College journalists win IRE recognition for public-service journalism that jumps the campus boundaries

Tax dollars for economic development in blighted urban neighborhoods are instead diverted to build a corporate headquarters in a thriving business district. Shady clinics offer risky, untested cosmetic augmentations to pre-operative transsexuals that can result in death. Taxpayers pay $30 million a year to subsidize an “alternative” boarding school that disciplines students by denying them food and shocking them with electricity.

These are the kinds of essential public-service stories that readers depend on well-trained and inquisitive journalists to uncover — and all of them were reported by college students.

IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., recognized its annual investigative reporting winners Monday, and the top prize for student work went to the Daily Toreador at Texas Tech University, where students uncovered a lose-lose parking garage lease that cost their college and its alumni association hundreds of thousands of wasted dollars. The Toreador team of Ioanna Makris, April Cunningham and Caroline Courtney found that well-connected Tech donors convinced the school to overpay for unwanted parking spaces in an inconveniently located garage — a lease agreement that made it possible for the developer, whose father sat on the alumni association board, to get financing to build the garage.

Reflecting the increasing diversity of outlets in which students are publishing, only two of the six collegiate finalists worked for a traditional “student newspaper.” Three worked for online-only nonprofit news sites, and a sixth did her work while interning for The New York Times.

And only two of the finalists wrote about campus news topics — reflecting the reality that all readers increasingly rely on college student journalists to gather and share news affecting the entire community.

The finalists are:

  • Amanda Jonas of the University of Buffalo Spectrum, whose piece, “A Shameful Low in Higher Education,” looked at her university’s dangerously slow progress in complying with a decade-old federal court settlement promising to make campus buildings accessible for the disabled.
  •, a project of journalism students at Chicago’s Columbia College, which analyzed $1.2 billion in taxpayer-underwritten business financing that at times missed its target of creating jobs in depressed areas. The 11-student team built a database and map showing how economic-development funding intended for cash-strapped businesses instead went to United Airlines, Target and other corporate high-rollers, as well as to subsidize high-end apartment buildings during a real estate boom.
  • 219 Magazine, an online journal produced by students at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, which raised questions about why the cash-strapped New York City school system was paying to support a Massachusetts boarding school where heavy-handed and unorthodox disciplinary tactics have caused other states to withdraw funding. Reporters Lisa Riordan Seville, Hannah Rappleye, Teresa Tomassoni and Khristina Narizhnaya showed how the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center has used lobbying, lawsuits and sketchy marketing campaigns to build and maintain a lucrative pipeline of troubled New York students.
  • Reporters from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, whose website,, detailed how the state’s dairy board repeatedly made unsupported claims about the supposed dietary benefits of drinking milk. Reporters Amy Karon, Catherine Martin and Jessica Gressa found multiple instances in which the industry’s marketing campaign recommended three to four servings of dairy in kids’ diets, well above what the USDA or any independent nutritional expert advises.
  • Laura Rena Murray, a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, whose report in the Times, “The High Price of Looking Like a Woman,” shed light on a seedy underground industry of “pumpers” catering to transgendered men who want feminine curves. Unsafe cosmetic injections by unlicensed practitioners have left patients disfigured, and are suspected in at least one death.

Even this impressive list understates the contribution of student journalists. College students from the University of California-Berkeley’s graduate program in journalism were part of the collaborative team with NPR, PBS and ProPublica that took top honors in the Multiplatform category for a nationwide examination of shoddy practices in coroner’s offices, “Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America