May 12, 2020

Five stories of impact from OJA winners and finalists

The 2020 Online Journalism Awards are open for submissions, and it’s our most ambitious round yet, with 42 awards available across 19 categories, including new honors for newsletters and climate-change reporting.

One of the best parts of administering the OJAs is getting to know an array of incredible work from across the industry. While we’re waiting impatiently to discover the entries to the 2020 OJAs, we asked ONA Chief Knowledge Officer Trevor Knoblich to tell us about some of the inspiring honorees from recent years and the impact of their journalism.


Deadly Delays | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

2014 Finalist; Knight Award for Public Service

The story: Newborn babies are routinely tested for genetic disorders to catch diseases early and ensure they’re treated before they progress. In 2014, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that hundreds of thousands of blood samples across the country were arriving late at labs due to ineffective hospital systems and poor state oversight — and the consequences for children were sometimes fatal. To report this story, the Journal Sentinel team performed data collection typically limited to universities and federal agencies, wrestling information from 31 states that accounted for two-thirds of U.S. births (an unprecedented analysis).

The impact: The American Hospital Association sent the series to its 5,000 member hospitals urging them to clean up problems. States moved to add weekend lab hours, improve courier services and increase tracking and reporting. Congress amended a bill reauthorizing the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act to track the timeliness of samples delivered to labs. And in Arizona, one of the poorest performing states in the analysis, the health department completely overhauled its newborn screening program.


#MakeAlCare — The Evolution of One Voter | KPCC Southern California Public Radio

2015 Winner; Planned News/Events, Medium Newsroom

The story: As Los Angeles’ municipal primary election approached in 2015, the team at KPCC wanted to think of new ways to engage their audience. Fewer and fewer voters had been turning out for elections, and they knew there was a chance that a race with no mayoral contest could be the worst attended in history. To humanize the story and entertain readers, they focused on one reluctant voter — a small business owner and renter — who hadn’t made the connection that his life could be deeply impacted by the elections.

The impact: KPCC’s #MakeAlCare campaign was soon taken up by the community and candidates, who made in-person appeals to reluctant-turned-enthusiastic voter Al Gordon for why they should be elected. The audience was able to follow along with Al’s journey through a series of cartoons, as well as radio reports and social media updates. The night before the election, Al even hosted his neighbors and the candidates at his restaurant (aptly named “Community”).


Doctors & Sex Abuse | Atlanta Journal-Constitution

2017 Winner; Knight Award for Public Service

The story: In 2015, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter found a pattern: two-thirds of doctors disciplined for sexual misconduct with patients in Georgia were permitted to practice again, often without serious reprimand. To find out if this was the case in other states, they embarked on a sweeping country-wide investigation, collecting more than 100,000 documents through web-scrapers and developing machine-learning programs to narrow the search. Eventually, they identified 3,100 doctors who’d been sanctioned since 1999 — but it was clear that more cases had gone unreported.

The impact: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution team built the story on a custom website and made it available without a paywall to maximize awareness and encourage future reporting. Victims from more than two-dozen states reached out. After researching laws from every state, the team created a guide with a grading system and best practices for state regulators, who often didn’t understand the extent of the issue. As a result, several states made it easier for the public to access incidents of sexual abuse by doctors. Back where the story originated, Georgia’s medical board reexamined how it handles sexual misconduct, and Washington regulators reviewed their procedures for notifying law enforcement and alerting prosecutors to an abusive doctor. A leading medical ethicist called for a zero-tolerance rule for physicians, and a private citizen collected 19,000 supporters on a petition to revoke licenses of doctors convicted of sex crimes.


Gatlinburg Fire | Knoxville News Sentinel, USA TODAY Network – Tennessee

2017 Winner; Breaking News, Medium Newsroom

The story: On Nov. 28, 2016, smoke from a fire high in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee had reached the tourist town of Pigeon Forge. As far as forest fires go, it didn’t seem unusual. But when night arrived, so did hurricane-force winds, which quickly drove the fire down the mountains towards more populated areas. One minute people could see fire in the distance, and the next the woods around them were burning. Tourists had to escape on unfamiliar twisting rural mountain roads in the dark, through burning forests and intense winds. Damage was eventually placed at $1 billion with over 17,000 acres burned, more than 2,400 structures damaged, some 3,000 people who spent at least one night in a shelter, 200 people who were treated for fire-related injuries and 14 deaths linked directly to the fire.

The impact: With local authorities consumed by the crisis, the News Sentinel became a key information source for those in and near the area. Their reporters and photojournalists covered the front lines through the night, supplying updates that went to readers online, as well as via push alerts and social media. When dawn arrived, the News Sentinel established a steady rotation of reporters for around-the-clock coverage that persisted throughout the coming weeks, keeping the community informed with continual breaking news.


Verificado | AJ+ Español, Animal Político, Pop-Up Newsroom

2018 Winner: Excellence in Collaboration and Partnerships

The story: Mexico faced a history-making election season in 2018. With over 10,000 candidates running for federal and local office, there was a big risk that voters would be swayed by disinformation shared on social networks. Verificado sought to debunk those stories and provide credible information that would allow voters to participate meaningfully in Mexico’s democratic processes. Led by AJ+ Español, Animal Político and Pop-Up Newsroom, the project brought together over 90 partners from media, academia and civil society (the largest-ever initiative of its kind in Latin America), to fight viral misinformation, fact-check politicians’ claims and verify reports on the electoral process.

The impact: Just 11 weeks in, Verificado amassed over 330,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, and content produced by the project had been viewed millions of times by audiences across Mexico. Their education vertical—which helped readers navigate the complex electoral news ecosystem—was viewed over a million times. A team of 50 journalists fact-checked presidential debates, and those findings played a key role in conversations online. Verificado’s Whatsapp account both engaged their audience and helped the team find viral claims being shared on closed networks. They also developed the #QuieroQueVerifiquen (#IWantYouToVerify) hashtag to receive requests for verification.


Submissions to the 2020 Online Journalism Awards are due June 4. The OJAs honor exceptional digital journalism by a range of outlets around the world, including local news, international media and innovative newsroom collaborations. Any work published between June 1, 2019 and May 31, 2020 is eligible to enter.