Statement by the Judges

The fifth Murray Kempton Award competition for undergraduate journalism attracted solid examples of good journalistic practice that we hope will inspire students who are now writing for campus newspapers and taking journalism classes.

This contest combined academic years 2011-2012 and 2012-13. With printed material, the judges read uniform, plain-text submissions that lack identifying information about the writer or, except where evident in the copy, the college. With video and Web-based submissions, it can be obvious who entered, but judges concentrate on what was on the screen, not the personalities. They discuss the submissions thoroughly until reaching consensus.

Here is a brief discussion of factors in our decision-making:

The contest rules state: “Topics should be important to the college community interpreted broadly, including coverage of news, sports, student athletics and the arts, whether on campus or not.” Evaluation criteria include “originality; creativity; clarity in presentation; readability or audio/video storytelling; enterprise in reporting; journalistic significance, and accuracy of spelling and grammar. Entrants are strongly encouraged to submit examples that reflect the highest journalistic standards for fairness, accuracy and balance.”

We also looked for stories that expanded our understanding of issues. Writers looked on campus, around the city and abroad as they explored topics ranging from photomurals being pasted on the walls of industrial buildings to a chiropractor who connects terminally ill children with sports figures and teams, from thoughts about the Occupy Wall Street movement to an exploration of the closed City Hall subway station, from controversy over a public program on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a multi-part series on how Harlem is changing.

The judges favored stories that demonstrated in-person, original reporting over those that appeared to be based on information derived from the Internet or press releases. Original reporting is also a criterion (but not a required one) for considering commentaries, for Murray Kempton, himself, often bicycled across New York City to witness the news before forming the opinions that flowed out through his unique framework for observing and analyzing the world.

NEWS: The competition’s criteria for a news story are that it “presents the facts about a timely issue. It contains reliable, attributed information, is comprehensive and clearly separates fact from opinion.”

“Rotten Bananas on Kelly Street” was written by Matthew Perlman, who graduated from Hunter College in 2012 with a B.A. in literature and is now in his last semester at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. This punchy news story delivers “the smell of rot and absent plumbing” and the “discarded ware of junkies … on a table of what was once the living room” in an apartment building that was neglected and then abandoned by its landlord. The story lays out the residents’ situation with clarity and context, while looking forward to the repairs promised by the nonprofit Banana Kelly Improvement Association, a local developer of moderate-income housing in the South Bronx. The article appeared in the Hunts Point Express. (The judges did not know that Perlman had won the Kempton Award for a different story about these houses in 2011.)

ENTERPRISE/FEATURE: The contest rules say an enterprise story “typically takes a broad look at a topic, presenting the ‘big picture’ behind a news event. A feature is a human interest story, often not related to a timely event.”

“At the Corner Deli, a Yemeni Immigrant Saga,” by Kiran Sury, now a Brooklyn College senior, starts with a corner in Brooklyn that boasts three delicatessens, each owned by Yemeni immigrants, and deftly turns it into a exploration of how yet another group of newcomers is laying claim to a city and an enterprise that have been the pipeline to American success for countless other groups. Weaving census data and sociological background from college professors together with interviews with shoppers and the manager of a nearby supermarket, Sury provides a solid context for the proliferation of Arab delis, then moves into the lives of the proprietors and workers. “The close-knit Yemeni culture is what enables all three delis to survive on the same street corner. Cooperation is more important than competition,” Sury writes before quoting one merchant: “You make your money, I make my money, we cool, we friends.” And if the merchants disagree about selling products that they, as Muslims, are taught to avoid – well, people take different approaches in America. Sury is on track to graduate in 2014 with a degree in journalism, but also has pursued a pre-med undergraduate program and is applying to medical schools. He intends to become a practicing physician who also writes about medical issues.

COMMENTARY: The contest rules for commentaries state: “Encompassing both editorials and personal columns, commentary expresses personal opinion. Good commentary offers crisp analysis of a problem or situation, discusses it with a clear point of view, and may offer solutions.”

“Fifty Shades of Dismay” by Aliza Chasan, who graduated from Queens College in 2013 with a B.A. in economics, uses National Depression Screening Day on campus to bravely “come out” as someone who is dealing with anxiety. Colleges need to pay attention to depression, she argues, citing a 12-year Hofstra University study that found that as many as 41 percent of college-age individuals suffer from depression, and the rate of depression is rising. The results can be catastrophic, with one person committing suicide every minute. Yet, because of the perceived stigma of mental illness, few people stopped by the campus screening table. Argentina offers a better model, she argues, where the number of practicing psychologists is on the rise and use of their services is part of general conversation; she quotes a senior whose family is Argentine as saying, “It’s healthy to have someone to talk to, a neutral party to help you sort out the everyday stresses of life.” She makes a persuasive case. Chasan intends to pursue a career in journalism; she now works for a small newspaper in New Jersey handing everything from writing articles to dealing with advertisers.

Each of us judges had the privilege of working with Murray Kempton at New York Newsday. We believe that he would have been proud to lend his name to this competition and to these three winners. One of the things Murray often said about New York Newsday was that he found himself re-energized by the enthusiasm of the young reporters working there. We think he would have felt the same way about these students and these entries.

Kristen Kelch , managing editor, CUNY publications

Richard Firstman , writer and professor, Stony Brook University School of Journalism

Neill S. Rosenfeld, curator, the Kempton Awards