If Tea Party candidates emerge in Republican primaries, how will they fare? To what extent will Tea Party supporters back third party candidates? There are two other big questions ahead. The first is which politician captures the energy of the Tea Party movement heading into 2012. The second is the extent to which the Tea Party reshapes policy and government in Washington.    

 


JANUARY: Anderson Cooper, host of "Anderson Cooper 360°," talks about his Sidney Winning coverage of Haiti.

1. Why have you committed yourself  to this story of human tragedy and government failure with so much more energy than most of the rest of American media?

I think all of us still covering this story wish there were more reporters from other networks still on the ground. Thankfully, CNN is committed to reporting on what is still unfolding. My producer, Charlie Moore, my cameraman, Neil Hallsworth and I, and all the other CNN teams in Haiti, feel that what the Haitian people continue to face everyday is extraordinary, and the least we can do is to bear witness to their struggle. Unless the world continues to pay attention to what is happening in Haiti, there is a good chance that the needs of the Haitian people will once again be forgotten.

2. What has been the response to your work?

The response among Haitians and Haitian-Americans has been very positive. I think they want the story told, and appreciate the lengths to which we have gone to do that.

3. What should Americans know?

That the tragedy is ongoing. There is a lot more happening in Haiti than the 10 American missionaries in jail. Hundreds of thousands are homeless sleeping on the streets or in parks. People are hungry, and schools are closed, and the Haitian government has shown little ability to meet the needs of its people.

4. Do you see any hope for fundamental change for Haiti through the recovery process?

I don't think it is my job to be hopeful or to be pessimistic. I just try to report what I see. I can tell you most of the Haitians I've talked to want more from their own government, and I do think unless there is strong leadership on the ground in Haiti, it will be very difficult to truly bring about lasting change.

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DECEMBER - Tony Judt, professor of history and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, talks about his Sidney-winning essay and his thoughts on social justice journalism.

1. How did you decide to write this?

I had been thinking about these matters for some time, as you can see from some of my earlier essays. But I decided to use the occasion of a public lecture I was due to give in October to pull my thoughts together and try to say something of broader consequence. And of course I was moved to do so by what I see as the sadly diminished condition of radical political conversation – in this country and abroad – as well as by the profound inequities and injustices which seem to me to have resurfaced in the course of the past generation.

2. What was the response to this work?

Remarkable and very favorable. I’ve been especially pleased at the number of young people who responded to the lecture or the essay by asking that I elaborate on a number of themes – in part because they had never heard anyone address them before (!). I’ve also had some very interesting and serious responses from people in Europe, actively interested in social policy and efforts to revive the energies of the social democratic left. It’s been most gratifying to know i) that so many people care and ii) that I appear to have struck a chord in my approach.

3. What is your opinion on the state of social justice journalism and writing in the US?

I can’t pretend to be familiar with every journal and journalist at work in this field. But I will say this: over the past three decades, I think we have seen a steady decline in the quality and courage of social justice journalism and writing, here in the US as in the UK (where I came from). To some extent this has been compensated by the admirable American tradition of muckraking journalism, especially those writers who have addressed issues related to war, financial misbehavior, the social condition of the underclass and so forth. But what is lacking, it seems to me, is the sort of intellectual or political overview which helps readers make sense of the bad news that they read. Without that sort of synoptic writing, you simply end up with a depressed and resigned citizenry – aware of what is wrong but adrift when it comes to imagining what to do about it.

 


NOVEMBER - Dave Jamieson, a freelance writer based in Washington D.C. and winner of the November Sidney, talks about what frequent 911 callers taught him about the health care system in "The Treatment of Kenny Farnsworth."

1. When did you first hear about this story and why did you decide to look into it?

As is often the case, I knew the kind of profile I wanted to write long before I knew who exactly my subject would be. When I was a beat reporter in Washington I used to do ride-alongs with firefighters and paramedics. I was surprised to see how many of the same patients these first responders handled day in and day out—the so-called “frequent fliers”—and how the medics developed such emotionally complicated relationships with them. I found it all fascinating. So for years I wanted to write about someone who was essentially a ward of the city’s ambulances and emergency rooms and to look at all the economic questions such a person raises.

I first heard about Kenny Farnsworth in 2007; it seemed whenever I dropped his name to a firefighter or paramedic I got some kind of amusing story in return. Once I got serious about tracking him down I started leaving my card at some of his usual haunts—a firehouse, a tow lot, etc. He gave me a ring one day back in the spring and we started hanging out.

2. What surprised you most as you began following Farnsworth?

What surprised me the most was how the context of the story changed while I was working on it. Initially, we didn’t intend to do a health care story, per se. I was just interested in frequent fliers and how some cities are changing how they handle them, taking more of a social worker’s approach than a paramedic’s. But then this whole health care debate started raging. My wise editor at the Post, David Rowell, said we should take a closer look at where frequent fliers fit into the health care crisis. As it turns out, we do waste a lot of money handling problems in the emergency room when we could be treating them much more cheaply through primary care. And I felt like Kenny’s own story did a nice job of illustrating those larger problems and inefficiencies.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

Kenny tends to provoke a lot of passion in people. Paramedics and nurses have devoted so much time to him over the years that many of them see him as a scourge. And yet he’s nice enough and colorful enough to stir a lot of sympathy in others. It’s been more or less the same with those who’ve read his story—a frothy brew of compassion and outrage. As one woman wrote me, “I was torn between feeling sympathy for Mr. Farnsworth and latent anger at how his actions will indirectly affect my health care bills.”

4. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

Privacy laws can make it very difficult to report stories dealing with health care. It would have been nice to delve more into Kenny’s particular health problems, but some of the physicians I reached out to were understandably cagey about discussing an individual patient in print. Same for paramedics and hospital workers. It also would’ve been nice to spend some time in emergency rooms talking to people, but again you run into privacy laws there. I really came to sympathize with full-time health reporters—there are more legal hurdles in that niche than in most others.

5. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

I’d be curious to see if more cities have started targeting frequent fliers for treatment outside of the ambulance and the emergency room. There have been some great successes in places like San Francisco and Washington in that regard, and though it’s hard to calculate it looks like those programs are saving cities and hospitals real money, as well as changing quite a few lives for the better.

And of course, I’d like to see how Kenny is doing in another year. Whether he’s still visiting the hospital routinely, whether he’s got a fresh stack of medical bills, and whether he finds himself in a stable living arrangement or out on the street. It certainly would be nice to see him in a better place.


OCTOBER -Katy Bolger, graduate student at the school of journalism at New York University and winner of the October Sidney, talks about reporting on the Navajo Nation for her piece in the series, "The Forgotten Navajo: People In Need."

What surprised you most as you began to look into the Navajo Nation?

Going in, I knew little to nothing about the Navajo Nation, its people or its issues; coming out, I was overwhelmed by the task: how to write a story of such magnitude, to hit on the big picture, while focusing on the specific stories, to do justice to the Nation's history while relaying the immediacy of the problems. The answer, of course, was in the voices of the people, but not just the victims, rather all the people: those who are underserved, as well as those who hold out a hand to the Navajos: their own politicians, coal company representatives, academics, and government bureaucrats. The story speaks for itself.

What has the response been since you published it?

The response to the story of the travails of the Navajo people has been sympathy, of course, but also incredulity. Well-educated, well informed people have a hard time accepting the stories I tell them about the things I have learned: it just doesn't seem possible in this day and age....

If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

There are two additional stories I would like to write about: The first is about the Bennett Freeze and its lasting effects in the Nation. The second story is about the two governments: the United States and the Navajo Nation and how the very nature of two sovereign governments with jurisdiction make strange and undemocratic bedfellows.

Have you done any social justice journalism before? Do you plan to continue with this type of work?

I had a conversation with a colleague today who talked about the conflict between the right to do something and the responsibility to not do it. This seems like an interesting theme to keep in mind as I continue to investigate social injustices.