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Student-written series wins 3 prizes from professional journalism groups


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Knox Journalism Students' Work Wins Top Statewide Awards

The Maytag Project is a 'truly unique approach,' contest judges say

Student-written series wins 3 prizes from professional journalism groups

An award-winning investigation by Knox College journalism students, The Maytag Project, earned two additional top statewide prizes in June at the annual joint convention of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association. The students' work competed against work produced by professional journalists, and judges described The Maytag Project as taking a "truly unique approach to a huge regional story."

One of the prizes is the highly coveted Sweepstakes Award, which the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association presents for best reporting/writing entry across all categories. The Maytag Project received the Sweepstakes Award in its division, newspapers with circulations of up to 15,000.

The Maytag Project, which was published in the Galesburg Register-Mail newspaper as "Maytag Employees in Transition," also garnered a first place award from the Illinois Press Association in the Enterprise Series category. In the IPA contest, the Maytag investigation competed against entries from newspapers with circulations of 10,000 to 40,000.

The Illinois Press Association, referred to as the IPA, and the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association, referred to as the AP, are the major professional organizations for Illinois newspapers. They oversee separate yearly contests for news and photography, attracting entries from professional news outlets of all sizes in Illinois.

The Maytag series examined what happened to employees who were laid off after a local manufacturing plant closed.

"We found that while there was the expected devastation among workers after the plant closing, seven years later most had successfully reinvented themselves," said Marilyn Webb, distinguished professor of journalism, chair of Knox's journalism program, and director of The Maytag Project. "Workers' average family incomes matched what others in Knox County were earning and a third of the workers were actually doing better than they had before."

According to judges in the AP contest, "The Register-Mail recognized that a plant closing isn't just about unemployment numbers; it's about people, their hopes and dreams and putting their lives back together. The newspaper pulled no punches in assessing the impact of the closing, but went the extra step in moving the story forward when it looked at how workers were rebuilding their lives."

Judges in the IPA contest also offered praise in their written comments, calling the series a "truly unique approach to a huge regional story (that) really stood out." They added: "A very complex project to manage, but information that's truly exclusive ... outstanding overall execution."

Mark Ridolfi, editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times and lecturer in journalism at Knox, said the students' work reflects their liberal arts education, enabling them to "examine an issue from a lot of different sides and produce engaging content."

"What is fascinating is that in this era of journalism, what these students have done is create a new model for small- and medium-sized daily newspapers" that otherwise wouldn't have the resources to tackle a topic in such a comprehensive way, he added.

"Maytag Employees in Transition" appeared in The Register-Mail in March 2011 as a 17-part, six-day series.

Earlier this year, it won first place in the Enterprise Series category of the 2012 Illinois AP contest, competing against professional daily newspapers with circulations of 15,000 or less.

Knox College students and faculty collaborated for more than a year on the necessary research, data analysis, interviews, photography, and writing that culminated in The Maytag Project.

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 because 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 educational studies 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, students in an in-depth reporting class analyzed and interpreted the data, chose topics suggested by the results, interviewed former Maytag employees on a wide range of topics, 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.

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 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.

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Printed on Friday, December 8, 2023