Amanda Fanger, a reporter for Reporter & Farmer, a weekly newspaper in rural Day County, South Dakota, today was named winner of the 2017 Public Notice Journalism Award. Fanger won for a story that scratched below the surface of a public notice (PDF) to reveal a potential embezzlement scheme in one of the small towns within her paper’s coverage area.
Fanger will receive a $500 award and a free trip to Washington, D.C., where she will be honored at a March 16 dinner at the National Press Club.
Jim Lockwood of The Scranton (Penn.) Times-Tribune and Victor Parkins of The Milan (Tenn.) Mirror-Exchange were named winners of second- and third-place, respectively. Lockwood won the Public Notice Journalism Award in 2015.
“There were many worthy entries submitted in this year’s contest, so the winners should be especially proud of their great work,” said PNRC President Bradley L. Thompson II, chairman and CEO of the Detroit Legal News Co., which sponsored the prize. “Reporting on public notices is another way newspapers serve their readers and inform their communities.”
Fanger followed up on an obscure reference to “employee dishonesty” in the minutes of a town board meeting that were published in March 2016 as a public notice in Reporter & Farmer. She discovered that a recent legislative audit of the finances of Grenville, South Dakota (population: 60) had concluded that the town’s former financial officer might have embezzled as much as $72,000. Digging a little deeper, Fanger learned the same person was being prosecuted for using a stolen credit card.
“In the space of the three pages containing her entry, Fanger had five bylines and a photo credit, making her enterprise in delving below the surface of the official notice even more impressive,” said the judges who made the selection. They also noted that the citizens of Day County might never have learned about the embezzlement allegations if Fanger hadn’t read the notice in her paper and taken the extra step to get the real story.
“No newspaper, no matter how big, can make it to every public meeting in its coverage area,” said Reporter & Farmer Co-Publisher John Suhr in an editorial published in the same issue (PDF) as Fanger’s story. “It is because of public notices, however, that we are able to see their actions and follow up to help explain to the taxpayers what their board is doing.”
Jim Lockwood’s entry included more than a dozen articles published in the Times-Tribune in 2015, in which he used public notices as sources for his reporting, including stories about infrastructure financing, specialty taxes, home foreclosure blight, rental-unit registries, tax sales, grant requests, cell-antenna disputes and fair-housing requirements.
Lockwood is “the quintessential example of a journalist who scours public notices to report stories that would otherwise remain hidden,” said the judges. “Through a combination of reportorial tenacity and generous applications of elbow grease, he uses the notices published in his paper to report stories that help Scranton residents understand a myriad of issues important to the development of their city. It is no overstatement to suggest that Lockwood is a public notice wizard whose work provides a veritable lesson in how a city is managed.”
In addition to being a previous winner of the national Public Notice Journalism Award, Lockwood has won the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s public notice reporting contest for the last three years.
Victor Parkins’ story was based on a public notice placed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announcing that a local nursing home was out of compliance with its requirements. Within a month of the publication of his story, the health care provider had been fined over $2 million by federal and state officials and was making plans to transfer residents to other facilities. “Parkin made the connection between the original notice and the ultimate fate of the nursing home to produce well-reported and well-sourced coverage of this important story,” said the judges.
Serving as the judges this year were David Jackson, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter of the Chicago Tribune; Marc Karlinsky, editor of the Chicago Law Bulletin and Chicago Lawyer; and Charles Whitaker, associate dean and journalism professor of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
The Public Notice Journalism Award was established in 2013 by the Public Notice Resource Center, a consortium of newspaper organizations supporting public notice. The award is intended to encourage journalists to incorporate public notices into their reporting.