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Excalibur shortlisted for investigative reporting awards

My resume has more padding than I know what to do with, now.

Two of the investigations that I oversaw at York University’s award-winning weekly Excalibur last year have been shortlisted for the John H. McDonald Awards, a series of journalism awards started by the Canadian University Press to recognize excellence in reporting at Canadian colleges and universities.

Doing investigations was a major objective of our news team last year, so as part of the speakers series that I coordinated to help give our staff and volunteers the essential skills to succeed in this business, I invited Kevin Donovan – the head of the Toronto Star’s investigative team – to come and chat with our reporters and give them tips on how to conduct investigations.

Donovan’s seminar was inspiring for our team and gave them lots of tips. He seemed particularly impressed with our news editor’s idea to do an investigation into whether the buses on campus were running on schedule or not.

The fact that two of the buses in particular seemed to never be on time was a frequent topic of chatter among commuting students. Our news editor put that notion to the test by sending our interns out to monitor what time the buses were arriving for an hour every day, which resulted in a front-page investigation titled “Dude, Where’s My Bus?” The story is one of three nominees for the investigative journalism award at the Johnnies.

The second investigation came from a news tip we received from our assistant news editor, Alexandra Birukova, that a jewelery kiosk on campus was hiring students and paying them below the minimum wage.

Our reporter Stephanie Directo went undercover and got a job at the kiosk, where she worked for two days- one training day and one full shift. We published not only a front page story, but also a video detailing how much money Directo made before we confronted her employer. 

Overseeing this story was one of the most rewarding aspects of my experience as editor-in-chief. The adrenaline of doing undercover work and the challenges faced – including trying to reach the employer for a response in time for production – made it a true rollercoaster ride.

At one point our business manager even tried to persuade Directo from following through with the story by telling her that she was potentially putting herself in danger.

But despite being a little shaken, Directo did follow through, and I bet she’s glad she did now. “Employees Shortchanged by York Lanes Kiosk,” by Alexandra Birukova and Stephanie Directo, was not only on the front page of the issue that won us fifth place in the Associated Collegiate Press’s Best of Show competition, but it has also been nominated for a JHM award for investigative reporting!

Big congrats are in order for Birukova and Directo, as well as everybody on last year’s Excalibur editorial team for their hard work in supporting these investigations and allowing them to come to fruition.

Having two nominations- out of three- in the investigative category is a huge achievement, and has, in my opinion, set a pretty big milestone for student reporting.

After all, doing investigative work is pretty advanced stuff, with plenty of legal and ethical implications. Many student journos talk about doing this kind of reporting but never follow through- due to an inability to get necessary evidence, a lack of time and resources or even just plain fear of legal repercussions.

I think these nominations speak volumes about the hard work, passion and talent of our team.

P.S. A special thanks goes out to this year’s e-i-c Nicholas Maronese, who nominated our stories for these awards and helped our work get recognized. Thanks, Nick.

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Excalibur makes list of Pacemaker finalists

Congrats, Excalibur: We’re ACP Pacemakers!

Earlier this fall, Nicholas Maronese, the current editor-in-chief of York University’s Excalibur newspaper, completed some important paperwork.

Maronese entered the 2009-2010 issues of Excalibur – which were created during my term as editor-in-chief – in the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) Pacemaker Awards.

The awards are offered to exceptional American or Canadian student papers, and are judged by industry pros, which means they’re legitimate and a good indication of journalistic achievement.

Last week, these beauties arrived in the mail:

These plaques confirm that based on last year’s issues – the ones created during my term as editor – Excalibur has been selected as one of the ACP Pacemakers! This is the second piece of hardware we’ve received from an American institution for 2010, the first being a fifth-place spot in the ACP’s Best of Show contest.

It feels good to know that after giving a year of my life to Excalibur – possibly more if you count all the extra years that the stress and lack of sleep have cut from my life expectancy – our work is being appreciated. More than that, it’s winning awards.

Knowing that I have maintained Excalibur’s reputation as an ACP winner and an outstanding student newspaper validates all those sleepless nights on the office couch and early Tuesday mornings spent on the office floor in stitches (even stupid jokes become hilarious after 18 consecutive hours in the office).

I think it’s safe to say that I learned more last year – between slaving away for 60+ hours a week on the campus paper and spending overnight shifts in the Toronto Star’s radio room – than I have in my entire life. I learned about the impact that journalists can have on our communities after coordinating some hot investigations. I learned about the paramount importance of accuracy. I learned about how challenging it can be to get 15 impassioned people to work together as a unit.

But most importantly I learned a lot about myself, my strengths and where my limits are. And I discovered something that doesn’t surprise me: how energizing it is to work with a team of fantastic people towards a common goal (especially when that goal is to inform people of important things happening in their community).

There are people who disagree with how I ran the paper- a couple of student politicians whose interests weren’t best served by our coverage, a student club who didn’t appreciate a controversial story that we ran about them, a couple of section editors who had their own ideas about the direction we should go in.

But a journalist – an especially an editor-in-chief – has to become accustomed to this sort of thing. Not everyone’s going to agree with me, and not everyone is going to like me, either. In fact, in this business, hatred can be worn as a badge of honour, a testament to your strength and ballsy-ness and the fact that you aren’t going to let a couple of egos – or a desire to be well-liked – get in the way of the story.

I want to send a big thanks to everyone on last year’s editorial board, as well as all of our writers and volunteers. We may have not always agreed with one another, but we put out an incredible newspaper. Kudos.

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Excalibur makes list of ACP Pacemaker finalists

In and around February, Excalibur (York University’s community newspaper) joined the ranks of the continent’s greatest papers, after we placed 5th (out of around 30 or 40) student papers in the Best of Show award presented by the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP). We were the only Canadian student paper who made the cut in the four-year weekly category.

Today I found out that we also made the list of finalists for the ACP Pacemakers award.

The papers are judged by staff members of professional news organizations, on the basis of coverage and content, quality of writing and reporting, leadership on the opinion page, evidence of in-depth reporting, design, photography, art and graphics.

This time, the Mars’ Hill paper from B.C. joins us in this recognition of awesomeness.

Congratulations to everyone on Excalibur’s 2009-2010 editorial board. Thank you for your sleepless nights and the love and dedication that you put into our paper.

I’ve always said that working for a student paper is not a job, it’s a labour of love. And while we shouldn’t define ourselves & our accomplishments on the basis of an award- or making a list of finalists- it feels pretty damn good to get the recognition we deserve.

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