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“Failure Factories” takes first prize in Philip Meyer Award for investigative journalism

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Tampa Bay Times is walking way with a First Place win in the prestigious Philip Meyer Award for investigative reporters and editors. Times writers Cara Fitzpatrick, Michael LaForgia, Lisa Gartner, Nathaniel Lash and Connie Humburg took top honors in the 2015 award for their “Failure Factories” investigation

The expose uncovered five chronically failing elementary schools all located in the poor communities of South St. Pete. The schools, once performing on par with other average schools, nose-dived into failing following a 2007 vote to abandon integration in schools.

In justifying the vote, the school board promised increased funding in poor, black neighborhoods like the five identified in the report as well as increased staff and better resources. None of that was delivered.

“The team used statistical analysis and linear regression of data from dozens of records requests to document how steady resegregation of Pinellas County schools left black children to fail at increasingly higher rates than anywhere else in Florida,” the award announcement on the IRE website read. “The series focused on failures of school district officials to give the schools the support necessary for success.”

The result of the “Failure Factories” report has been widespread. The City of St. Pete has hired a full-time staff member specifically to address education issues even though the topic has typically been one left strictly to the school district. Elected officials in municipalities as well as in positions outside the school board have taken bold stances on the issue demanding action.

The performance of schools in South St. Pete has been a question of candidates regardless of their ability to directly influence educational outcomes in the five failing schools.

As should be the case with effective investigative reports, the Times has succeeded in attracting outrage that demands action.

The judges for this year’s Philip Meyer Contest include Sarah Cohen, the data editor at the New York Times, Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University Steve Doig, Brant Houston, Professor and Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Professor of Practice at the Univeristy of Nebraska-Lincoln, Matt Waite and the award’s namesake, Philip Meyer Knight Chair emeritus at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and author of “Precision Journalism.”

“The judges praised the reporters for dogged work on a project that took 18 months to report and write, and noted that the results underscored what decades of sociological research has shown happens in racially segregated schools,” a release reads.

In a time when journalistic resources are becoming more and more scarce, intrepid reports like these remind readers of the value of a free press and resulting accountability. Despite shrinking budgets and staff, the Times still manages to produce policy-changing investigative reports.

They beat out a USA Today piece called “The Changing Face of America” about growing levels of ethnic diversity across the nation and a Reuters Piece called “The Echo Chamber” highlighting the shocking breakdown of where U.S. Supreme Court cases originate. According to that report, 43 percent came from a small pool of just a few dozen lawyers.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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