The Casey Interviews: Blake Morrison
Some journalism is so well done—the writing so compelling and clear, the topic and context so important and the story so responsibly reported—that, well, it deserves a medal. The annual Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism honor the best written, photo and multimedia journalism covering children and families. They are awarded by the University of Maryland Journalism Center on Children and Families and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
So what's it like to be a judge for this prestigious award? To have the honor (and pressure) of selecting the 11 winners?
SparkAction's Alison Waldman had an opportunity to find out. She spoke with several of 2011's judges, who shared their thoughts about what we should be reading, what makes a great and responsible story, and where this type of journalism is headed. (Hint: it's not where you think.)
Our series celebrates journalism on youth and families and 2011's extraordinary winners.
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Judge, Project or Series: Under 200,000 circulation
Here, Alison chatted with Blake Morrison, the former Investigations Editor at USA Today and the current investigative Projects Editor at Reuters. A past winner, Morrison had a unique perspective on the awards. He also gives some good, clear advice for journalists striving to be great.
Alison Waldman: We heard you are a past winner of the Casey Award. When and with what did you win?
Blake Morrison: Yes, I was a 2009 award winner for a project looking at the quality of air outside schools around the country. Brad Heath and I were the reporters, and we looked at whether kids who are more vulnerable to bad air than adults are are being asked to go to school in places where the quality of the air may make them sick now or down the road.
AW: Now that you’ve seen both sides of the Casey Awards, have you gained any new perspective on child and youth-focused journalism now that you’ve been a judge, after entering and winning previously?
BM: I think the thing that’s always great to see are pieces that really go to the heart of the issues involving kids and families—pieces that are both eloquently written and wonderfully reported, and we saw them both this year when we were judging. We had pieces that were just gripping reads from start to finish; we had pieces that clearly were about making a difference either on very personal level with a reader or on a very macro level in terms of a state laws or society in general. Those are the kinds of things that when you read them, you understand that there are lot of great journalists out there who are all coming at this a bit differently, but each of those pieces really serves the community well.
AW: Did you have a favorite moment in a piece or one entry as a whole that really resonated with you?
BM: We really thought the Charlotte Observer piece on SIDS was pretty extraordinary. It’s one of those pieces where you read it and you see the power of both the journalism and just the power and the challenge of taking on a subject as sensitive as this. I think it really resonated with all of us when we read it. It is an extraordinary piece of journalism.
AW: Many topics of stories in themselves make interesting reads. I think that’s really often the case in child and family-focused journalism. Can you talk a little bit about what you think distinguishes a good journalist from a good story, and how these Casey Award stories go above and beyond?
BM: We try to measure stories all the time on impact—on what kind of difference they actually make. What [the judges] saw in a lot of the stories we read was that the impact might vary.
Some of them are very tangible impacts—impacts on a system of government regulations,or laws or things of that sort. What we also saw was what we consider the interpersonal impact. It's the idea that the impact is simply that the readers stay with a story from start to finish and respond to it, whether through writing, taking some kind of small action, or doing something in their lives that, together with others' actions, make a huge difference.
We also saw journalists who were willing to take on subjects that might be the kind of topics that people might run away from. We had pieces that really showed a great deal of initiative and curiosity and creativity. When we read pieces with those elements, we see it’s not just the execution that was extraordinary, but also the fact that the writer chose to tackle the piece in the first place.
AUDIO: Listen to Blake talk about the two elements
that separate good work from great work:
"However it’s published, wherever it’s published, great work can take many forms."
AW: What are some of examples of those difficult stories that you read as a judge?
BM: There were pieces that showed, for example, a staff’s time commitment and resources, like one that was called “Growing Up Indian”. There was a lot of time was being spent [on the reservation] for that one. There was also a piece about incest that interviewed two survivors of incest about what it was like for them.
Those are the topics that typically might not get initial interest from editors or readers when you just tell them about the stories. But then you see how they are executed, how the stories were told, and the effort and commitment that went into them, and you realize that’s what makes journalism great.
AW: Yes. One of the ones that really stuck with me was the piece by Barbara Davidson about the victims of gang violence. It stuck with me for days, and I was amazed by the power that it had by all those elements coming together. The photographer and the writer and clearly spent a lot of time with these people, and the result was simply amazing.
BM: Yes, absolutely.
AW: Can you tell me a little about your experience as a judge? What that was like, handling all the glory and the power in having to make those big decisions?
BM: Judging these contests is always hard, and what you realize immediately is that no one judge sees the world of stories the same way. We all bring our own sensibilities to it, and our own ideas of what makes a great work, What was most intriguing about it was the discussion we all had in explaining what we all liked and what we really valued in these pieces. I think we found great value in almost everything read.
When it came to the judging, it was really a question of degree—of what really rose to the level that we thought justified the great recognition that the Casey Medal gives. It was a really great discussion because it really validates what journalism is about. We see these extraordinary works, we see what went into them, and we understand more about the effort behind them when we read the letters that are submitted with the entries. So, it gives us some insight into how journalism gets done, and that despite the challenges that the industry faces, we still have people out there who are trying to do great stuff.
AW: Multimedia and instant news online are big in journalism these days. How do you think they are changing the role of journalism that you know, or what the older, traditional journalists have known?
BM: Well, I hope it’s complimentary! The more immediate news pieces--whether they be in blogs, or in reactions--don't often require a lot of time and reflection to do and to do well. I also know there are great bloggers that do the great things like long-form work that might take longer to research and report.
However it’s published, wherever it’s published, great work can take many forms. So I don’t think one is at the exclusion of another and I think that in many ways they are both complimentary and speak to different disciplines.
AW: Definitely--we're seeing lots of immediate, more free-write style journalism in blogs as well as traditional is feature journalism. In our work at SparkAction, we are fiding that the line between the two approaches blurring, and it's often hard to define one from the other. What does that mean for journalism?
BM: Well, I think it’s good in some ways and bad in others, but I think that’s true with every aspect of what we do and what we’ve always done. The reality is that there are all sorts of shortcomings in publishing a newspaper. The beauty of being able to publish online is that you can really generate a conversation around it. There’s an ability to gain perspective from people immediately who are reading your piece. There are a whole host of benefits on that front that a newspaper, for instance, doesn’t offer, or not in the same way.
Having said that, I also think that there’s a certain amount of investment that goes into the pieces we read—investment of time, investment of resources, investment of how people are going about doing their jobs. That’s not something that’s necessarily unique to the medium, it’s just something that has traditionally been in the area the newspapers, where journalists have invested their time, and I hope that continues.
I really hope what doesn’t happen is one [medium] excludes the other. I hope that one can build off the other.
AW: So you think there’s room for both?
AW: I agree. Do you think that there is room somewhere out there—for a category or contest for younger writers*?
BM: I think that whatever the industry can do to encourage the best work possible out of beginning journalists is a great thing.
*The Casey Medals have added a category for Youth Media for the 2012 entries, for which young journalists will be recognized for their storytelling through multimedia.
AUDIO: What Blake thinks is the most important training
a young journalist can have, either in education or in the field:
READ MORE OF THE CASEY INTERVIEWS:
Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant with SparkAction. Email her at alison[at]sparkaction.org