On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the Donald W. Reynolds Center for National Business Journalism and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication welcomed the winners of the 16th annual Barlett & Steele Awards for the best in investigative business journalism.
Jim Steele, half of the reporting duo for whom the awards are named, welcomed the crowd and made note of how the work presented in the competition this year goes beyond what people typically think when they consider business journalism. It was the first time in three years Steele was able to attend the event in person.
“I think back to what business journalism used to be in my youth. Basically, the companies gave you releases, ‘earnings are up 3%, we’re laying off 100 people, we’re hiring 100 people, we’re going to build a building on Oak and Walnut,’ really exciting stuff, huh?” Steele said. “It shows you how far business journalism has come when you read these particular articles, the sophistication of using all these things that we have at our command now.”
At the heart of each award-winning story featured in the competition are people, Steele said. Documents and data, which have been part of business journalism for decades, do not supplant interviews. The stories awarded in this year’s competition are throbbing with life, Steele said.
“I think one of the fallacies of business journalism is that we’re writing about institutions and we’re not writing about people, and that’s so wrong,” said Jeffrey Meitrodt, a Gold winner in the Local/Regional category of this year’s competition. “There’s always going to be an impacted population.”
The winner of the inaugural Outstanding Young Journalist Award, Neil Bedi of ProPublica, joined Meitrodt and fellow Gold winner Curtis Gilbert of American Public Media on stage to discuss their investigations, and to answer questions from the student audience. Jim Steele served as moderator of the discussion.
Gilbert, from the four-person team who produced “Sent Away,” a seven-part podcast series that won this year’s Gold award in the National/Global category, spoke about connecting with other news media outlets to accomplish the complex investigation into Utah’s troubled-teen industry.
Gilbert and Will Craft, also a reporter for American Public Media, teamed up with David Fuchs from KUER Public Radio and Jessica Miller from the Salt Lake Tribune. Each outlet was already individually examining the troubled-teen industry – camps or facilities where parents send their children to correct behavioral issues – and the issues that had been swept under the rug for decades. They pooled their resources and skills to accomplish a deep dive into the Utah industry.
“It truly became bigger than the sum of its parts,” Gilbert said. “Each of these organizations and the different reporters brought something different to the investigation.”
Meitrodt said his investigation into the insurance industry began very organically too. In their winning entry “Unsettled,” Meitrodt and Nicole Norfleet, a fellow reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, exposed how insurance companies in Minnesota were cashing in on car accident victims by buying up future settlement checks on the cheap.
Bedi began his investigation while working at the Tampa Bay Times but after the pandemic put a pause on it, he was able to pick it back up in his new role working for ProPublica.
Bedi’s investigation began with cynicism, he said. He wondered, “which Florida medical device was hurting the most people?” He found it to be HeartWare, a company the FDA knew continually had malfunctions ending in death for patients since at least 2015.
Each award-winner and Steele spoke about the progress business journalism has made—and how much farther there is to go.
“What makes business journalism stand out is that there hasn’t been enough of it in my career,” Meitrodt said. “I’m encouraged to see how much more good investigative business journalism is being done but I think we’re still not punching up to our weight. I think this is very fertile territory and can be incredibly impactful.”
Watch a recording of the event via the Cronkite YouTube channel. You can find more information on each winner via the news release by the Reynolds Center. Interviews with award winners will also be posted on the website.