2016 Online Commentary finalist

The Real Miss America


Rebecca Ruiz, Stephanie Buck, Vicky Leta, Lindsey Ferrier, Emily Rhyne, Mark Andrew Boyer, Mike Schmidt


Online Commentary


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About the Project

The Real Miss America series is an ambitious multimedia project designed to challenge conventional ways of judging a woman’s worth. As a commentary on entrenched standards of femininity, we took on the Miss America pageant — but not in the way one might expect. Instead of attacking this long-held tradition and those who participate in it, we opted to create an alternative vision for what it means to be a woman today.

The series recognizes women who have dedicated their lives to equality and fairness, and who are expanding the definition of womanhood. An introduction lays out that vision while the first chapter, Miss Equality, offers profiles of seven influential women fighting for justice. A second chapter on defending pageants gives a voice to women who participate in traditional beauty pageants. The next chapter, entitled Miss Body Positive, celebrates four people working to empower women to feel more comfortable in their bodies. The series closes with Miss Next Generation, a set of five vignettes that focus on women called to serve a higher purpose.

In total, The Real Miss America gives readers a glimpse into the lives of 16 very diverse women. They include an Olympian, a MacArthur Fellow, a Black Lives Matter co-founder, a transgender teen activist, an Iraq war veteran, a high school principal, and a Lutheran reverend.

Executing the series in a dynamic and engaging fashion required significant editorial resources. Rebecca Ruiz, our features writer, conceived of the idea and conducted months of research and reporting to identify and interview participants. Our video department created three mini-documentaries to bring these women’s stories to life. Vicky Leta, a staff illustrator, designed original art to accompany each chapter. Our social media team developed a hashtag campaign — #RealMissAmerica — to generate audience engagement.

We wanted the project to actively involve our readers so we created a form for people to nominate women in their lives as “The Real Miss America.” After receiving several entries, we reached out to four of the nominees, interviewed them and published a new story featuring mini-profiles of them. That link could not be included in this official entry form, but here it is.

The series launched the week before the Miss America pageant aired and continued through the following week. In order to further engage our audience, particularly those on mobile devices, we discussed the project live on Periscope and Meerkat, on Sept. 15. That broadcast drew the unplanned participation of Mallory Hytes Hagan, who won the Miss America crown in 2013. Her thoughtful and supportive feedback added an important perspective to the series.

The Real Miss America received significant praise, including a write-up in the Columbia Journalism Review’s Hit or Miss Column. “This collision of millennial values and committed reporting represents the next stage of journalism on the Web, and it has yielded praiseworthy stories du jour for plenty of sites…” wrote Jack Murtha. “Mashable’s most recent step confirms yet again that aggregators can grow into newsrooms that do real journalism, too.”

We are confident that The Real Miss America urged readers to reconsider who can represent modern American womanhood. The series offers readers an original voice and fresh insight; it exemplifies the power and creativity of online commentary.