2012 writing contest winners

(Awards for the best writing in 2012 will be presented April 8, 2013 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.)


Judged by Julie Doll, Business editor, The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle

A Kansas State University graduate, Doll’s newspaper career includes The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Ind.)  Journal & Courier (Lafayette, Ind.)


1st — Amy Bickel, Hutchinson (Kan.) News, “A hard day’s work’’

The package on immigrant and seasonal workers and the role they play in the region’s economy provides readers with insight and perspective. Good sourcing adds dimension, solid information and real-life examples. The historical and political perspectives work well to build an understanding of the issue and helps put it into context.


2nd — Alan Bjerga, Bloomberg News, “Water Wars Pit Dakotas Against Barges’’

A strong anecdotal lead draws the reader into a compelling narrative about the debate over Missouri River water releases. The writer explains well what is at stake for the Dakotas as well as for those farther down river. The story also provides great explanations of the laws and agreements that are in place that are shaping the debate, but it doesn’t let itself get bogged down in the legal aspects. Rather, the writer uses the explanations to help drive the story forward.


3rd — P.J. Huffstutter, Thomson Reuters, “U.S. farmers hit paydirt with irrigation”

Vibrant writing vaulted this story into a prize-winner.  From the wonderfully descriptive lead to the ending quote, this story about the increasing number of farmers who are relying on irrigation was a fun read. But the writer wasn’t just in it for the fun. She also provided:  solid news; perspectives from business, farming and environmental groups; and a hint of what might be coming amid changes in the world’s climate patterns.




  • Allison T. Williams – Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), “Timber Market on Rise’’ A strong example of economic impact reporting.  The story uses an effective variety of sources to deliver a lot of economic information in an interesting and insightful way.
  • Jamie Lee Klein – Reading (Pa.) Eagle, “The Farm Vote’’ This campaign-issue story was reported and written from the perspective of those who work in agriculture, and the approach works well to engage readers.  Too many campaign stories are focused on the candidates, rather than the people who would be affected by their policies and ideas. Not this winner. Good sourcing and background, and the accompanying topical grid that compared Obama and Romney’s positions was informative and user-friendly.
  • David Hendee, Omaha World-Herald, “Making the best of a bad situation’’ Strong writing and good use of current information on the drought were apparent in this entry. The writer effectively used small details – such as the amount of rain a farmer had received since May—to illustrate and highlight the news.
  • David Rogers, Politico, “Regional battle opens over major farm bill’’ Knowledgeable and insightful.  Written for those most interested in the political churnings of farm politics, and the fine print of the legislation that comes out of Congress.



Judged by Margo Goodhand, Retired editor of the Winnipeg Free Press

Margo Goodhand is a Winnipeg native. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 1979 with an honors degree in politics and English. She completed post-graduate studies in journalism in British Columbia.  She began her career with the West Ender in Vancouver. She was the first female news editor in Medicine Hat. She worked for both the Winnipeg Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press.  Goodhand has been a reporter, columnist, copy editor and section editor. He was named editor of the Winnipeg Free Press in 2007. The newspaper won the Excellence Award from the Canadian Journalism Foundation and a Michener Citation for meritorious public service journalism in 2009. She serves on the National Newspaper Board of Governors and other boards and councils.

1st — Katie Micik, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, “BSE Case Confirmed”

Judge’s comment: “This story began as a rumour on Twitter, prompting the reporter to work her sources to confirm the incident, and start collecting background and context. Within minutes of the press conference, she filed a complete story, with a compelling amount of detail on the subject and its ramifications. Subsequent rewrites and updates throughout the day made this a truly exceptional job of spot news reporting.”


2nd, Allan Dawson, Shannon VanRaes and Laura Rance, Manitoba Cooperator, “Weanlings euthanized near Austin”

Judge’s comment:  “With two hours to deadline, an anonymous tipster claims 1,300 baby pigs have been shot and killed at a hog barn. One reporter drives an hour out of town to confirm the tip, another reporter and editor jump on the phones to plumb industry and government sources. A great piece of spot news journalism, with colour from the scene combined with solid reporting and context from the office.’’


3rd (tie)

Alan Bjerga, Bloomberg News, “Mad cow case confirmed in central California, USDA says”

Judge’s comment:  “Very nicely written on-deadline piece with all the data, sources, context. The covering letter claims this outlet ‘broke’ the story, but because the submission contains quotes from the same press conference of the winning entry, I discounted that claim. I liked the use of quotes — in particular the final one, lifted (and duly credited) from another news outlet. It showed the reporting team’s attention to the story as it evolved through the day, plus a passion to tell it in the most engaging way possible.”

Karl Plume, Thomson Reuters, “Drought measures may curb Mississippi River shipping”

Judge’s comment:  “Great spot news report relying on strong sources and a solid grasp of the issue and its ramifications. Well done.’’




  • Chuck Abbott, Thomson Reuters, “U.S. House panel opposes Senate crop insurance reforms” Judge’s comment:  “Good spot news writing on a very complex subject. Both comprehensive and informative.’’
  • Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter, Thomson Reuters, “On verge of 22-hour grain trading, an era passes” Judge’s comment:  “A skillful combination of  colour, context and craft on deadline. Start to finish, a real pleasure to read.’’


Judged by Duncan McMonagle

Duncan McMonagle has taught journalism at Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, since 1998. He holds a master of journalism degree from Carleton University and a bachelor’s (honors) in English from the University of Winnipeg. Duncan is a former executive editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. Other journalistic experience includes reporting and editing at The Globe and Mail and copy editing at cbcnews.ca. He frequently judges national and regional journalism contests, and he reviews fiction and non-fiction books for the Winnipeg Free Press.

1st — Mary Wisniewski and Christine Stebbins, Thomson Reuters, “Midwest farm town, transformed by immigration, thrives”

Judge’s comment: “Plenty of real people enliven an important demographic story.”

2nd — Bryan Gruley and Elizabeth Campbell, Bloomberg News, “Online furor over ‘pink slime’…”

Judge’s comment: “A careful unpacking of a current controversy.”

3rd – Garry Lenton, Reading (Pa.) Eagle, “Cultural change’’

Judge’s comment: “A quiet agricultural revolution, explained through technical details and people’s stories.”

HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order)

  • Mikkel Pates, Agweek, “Sheep trial adventure’’ — Judge’s comment: “Old-fashioned good reading: plenty of details in a first-person story.”
  • Jamie Lee Klein, Reading (Pa.) Eagle, “Man’s best friend’’ — Judge’s comment: “Lots of observed facts; no attribution of emotions to animals.”


Judged by George Edmonson, Retired Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter and editor

1st — Ford Turner and Jamie Lee Klein, Reading (Pa.) Eagle, “Seeding the Future'”

Judge’s comment: “Written with grace and style, this series delved into a policy issue in a readable and engaging manner. The stories were filled with details that made the people and their settings come to life. One could almost imagine sitting at that old kitchen table with the Browns, walking among the chickens with the Stricker family or watching the “cow channel” with Rodger and Dorothy Wagner. The writer is not afraid to quote sources at length, allowing them to make their points in the context of their own words, another way to bring them to life.

This series also stands out because of the skillful use of facts and figures to undergird the stories, giving them depth and perspective. Yet, they never overwhelm the narrative. Questions concerning the preservation program as well as the pros and cons are clearly laid out and explained, along with the implications. An excellent report, worthy of first place in this category of the NAAJ annual contest.”

2nd — Stephanie Armour, Alan Bjerga, Elizabeth Campbell and Michael Marois, Bloomberg News, “Mad Cow Disease”

Judge’s comment: “This series of stories evolved from on-going reporting on a news event, the discovery of mad-cow disease in a California dairy cow. Over a span of months, the stories provide background, context, on-scene color and never seem to miss any developments. I could only wish that more news coverage of such important events was this good.

These stories follow the news where it leads and the writer gives excellent insight into everything from the farmers and businesses involved to the science and regulatory systems.

When I was judging this contest, I was reading “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. As I was going through this series, I recalled a line from that book, which seemed to apply perfectly: “Clarity isn’t an exciting virtue, but it is a virtue always …” Whether detailing the science around the disease or the efforts to deal with it, the writing is clear and easy to follow.”

3rd —  Perry Beeman, Des Moines Register, “Dead Zone”

Judge’s comment: Stories with terms such as “hypoxia,” “eutrophication” and “anhydrous ammonia” aren’t likely to be reader friendly without a careful, thoughtful writer who can guide the uninitiated through the thicket. That’s just what this well-done series does in exploring a problem with which many people feel they’re already familiar.

But as these stories, told from a variety of viewpoints, angles and geographic locations, make clear, thinking you know something and truly understanding it are not the same. Reading this series provides readers with insight and perspective.”


  • Allison T. Williams, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), “Seed to Harvest” – Judge’s comment: “A nicely written, colorful report told with depth and perspective. The stories bring issues to life through strong details and good structure.”
  • Ann Belser, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Drought” – Judge’s comment: “Wide-ranging and engaging, this series put a face on many aspects of the problem by mixing on-scene reporting with the wider context.”
  • Katie Micik, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, “Lessons From MF Global” – Judge’s comment: “This series deftly lays out the implications of the financial giant’s collapse with strong reporting and clear writing.”


Judged by Beth Pratt, Retired religion editor of the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal, where she worked for 25 years.

Judge’s comments on overall category:

“This is a difficult category to judge because it is broad, containing different column styles of straight information/opinion, editorial, inspiration, entertainment/angst. It also is an easy category to judge because it is diverse.

Be aware: Avoid trite phrases and qualifiers that weaken writing.

Consider audience: What should be the approach when speaking to the general public as opposed to writing in a niche publication?

Strategy: The goal of good writing is to SHOW AND TELL– in other words, communicate supporting evidence in a compelling way. Devote more time to the basics of good writing (good story-telling). In straight analysis, watch out for alphabet soup — you cannot assume readers recognize more than FBI or IRS. Full name of organization on first reference is still the best rule for clarity.

Check your work: This is not a luxury but a necessity. Edit carefully. Beware of being enamored of your every word — that’s a newbie error.

Take care what you reveal: A few writers address personal, emotion-laden topics with too much or poorly organized information. The temptation is to linger over details that do not serve the point you are making. Write about what you’ve learned from the situation, not your raw pain. Give it some distance so you can be more objective. Do not make yourself the focus of the column.

Overall, there were excellent examples of professional writing.”

1st — Laura Rance, Manitoba Cooperator, “Telling your story”

Judge’s comment: “The three “C’s” of good writing: Clarity, Conciseness and Content are all strong in this opinion. The writer compares response to the U.S. beef slime issue to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture response to a rule change issue in meat animal slaughter. A strong opening paragraph sets the hook for a recap of the U.S. public relations slime debacle, followed by a succinct description of how a slaughter rule change for injured meat animals in Canada could have caused a similar Canadian crisis. A timely response strategy prevented what could have resulted in fear-mongering headlines. This highly skilled writer sheds light rather than heat on a high interest, sometimes abused, topic — food safety.”

2nd — Christine Stebbins, Thomson Reuters, “US bankers say…”

Judge’s comment: “Smooth. I enjoyed reading in a format I usually find dull. Attention to strong writing sets this analysis apart. The writer provides helpful information on a complex issue without over-explaining. Good resourcing and choice of quotes give credibility to the analysis by providing multiple viewpoints on consequences of policy change and farm economics when corn is turned into fuel for vehicles.”

3rd — Cheri Zagurski, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, “Why it’s ethical to eat meat”

Judge’s comment: “Logic and humor are the keys here to an entertaining essay purportedly for a newspaper often awash in a river of arrogance. Did the New York Times really sponsor an essay contest on “Why it’s Ethical to Eat Meat?” I like my steak medium well and my reading material well done. This column is well done.”


  • Larry Dreiling, High Plains Journal, “The unsung hero of wheat” Judge’s comment: “People like to read about other people, especially heroes, and they like to think they too might be one of those unsung heroes. Cleanly and concisely, this writer uses the personal tribute as an effective way to argue for more recognition of people who work quietly behind the scenes to make life better around the world.”
  • Jonathan Knutson, Agweek, “Risk and reward” Judge’s comment: “Personal narrative to make a larger point is a tool effectively used in this column about the risks inherent in farming. Excellent organization and transitions.”
  • Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor, Kansas Farmer, “Build it already” Judge’s comment: “Interesting beginning. This snapshot of government bureaucracy inaction could benefit from closer editing, but introduction and organization of the information is a revealing glimpse into the frustration of today’s political realities.”
  • Urban Lehner, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, “Optical illusions and skills gaps” Judge’s comment: “Excellent observation. This is an interesting report that from the production ag angle relegates a growing crisis of farm labor skill gaps too far down in the story, but that placement may defined by the writer’s main audience.
  • John Vogel, American Agriculturalist, “On cusp of feed, food panic” Judge’s comment: “Worst-case drought scenario — the 15 percent no one wants to think about — shows either the benefit of experience or great backgrounding work. Excellent transition and flow.”


Judged by Mary Kay Quinlan, Associate professor of journalism, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

With degrees from Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Maryland, Quinlan spend a year as a suburban schools reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle. She was a correspondent in the Omaha World-Herald Washington Bureau for more than 10 years, then wrote for Midwestern newspapers as a regional correspondent for Gannett News Service in Washington. She was president of the National Press Club in 1986 and was elected to the Gridiron Club. Quinlan earned a doctorate in American Studies at the University of Maryland and taught there in the journalism college, where she was a Baltimore Sun Distinguished Lecturer and William Randolph Hearst Visiting Professional. She has taught reporting and writing courses at UNL since 1999. Quinlan is editor of the Oral History Association Newsletter, a thrice-yearly publication of the national professional organization of oral historians. She is also a co-author of “The Oral History Manual,” “Native American Veterans Oral History Manual” and “The People Who Made It Work: A Centennial Oral History of the Cushman Motor Works.” She has presented oral history workshops at numerous local, regional and national conferences.

1st — Robert McClure and Jason Alcorn, Investigate West, with Bonnie Stewart, Courtney Flatt and Aaron Kunz  of EarthFix “Agriculture is nation’s biggest water polluter but usually goes unpunished”

Judge’s comment: ”This entry represents all the elements of top-notch reporting and writing.  It was fascinating to read and reflected wide-ranging research at the local, state and federal level.  It took on a highly complex and controversial issue and looked at facts, not just emotions.  To be sure, the emotions are present, as is the sometimes complicated scientific information.  But it was all presented in a highly readable fashion through the eyes of many of the key players.  This is the kind of journalism that can make a difference.’’

2nd — Ron Friesen and Val Ominski, Manitoba Co-operator, “Canadian Grain Commission”

Judge’s comment:  “This special project commemorates the centennial of the Canadian Grain Commission.  I knew nothing about this organization and found myself drawn in to the historical perspective the articles explored.  The reporting and writing was straightforward, detailed and engaging.  But it was not cloying and laudatory the way you might expect a commemorative project to be.  Journalism should more often explore the history of contemporary subjects as this project does, even if there’s not an anniversary to celebrate.’’

3rd — Janet Patton, Lexington Herald-Leader, “Fields of Dreams: A year in the life of Central Kentucky’s horse farms”

Judge’s comment:  “This project clearly took an amazing amount of planning, and it represents an extraordinarily clever way to chronicle Central Kentucky horse farms.  With one story a month for an entire year, the project profiles horse farms in the region with each piece focusing on the primary work for a particular month–from the pregnant mares in January to February breeding, March foaling and so forth through the sales pavilion to a retirement farm for horses whose productive lives are over.  Along the way, readers learn about economic issues affecting the industry and a bit about its history.  Readers who follow Thoroughbred racing would recognize the sometimes overused references to famous racehorses, confusing to a non-racing fan. But that doesn’t detract significantly from the overall quality of this project.’’


HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order)


  • Karen Briere and Ed White, The Western Producer, “What is happening to Canada’s hog industry: A series of unfortunate events” – Judge’s comment:  “Another example of a highly complex story that attempts to unravel economic issues plaguing Canadian hog producers and relies on farmers as well as ag economists and other experts to tell the story.  Lots of numbers and complicated cause and effect, but overall well told.’’
  • Jim Patrico, Russ Quinn and Claire Vath, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, “Meet Farming’s Techies’’ – Judge’s comment:  “This collection of stories definitely paints a picture of farming’s future that would cause many city dwellers who think their milk comes from a grocery store to sit up and take notice. A sidebar even lists useful apps for farmers to consider.  Some pieces require a level of tech sophistication that not all readers might have.’’
  • Barb Baylor Anderson, Bryce Anderson, Chris Clayton, Gregg Hillyer, Katie Micik, Victoria G. Myers, Russ Quinn, Pam Smith and Marcia Zarley Taylor, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, “Planning for Profits” – Judge’s comment:  “This entire magazine is predicated on giving farmers specific, actionable information aimed at helping them deal with volatile economic and weather conditions. The reporting is thorough but the writing isn’t as engaging as it might be.’’
  • Mary Baxter, Better Farming, “The promise and the challenge of perennial commodity crops” – Judge’s comment:  “These stories take a hard-eyed look at the science, the economics and the people behind efforts to develop an array of perennial crops.  A good example of journalism that explores developments at the edges of a complex industry like agriculture and does so in a balanced, readable fashion.’’
  • Alex Daniels, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “In tiny Benin, cotton is king” – Judge’s comment:  “This project illustrates a commitment to showing U.S. readers how farm policy here, particularly with regard to cotton production, affects the livelihoods of growers half-way around the world. Considerable planning and expense likely went into this project, but it lost its focus with one story about a West African church and school supported by an Arkansas congregation. Nonetheless, the reporting was solid and the writing was engaging throughout.’’


Ward Sinclair Student Award

Judged by Pat Waters, retired business editor of the Omaha World-Herald

Mollie Lastovica, Texas A&M University, “Farmers Fight” published in DRIVE Magazine

Judge’s comment: “The writer produced a taut, informative piece about Farmers Fight, a student organization formed with the surprising goal of promoting agriculture in a a state where ranching/beef production is king. The grassroots organization was formed after the Texas A&M student newspaper published a negative article about agriculture, and Yahoo listed agriculture as one of the top five useless college degrees.

This account is an example of the important role of student journalists — informing the public of developments in agriculture on college campuses.


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