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ProPublica Wins Four SABEW Awards for Business Journalism

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) announced that ProPublica won four awards in its Best in Business competition recognizing excellence in business journalism.

On the Line: How the Meatpacking Industry Became a Hotbed of COVID-19” won in the business investigative category. The series, by Michael Grabell and Bernice Yeung, found that meat companies’ mismanagement of the pandemic, combined with the federal government’s failure to ensure that plants took appropriate precautions, have contributed to the pandemic’s dramatic toll on meatpacking workers and their communities. Among other findings, the investigation showed how elected officials have intervened to keep meatpacking plants running despite efforts by public health departments to temporarily close facilities to contain the virus, and how the meatpacking industry ignored years of pandemic warnings from the federal government. “The reporters provide a deep inside view of the industry’s multiple failures, from misleading the public to allowing workers to labor side-by-side even as the virus raged,” contest judges said. “They bring their story to life with details from targeted public records requests that expose the panic of public health officials who expressed alarm over what they were seeing.”

Our reporting on Trump political appointees who blocked a criminal prosecution of Walmart over its suspicious opioid prescriptions won in the retail category. The story, by Jesse Eisinger, James Bandler and Doris Burke, reveals a lengthy history of lax opioid-prescribing policies at Walmart — enough to attract the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration and lead to a previously unreported settlement with the agency. The company failed to abide by the terms of its DEA settlement, however, instead prioritizing the driving of sales. Walmart’s behavior was egregious enough that a U.S. attorney in Texas appointed by the Trump administration believed it merited criminal charges, making his case, with the DEA chief at his side, at the highest levels of the Justice Department. As the story reveals, Walmart ultimately succeeded in persuading top Trump appointees at the Justice Department to quash the criminal case, leading the U.S. attorney and a second prosecutor to resign. “The difficulty and complexity of this reporting is significant,” contest judges said. “Uncovering a proposed criminal indictment and then describing its rejection at the highest levels of government is a rare feat in business journalism.”

How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing,” co-published with the New Yorker, won in the feature category. The article by Alec MacGillis examines how the rise of dollar stores has been accompanied by about 200 violent incidents involving guns (some 50 of which resulted in deaths) in a three-year period. For many living in affluent areas, the ascent of dollar stores is invisible; everywhere else they’re ubiquitous, easily dwarfing the presence of Walmart. The story captures what that transformation means as a marker of widespread income inequality, as well as the role of these companies, which make huge profits selling low-cost goods — but no fresh fruit or vegetables — often to poor people who often have no other shopping options. MacGillis’ reporting gives voice to the people who work in dollar stores (and sometimes perish in them) as well as those who rely on them. “The judges were impressed by the depth and breadth of reporting that went into the Dollar Stores story, especially in tracking down and winning over reluctant sources with on-site reporting amid a global pandemic,” said contest judges. This story also received an honorable mention in the retail category.

Our reporting on “pandemic profiteers” won in the government category. In the grip of a public health crisis for which it was unprepared, the U.S. government tossed aside its many rules on contracting to give out billions of dollars to just about anyone who could supply it with personal protective equipment. Reporter J. David McSwane stepped into the watchdog role with a series of stories that exposed jaw-dropping instances of waste and bad judgment. He also showed that the government’s procurement failures had life-and-death stakes, leaving hospitals without equipment to treat desperately ill patients and front-line health care workers without supplies that could keep them safe. At a time when most journalists were not traveling, McSwane journeyed across America to meet what he called the “buccaneers and pirates” trying to make a fast buck from the country’s misfortune. “This winning entry brought to light how the federal government’s reliance on private enterprise failed the American people in the early months of the crisis,” said contest judges.

In addition, two ProPublica Local Reporting Network projects received honorable mentions: “The Cutting,” with Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregonian, was recognized in the explanatory category, and “Desperation Town,” with the Youngstown Business Journal and WKSU, received honorable mention in the investigative category.

See a list of all the SABEW Award winners here.

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