NMID wins big in regional journalism contest

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New Mexico In Depth notched two wins competing against the largest newspapers, radio and TV stations in the four-state region of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The awards, part of the annual Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies contest, were announced last week at the Denver Press Club.  

NMID’s Deputy Director Marjorie Childress won first place in the political enterprise reporting category for newspapers whose circulation tops 75,000 and large-market radio and TV stations. Her September 2017 story Realtors and developers give big money to ABQ mayoral candidates took the prize.

Marjorie Childress

Entrance to City of Albuquerque Development Services Center, open to help facilitate land development.

Using data analysis, Childress examined campaign finance data and then did additional reporting to conclude the real estate and land development sector had given roughly $1 of every $4 raised in the Albuquerque mayoral race as election day neared.

No other sector came even close in its giving power, her analysis showed.

In addition to tapping political analysts for insight into such giving in a city where a mayor wields significant influence over how land is used, Childress explained how she arrived at her conclusions, posting her methodology. This allowed readers to follow step-by-step how she worked with campaign finance data and the additional reporting she did to connect certain givers to local corporations and businesses.

The second and third place winners in the category were the Salt Lake City Tribune and the Albuquerque Journal, respectively.

In the Public Service category, NMID’s Jeff Proctor won 2nd place competing against the same large media outlets for his series “Stung in Albuquerque.”

Over several months in 2017, Proctor doggedly reported on a controversial 2016 bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives operation that netted a disproportionate share of black defendants and mostly poor individuals on small drug transactions — not the “worst of the worst” as law enforcement officials advertised.

Proctor’s reporting provoked a vigorous reaction from leaders and activists in Albuquerque’s black population, some demanding and winning a meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Proctor also examined the operation’s design, including the use of three black and two Hispanic confidential informants brought in from out of town to help ATF agents.

One confidential informant, in particular, caught Proctor’s eye, specifically how the informant’s time in New Mexico’s largest city intersected with an Albuquerque woman who was eventually arrested in the operation.

Jennifer Padilla told Proctor the informant had wooed her over several weeks in 2016, becoming her boyfriend, and then asked her to set up a couple of drug transactions with undercover agents.

Padilla was attempting to turn her life around after a stint in a state prison and was living in a state-funded halfway house trying to move on from  heroin addiction when she met the informant, Padilla told Proctor. Proctor spent months corroborating the story, including interviews with her family and friends, in addition to reading several hundred pages of court documents. That included an ATF manual Proctor obtained that lays out the standards and responsibilities for agents and other law enforcement officials who work with confidential informants.

The resulting story, Boyfriend’s Betrayal, led an Albuquerque city councilor to call for a congressional investigation of the ATF operation.

Ultimately, a federal judge sentenced Padilla to a halfway house to serve out the final months of her 24-month sentence instead of the 10 to 13 years in prison prosecutors had wanted.

The winner of the large media-outlet Public Service category was the Salt Lake City Deseret News newspaper.

In addition to those two awards, NMID 2017-18 Fellow Melorie Begay’s multimedia story about tensions caused by a spike in fracking within Navajo communities was a finalist in the online news reporting category in a separate contest for best collegiate journalism by the Society of Professional Journalists in the four-state region.