February’s DFMie winners expose pay excess, cover nuclear leak and more


February’s DFMie-winning journalism ranged from coverage of a nuclear waste leak to an effort to identify people in old photos to exposing excessive pay of a school superintendent.

Here’s a break down of the month’s winners. See below for more details on each.

Watchdog journalism

Metro Division: Rob Kuznia of the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., won the Metro DFMie for revealing that a school superintendent in a small district was making nearly double the compensation of the superintendent of the Los Angeles School District.

Colorado/Utah Division: Erica Meltzer of the Daily Camera won the DFMie for non-metro newsrooms in Colorado and Utah for reporting on surveillance cameras watching homeless people in Boulder.

Midwest Division: The Michigan newsrooms won the Midwest DFMie for a project on declining property values in the state.

News coverage

Northeast Division: Andrew Amelinckx of the Berkshire Eagle won the Northeast DFMie for live coverage of a triple murder trial.

Texas/New Mexico Division: The Carlsbad Current-Argus won the Texas/New Mexico DFMie for coverage of a fire and leak at a nuclear waste repository.

Sports coverage

Los Angeles News Group Division: The Los Angeles News Group DFMie went to team coverage of signing day for high school football players agreeing to college scholarships.

Bay Area News Group Division: Graphic artist Jeff Durham and sports columnist Marcus Thompson won the Bay Area News Group DFMie for their analysis of the “Picture Perfect” shot of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

Community Engagement

Northern California Division: The Vallejo Times-Herald won the Northern California DFMie for a Valentine’s engagement project.

Pennsylvania/New Jersey/West Virginia Division: Matt Murphy and Billy Wolfe of the Charleston Daily Mail won in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/West Virginia cluster for a community engagement project to identify the people in the portraits found in an old photo studio.

Tout Bout

ToutBout winners were announced in this separate post.


Judges for the February DFMies and ToutBout were the January winners (including representatives from staff winners): Daniel Tedford, Daniel Aitken, Harrison Sheppard, Dana Bartholomew, John McCoy, Carolina Garcia, Miriam Vasquez, Tom Tripicco, Nathan Mayberg, Ben Garver, Dave Boucher, Matt Murphy, Marcus Costentino, Stephanie Metzger, Eric Bonzar, Sarah Kuta, Kevin Johnson, Zack Ponce, Karl Mondon, John Valenzuela, Jim Harrington, Chuck Barney, Julie Jag and Stephen Baxter.

Judges have no input on the judging for their own clusters. So, for instance, Murphy and Ponce were not involved in judging the winning entries that they worked on. They’re just on a roll.

Details on the February winners follow. We’re inviting the winners to tweet lessons from their winning projects and will update with the tweets as they post them:

Rob Kuznia dug into superintendent’s pay

Illustration for Daily Breeze superintendent storyThe total compensation for Centinela Valley Union High School District Superintendent Jose Fernandez was hidden in opaque contract language, but Kuznia decoded it with the help of a school finance expert. The resulting stories, showing that the small-school district was paying its superintendent more than double the total compensation of the Los Angeles superintendent.

Kuznia’s reporting prompted an emergency school board meeting and proposed legislation to prevent such excessive pay in the future.

A judge’s comment:

This is why we are journalists: Holding accountable this public entity that is clearly out of touch is at the very core of our profession and illustrates the value of a newspaper — or media organization — to its community.

Andrew Amelinckx liveblogged murder trial

Andrew Amelinckx

Andrew Amelinckx

Andrew Amelinckx of the Eagle won for his live coverage of the triple-murder trial of Adam Lee Hall, a reputed Hells Angel. As Kevin Moran, vice president for news at New England Newspapers, recounted in a blog post about the trial, it drew 25,855 engagement hours from more than 53,000 unique visitors, averaging 21 minutes a visit. To get an idea of how many hours that is, Moran says, think of it as working a 40-hour week for 12 1/2 years with no vacation. Moran also blogged an interview with Amelinckx about liveblogging tips.

A judge’s comment:

Andrew gets major bonus points for his industriousness, aggressiveness and persistence, not to mention his digital-first willingness to learn a new skill (ScribbleLive). I admired the way he tirelessly filed updates throughout the trial, keeping his readers (and the community) informed.

Other links:

Erica Meltzer reported on surveillance of homeless

Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer

A brief exchange at a Boulder City Council meeting prompted Meltzer to seek public records and push for answers. Two days after the meeting, Meltzer broke the news that the city was operating surveillance cameras in downtown Boulder.

Judges’ comment:

Gleaned by a keen ear and a public records request, the story highlights the best in watchdog journalism. It also forced city officials and police to admit to clandestine peeping and the purchase of $8,000 in surveillance equipment, sparking a local debate about civil rights.

A ‘Picture Perfect’ winner

Jeff Durham graphic of Stephen Curry's shot

Marcus Thompson

Marcus Thompson

Artist Jeff Durham and columnist Marcus Thompson collaborated on a graphic and column explaining why the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry is such a successful jump shooter.

Judges’ comment:

 The nearly scientific analysis of his shooting technique is remarkable and unusual for sports coverage. The graphic pulled me in and the prose was thorough and took me by surprise.

Charleston photo project wins

Billy Wolfe

Billy Wolfe

After Lindsay Hignite died in 2000, Lindsay’s Studio in East Charleston never reopened. When the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority bought the building last fall, workers found thousands of prints of portraits of Charleston people. Matt Murphy and Billy Wolfe of the Charleston Daily Mail got to work trying to identify and match the photos with their subjects or family members, using a Facebook photo gallery that has been shared more than 200 times.

Matt Murphy

Matt Murphy

A judge’s comment:

The Charleston Daily Mail used ingenuity to take what would seem like a daunting task and turned it into an impactful, digital project that touches the very core of their readers. Using Facebook as the medium, the staff created a digital database of their community’s past with these photos and, in essence, collaborated with their readers to tell this story.

Another Vallejo engagement winner

Vallejo Times-Herald Now That's Love logoFresh off their November DFMie win for their Generation Snaps engagement project, Lanz Christian Bañes and Chris Riley of the Times-Herald teamed with colleague Irma Widjojo for a Valentine’s engagement project, Now That’s Love. They collected stories, poems and other romantic reflections from the community, then opened the submissions up to voting. The journalists did video and text stories on the three winning entries.

A judge’s comment:

The vignettes stand on their own as show-not-tell illustrations of the greatest human (and even canine) attribute. Very lean. Very tight. Very lovingly written. And a great job at good old-fashioned storytelling.

Michigan property values project

A team from all DFM newsrooms in Michigan collaborated on an analysis of falling property values, showing that the decline appears to have bottomed out in southeastern Michigan. The project included stories by Charlie Crumm, Erica McClain, Nichole Seguin and Norb Franz and a Google Fusion map by McClain. Others contributing to the project were by Michelle Rogers, John Turk, Lara Stump, Gina Joseph, Kevin Martin, Randi Shaffer and Lisa Jonaitis.

A judge’s comment:

The story and online maps take a complex issue and break it into easily digested maps and pieces of information. The story’s format recognized the way people outside journalism consume information now — not always in written form. More data should be presented this way.

Sports coverage of signing day

Scott Wolf

Scott Wolf

The Los Angeles News Group’s coverage of signing day for football players heading to college included a liveblog, photo galleries, player biographies and a constantly updated database of signings involving UCLA, USC and local areas. The coverage generated 275,000 page views. The liveblog alone had 970,000 engagement minutes. Journalists driving the coverage were USC beat writer Scott Wolf, UCLA beat writer Jack Wang, High School Sports Editor Fred Robledo and Programmer Phil Lawrence. Wolf’s USC coverage won the LANG DFMie for December.

Phil Lawrence

Phil Lawrence

A judge’s comment:

I was impressed by the throughness of the project. There are a lot of people throughout the country who pay close attention to college athletics, and it appears the staff was able to harness that interest for the benefit of their audience.

Current-Argus coverage of nuclear leak

The Current-Argus staff, from left: Jessica Onsurez, Zack Ponce, Jonathan Smith, Martha Mauritson and Brandon Bowers.

The Current-Argus staff, from left: Jessica Onsurez, Zack Ponce, Jonathan Smith, Martha Mauritson and Brandon Bowers.

The fire and radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant 26 miles east of Carlsbad were the most serious incidents in the plant’s 15-year history, exposing 13 workers to radiation. The Current-Argus coverage was led by reporter Zack Ponce with contributions from Jessica Onsurez, Jon Smith and Martha Mauritson.

A judge’s comment:

My vote is for the staff of the Carlsbad Current-Argus. I especially liked their use of Tout, Twitter and ScribbleLive to keep people updated on the story, and also their commitment to digging deeper through the use of FOIAs. These stories have my vote because the reporters are acting as watchdogs in this scenario and that’s a service to the community. Also, it’s just stellar journalism.


Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

One comment on “February’s DFMie winners expose pay excess, cover nuclear leak and more

  1. Beau Yarbrough

    I had felt really good about the DFMie chances of my one-year anniversary coverage of the Yucaipa bus crash, and then Rob dropped his opening salvo of his Centinela Valley coverage a few days later, and I knew we were looking at the clear runaway DFMie winner for February.

    Unquestionably great journalism, knocked right out of the park.


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