Four major journalism prizes for Progress-Index reporters in 2021 competition

The Progress-Index’s news team won four Virginia Press Association 1st Place Awards for Coverage in 2021. They also won two of three Investigative Journalism Awards.

Staff won first place awards for Breaking News, Government Writing, General News Writing and Sports Column Writing; and received second and third place in In-Depth or Investigative Reports.

“I’m proud of this team of reporters’ focus on reporting and writing meaningful stories for the community,” said Jeff Schwaner, a Gannett storytelling and monitoring coach who worked with staff in 2021.

Bill Atkinson received two first-place awards for his coverage of the closing of Old Towne Square in Petersburg and for opening a time capsule salvaged from the remains of the old Robert E. Lee Memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond.

Sean Jones won first place for his coverage of the barbers’ strike in Fort Lee.

Zoe Collins Rath won first place for her Petersburg High School sports column.

Joyce Chu won second and third place in the in-depth or investigative reporting category. Second place honors were for his coverage of gambling addiction and the potential emotional and psychological impacts a casino can have on its host community, as part of The Progress’s “Rolling the Dice” series- Index.

Chu and Atkinson won third place for their coverage of Petersburg’s 2021 homicide rate and the emotions felt by some of the survivors of murder victims.

The honored work was chosen from more than 3,000 entries in the annual VPA competition.

Entries were judged by members of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. Links to all of the award-winning stories are below, along with the judges’ comments.

First place winners

Old Town Square: Will it stay or will it disappear?

The closure of Old Towne Square was a hot issue in 2021. Started in 2020 as a way for restaurateurs in this part of town to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was closed in July 2021 by the city manager of the time. Stuart Turille Jr.

The plaza was a one-block section of North Sycamore Street cordoned off to serve as an outdoor dining area where customers ordering take-out could sit and enjoy their meals rather than heading home. Even though it was only meant to be a stopgap measure until the pandemic was over, a group of restaurant owners started pushing to make it permanent.

Turille, who took office in July 2021, recommended reopening the street to car traffic as a public safety measure, but suggested the outdoor dining area be moved to a safer off-street location. Despite a vigorous public relations campaign by the restaurant group, the city council did not reverse Turille’s decision and the street was reopened.

Several months after the plaza was closed, Turille was forced out of his job, and the city is now looking for a new senior administrator.

The Lee Memorial Time Capsule

As part of the dismantling of Confederate memorials along Monument Avenue in Richmond, historians have found a time capsule hidden in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue. The copper box was placed in the pedestal when the statue was erected in the late 19th century, and everyone was curious to see what was inside. The opening was quite the media event, and the prize artifact everyone wanted to see – a reported photo of President Abraham Lincoln in his casket – turned out to be a photo of a woodcut.

Fort Lee barbers’ strike

A four-month strike by barbers hired to work in Fort Lee ended when their employer accepted their demands for payment. The contractor has already had trouble with the national labor relations commission. Sean Jones of The Progress-Index was the first reporter to cover the strike, and it was later picked up by local news outlets.

High school sports chronicles

Zoe Collins Rath, who joined The Progress-Index last summer, had an immediate impact on local sports coverage. An athlete herself, Rath’s insight and experience provided the perfect combination to take Petersburg High School’s sports coverage beyond scores and highlights.

Of Rath’s entries, the judges wrote, “Good insight into the high school sports scene.”

Incidentally, this was Rath’s second writing honor in the past two weeks. She also won the coveted “Best of Gannett” award from Gannett Co. Inc., the parent company of The Progress-Index, for her investigative coverage of reported racism inside the county school bus system. Prince George.

The second place winner

Roll the dice to invite a casino to town

As part of The Progress-Index’s ongoing coverage of the possibility of a casino coming to Petersburg, Joyce Chu investigated the psychological and emotional effects of gambling addiction and how a casino affects her locality of homepage. The result was this insightful article.

Of Chu’s article, the judges wrote, “A terrific mix of stories from real people, data, experts. Gives a clear picture of the issues some people may be experiencing. Interesting geographical angle as well; perhaps something few people consider, an unintended event resulting from a cash grab.”

Third place winner

18 homicides in Petersburg, few arrests. Will justice be served?

Petersburg has the dubious honor of being the “murder capital” of Virginia. Its per capita homicide rate is the highest in the state and has been for consecutive years.

After two straight years in the twenties, the city saw 18 murders last year. Even though it was down, it still seemed to be 18 too many.

Joyce Chu and Bill Atkinson compiled data and conducted interviews on who the city’s homicide victims were and the impact on those the victims left behind.

Of Chu and Atkinson’s article, the judges wrote, “Good voices of people touched by tragedy. A strong, engaging track immediately draws readers in.”

Bill Atkinson (he/him/her) is a daily news reporter and coach for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region which includes Virginia. He is based in Petersburg, Virginia. Contact him at [email protected]

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