Knox Journalism Investigation Takes 1st Place in Statewide Contest

May 11, 2012

The Maytag Project

by Rana Tahir '13

A Knox College journalism investigation, The Maytag Project, has won a first place award in the 2012 Illinois Associated Press Editors Association News and Photo Contest.

Published in the Galesburg Register-Mail as "Maytag Employees in Transition," the 17-part, six-day series won in the Enterprise Series category, competing against professional daily newspapers with circulations of 15,000 and under. Awards in the category are meant to recognize "a pre-planned, issue-oriented, non-deadline series which shows creative initiative and originality in subject matter and approach," according to contest rules.

Knox College students and faculty collaborated to produce the Maytag series, spending more than a year on the necessary research, data analysis, interviews, photography, and writing.

According to The Register-Mail, 902 union workers were displaced when Maytag's refrigeration plant in Galesburg closed in 2004. At one time there had been 3,000 people working at the plant. After the layoffs were announced in 2002, 1,600 union employees eventually lost their jobs. The 902 were among the last wave to go. The study only addressed the post-Maytag lives of union employees as researchers did not have access to a list of management workers.

The project grew out of a spring 2010 Knox College course in which students profiled several former Maytag employees years later to see how they were faring. Researchers aimed to dig deeper. The following summer, Knox faculty in journalism, economics, and education developed a survey in consultation with an outside expert, several former Maytag employees, and Knox students in their senior year.

Surveys were sent to 425 randomly selected former Maytag workers, and 133 surveys were returned in time for the survey analysis.

That fall, the data was analyzed in an in-depth reporting class. Students in that class analyzed and interpreted the data, chose topics suggested by the results, interviewed former Maytag employees on topics that ranged from the loss of their health care coverage to the reinvention of their careers, and published articles with their own bylines as the Knox News Team.

Students in photography classes at Knox took portraits of workers in their new lives, publishing as part of the Knox News Team as well.

"The biggest findings were a third of the people were doing better than they had at Maytag," said Marilyn Webb, distinguished professor of journalism and chair of Knox's journalism program. She served as project and editorial director. (Photo above: Marilyn Webb, at right, works with students on The Maytag Project.)

"It was a big surprise that these people were generally happier, that their new jobs now fit them better as people."

Richard Stout, professor of economics and chair of Knox's Department of Economics, was principal data analyst for The Maytag Project. The photo director was Michael Godsil '76 and '04, Knox instructor in art (photography). Knox graduate Ryan Sweikert '10 served as assistant data and editorial director. Diana Beck, Knox professor of educational studies, was the project's social research associate. Borzello Fellows in Journalism were Sweikert, Annie Zak '11, Alison Ehrhard '11, and Levi Flair '10.

The Illinois AP contest is open to news outlets across the state.

"This isn't a college competition. It's a professional competition in a really hard category," Webb said. "I'm thrilled. I'm just amazed that students would win in a category like this in a statewide professional contest."

"I am extremely, extremely proud of the students, faculty, staff, and former Maytag employees who all worked on this project," she added.

At least two of the students who contributed to The Maytag Project, Sweikert and Zak, are pursuing graduate studies in journalism. Sweikert is headed this fall to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and Zak will go to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

Zak said that after graduating from Knox, she applied to five journalism graduate schools and was admitted to all of them.

"I think it's due to the fact that I (was involved with) the project," she said.

Alison Ehrhard '11, another student who contributed to The Maytag Project, said her work on that series has led her to conduct further research about governmental policies on workers' health. She is planning to write a book.

"It's exciting that the hard work that so many people put into paid off and is being recognized in the journalism world," said Ehrhard, now a post-baccaluareate fellow at Knox.

The Maytag series also is a finalist in the 2012 Illinois Press Association awards, which will be presented later this year.

The Maytag Project was supported by a gift from Robert Borzello, a 1958 Knox College graduate and publisher in England noted for his work on ethics in news reporting. The project also received funding from the Mellon Foundation.