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Vermont Cynic wins national Diversity Story of the Year award

October 24, 2016

By at least one measure of college news writing—one highly respected, pretty definitive measure—the staff of The Vermont Cynic this year wrote the nation’s best story focused on diversity and social justice.

Associated Collegiate Press—which also awards the Pacemaker, aka the “Pulitzer Prize of college journalism”—on Saturday awarded the Cynic’s examination of the University of Vermont’s racist past with the 2016 “Diversity Story of the Year Award.”

Who didn’t get the award? Well … every other college and university in the nation.

Among the nine finalists receiving runner-up status were some of higher-ed’s top journalism programs.

Runners-up included:

  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • University of Oregon
  • Ball State
  • Drake
  • The Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York
  • Pepperdine
  • Northwestern

All came in second place or lower to the University of Vermont, which has no journalism program: just the hard-working staff of The Vermont Cynic, a 3,000-circulation newspaper with a staff of fewer than 100.

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Layout editors Eileen O’Connor and Kira Bellis react to the win.

“I’m just extremely proud of all the people who worked on the story,” said Hannah Kearns, the Cynic’s editor-in-chief. “It definitely was a huge team and collaborative effort.

“That was my favorite part, being able to see see a team of talented journalists come together to create something amazing.”

The story focused on Kakewalk, a 73-year UVM tradition in which students performed in blackface. The practice continued into the 1970s, according to the Cynic’s reporting.

“Not a lot of people knew that the KakeWalk even existed at UVM,” Kearns said. “The ability to shine a light on that was really important. That’s what our job is.”

News writer Kelsey Neubauer, who co-wrote the story with fellow reporter Bryan O’Keefe under the supervision of enterprise editor Sarah Olsen, said talking to sources involved in and affected by KakeWalk was an emotional experience.

img_5901Neubauer said that social justice issues are close to her heart, and, before writing this story, she had long debated whether she could do more good as a social justice activist or as a journalist who could bring these issues to light for a wider audience.

In the end, she said, she chose the latter: “This story is what made me want to be a journalist.”

Neubauer and O’Keefe will continue to have an outsized impact on The Cynic. Just last week, Neubauer was elected as the next editor-in-chief, and O’Keefe was chosen as her managing editor.

Both Kearns and Neubauer said that this story helped them understand the value of deep reporting—getting to know their sources through extended conversations and probing questions—and staying sensitive to the fact that the tradition inflicted immense emotional pain on so many people.

Producing this story, Kearns said, “definitely wasn’t a sprint. We treated it as a marathon.”

This is the second year in a row that the Cynic earned national recognition for its reporting. Last year, ACP gave a second-place News Story of the Year award to the Cynic  for its investigation of working conditions at Sodexo, the food service provider for University of Vermont students, faculty and staff.

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Story co-writer Kelsey Neubauer returns to the rest of her team after accepting the award for The Cynic.

Neubauer and other Cynic staff members received the award while in Washington, D.C. this weekend for ACP’s National College Media Convention.

Among the other moments of the weekend: seeing talks by heavy-hitters such as Donna Brazile, interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee; Bob Woodward, the legendary Washington Post editor; and—by video chat from his exile in Russia—Edward Snowden, the government whistleblower who revealed that the U.S. government was conducting electronic surveillance on Americans on a massive scale.

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