Five former Shawnee Mission East High students were part of a college journalism project that has just beat out the New Yorker, National Geographic and other professional news outlets to win the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights grand prize for journalism.
It was the first college project ever to win such an honor, which was bestowed last Tuesday at a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington D.C.
The five former Shawnee Mission East students — Jake Crandall, Matt Hanson, Vanessa Daves, Lauren Brown-Hulme and James Wooldridge — were part of an elite group of 11 University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students chosen for a nine-month, in-depth reporting and photojournalism project. “Wounds of Whiteclay” was an intensive look at the small village of Whiteclay, Neb., and its four beer stores that annually sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer to the impoverished residents of the nearby Pine Ridge reservation. Advocates said the series helped get the beer stores shut down, at least for now.
“It was grueling at times,” Hanson said in a telephone interview Saturday, describing what became an all-consuming journalism crusade for all these students.
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But he said it was also fun to work with his journalism friends from Shawnee Mission East who somehow all ended up in the same class. “It was like being back on The Harbinger,” East’s student-run newspaper, he said.
All five students took classes from Shawnee Mission East journalism teacher Dow Tate, who said Saturday he has kept up with all of them and is proud of their accomplishments.
“They are a talented, hardworking group,” Tate said, noting that it was interesting they all came together in the same college class.
Hanson, 22, designed the project’s website, http://www.woundsofwhiteclay.com/, teaching himself coding and other skills to do that, and also did the public records data analysis for the project. He’s off to the Buffalo News this summer for an internship.
Daves and Brown-Hulme were reporters on the project and Crandall and Wooldridge were photographers.
The series was the brainchild of University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Joe Starita and visiting professor Bill Frakes.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, Starita exulted with his students at the awards ceremony, yelling out, “The first time a college has won in the 49-year history of the award! We beat HBO and the New Yorker! We beat the New Yorker!”
“We were very dumbfounded,” when the grand prize was announced, Crandall, 22, of Fairway said in a telephone interview Saturday. But Crandall said the project, which involved repeated seven-hour trips from Lincoln to Whiteclay, was an incredible learning experience.
Crandall, who is now doing a newspaper internship in Michigan, knows it’s a tough time for many journalists and for the media industry as a whole. Still, he said the project showed that quality journalism can open people’s eyes and help make things better. He finds that a tremendous motivator.
“We have the power to do something,” he said.
Crandall noted that people in Nebraska have known for years about the problems with Whiteclay, but there had never been this level of reporting before. What made this project different, he said, was the students took the time to get to know the community.
“We spent time with them. We went on the street,” he said. “We showed them we had compassion for them.”