CHAPEL HILL — The Richmond County Daily Journal received a dozen awards in a pair of statewide journalism contests Thursday night, including a prestigious honor for coverage of a murder convict’s quest for exoneration.
Daily Journal staffers collected nine awards in the North Carolina Press Association’s 2015 Editorial Contest and picked up three honorable-mention certificates in the N.C. Associated Press’ 2016 News Excellence Contest. The accolades were announced during the NCPA’s Winter Institute and awards banquet at the University of North Carolina’s George Watts Hill Alumni Center.
“Our news staff works day-in and day-out to cover the stories that matter to Richmond County,” said Daily Journal editor Corey Friedman. “It’s always gratifying to see good work rewarded, and we’re humbled that our peers found our efforts deserving of recognition.”
MEDIA AND THE LAW
Reporter William R. Toler received the North Carolina Bar Association’s 2015 Media and the Law Award of Excellence for a daily newspaper article, which recognizes “insightful coverage of law-related topics that foster greater public understanding of the legal system and the role of lawyers in today’s society.”
Toler’s award-winning story chronicled murder convict Derrick McRae’s appeal for a new trial in the 1995 killing of Jerry Rankin. Attorneys with Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic volunteered to represent McRae, arguing there was no physical evidence to link him to the crime and that the defendant had an alibi.
Superior Court Judge W. David Lee denied McRae’s motion for appropriate relief in the case last February, ruling there wasn’t enough evidence to throw out the 1998 conviction. Duke attorneys said they would continue to push for a retrial in the case.
Attorneys on the N.C. Bar Association’s communications committee judged the open-division contest. Toler competed against all daily newspapers in the state for the single-story award.
“At my previous job, coworkers used to tell me I should be a lawyer,” Toler said. “This is probably as close as I’ll get.”
Joseph Neff of the News & Observer won the bar association’s award for best series and Renee Sloan of the State Port Pilot in Southport was honored for the best non-daily newspaper article.
Toler received first place for election and political reporting from the NCPA for a series of stories on Rockingham veteran Perry Parks’ quest for legalization of medical marijuana in North Carolina.
Parks is executive director of the N.C. Cannabis Patients’ Network, an advocacy group that says marijuana should be available for treatment of chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. A retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot, Parks says the cannabis plant alleviated his PTSD.
“Nice job of in-depth reporting and making a personal connection to a hot-button issue,” the contest judge wrote.
Toler also received a first-place award for best lede, recognizing the most creative and compelling lead paragraphs in a reporter’s stories. Included in the three ledes that comprised Toler’s entry was the unorthodox opening sentence of “Hamlet or Whoville,” written in the style of a Dr. Seuss poem.
The story dealt with unevenly trimmed trees around power lines. Hamlet resident Tim Brown said they looked like “Dr. Seuss trees,” which prompted the rhyming introduction.
Toler was honored with a second-place NCPA award for headline writing and a third-place award for general news reporting. The latter entry focused on Outreach for Jesus’ Dream Center after a resident was accused of biting off a man’s ear and fingers.
In addition to accolades for its coverage of weighty issues, the Daily Journal received honors for several feature stories on groups, events and people making a positive difference in Richmond County.
Friedman received a first-place award in the feature writing category for coverage of lawnmower racing at the Ellerbe Lions Club. He also took first place in headline writing.
Reporter Matt Harrelson earned second-place honors in arts and entertainment reporting for “Story spinners tell tall tales,” a feature on a storytelling arts event held at the Thomas Leath Memorial Library in downtown Rockingham.
Toler took home an honorable mention for the Associated Press’ O. Henry Award, which recognizes outstanding writing in daily newspapers with circulation below 10,000. His story profiled Flukie Hawkins, a Richmond County mechanic and a former stock-car racer.
Toler was also named runner-up for the AP’s Walter Spearman Award for outstanding writing by a reporter with less than two years’ experience on the staff of a daily newspaper. His entry delved into a local biker’s push to repeal North Carolina’s motorcycle helmet law.
Friedman received a runner-up certificate for the AP’s Senator Sam Open Government Award. He wrote a series of editorials on public records and government accountability issues, including one criticizing a state Senate bill that sought to limit records access to North Carolina residents.
Shawn Stinson, the Daily Journal’s former sports editor and managing editor, earned a third-place NCPA award for sports enterprise writing. His entry examined the threat of shoulder injuries for overuse in high school baseball players.
After nearly seven years at the Daily Journal, Stinson now works as managing editor of The Sanford Herald.
The Daily Journal competes in the North Carolina Press Association’s Division D, which includes daily newspapers with circulation below 12,500.
Out-of-state journalists judge the annual contest through state newspaper trade groups in a reciprocal agreement with the NCPA.
Last year, the Daily Journal received four awards from the NCPA, two from the Associated Press and one each from the Society of Professional Journalists and National Federation of Press Women.