The Society of Professional Journalists’ South Florida Chapter recently honored the Independent News and its publisher Rick Outzen for their investigative reporting of the Escambia County Public School District at its annual Sunshine State Awards ceremony at the Calder Casino in Miami, Fla.
The newspaper received third place honors in the Non-Deadline News Reporting for its April 2011 cover story “Tarnished Turnaround” on the many problems with Superintendent Malcolm Thomas’ attempt to make Warrington Middle School the top middle school in the district.
The IN spent over $1,000 for hundreds of public records from the Escambia Public School District, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Education. Meetings were held with WMS Principal Sandra Rush, district officials and sheriff’s office. The IN reviewed the investigative reports and notes of District Investigator John Dobbs, the offense reports filed by the four school resource officers that worked at WMS during the 2009-10 school year and the internal audit report.
The article not only questioned the leadership of Thomas, but also brought attention to the safety of students and teachers in the classrooms across the school district. The IN found the district had reported less the 40 percent of the crime and violence on its campuses to law enforcement. The overall state percentage for the same type of incidents was 84 percent. Warrington Middle reported less than 3 percent.
The Society of Professional Journalists is dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of this nation and its liberty. The Sunshine State awards are presented by the South Florida Chapter to recognize the finest newspaper, magazine, television and radio reporting in the state of Florida. SPJ members from outside the state judge all the entries and select the winners.
This 2012 Sunshine State Award marked this first time the IN had applied. Other 2012 winners included The Miami Herald, Associated Press, The Palm Beach Post, The News-Press (Ft. Myers, Fla.) and Orlando Sentinel. The IN was the only newspaper west of Tallahassee, Fla. to be recognized.