2008 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting

The Chicago Headline Club is also pleased to announce that the 2008 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting goes to five members of the Chicago Tribune staff for their exhaustive investigation “Neighborhoods For Sale.” The award is presented in partnership with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Chicago Headline Club Foundation. The Driehaus Foundation encourages investigative journalism by, among other activities, providing financial support for the Headline Club’s Watchdog Award and our Watchdog Fund, which provides grants for investigative reporting.

The best description of the winning series is found in Tribune Associate Metro Editor Jim Webb’s nominaton letter:

“The haphazard redevelopment of Chicago’s neighborhoods was plain enough to see. New three flats towering over century-old workman’s cottages, mini-mansions covering entire lots, and condos rising over city thoroughfares already choked with traffic.

But how Chicago’s residential streets became dotted with out-of-scale homes and condos was a secret between developers and politicians until a team of reporters form the Tribune illuminated Chicago’s quintessential “pay to play” political system.

The “Neighborhoods For Sale” series documented the correlation between millions of dollars in political contributions from developers and zoning changes granted by Chicago aldermen.

The paper reviewed the 5,700 zoning changes that were approved by the Chicago City Council over the past decade and recorded on sheets of paper clipped into binders in a City Hall office. The newspaper converted the paper records into an electronic database to perform an analysis beyond the scope of anything previously possible, even by city planners.

From across the city, resident after resident told stories of how their elected officials allowed connected developers to put up buildings that blocked sunlight from their windows and yards, leaving decades-old homes in the shadows.

The work of reporters Dan Mihalopoulos, Robert Becker, Todd Lightly, Darnell Little and Laurie Cohen embodies the best of both street-level reporting and computer-assisted analysis,” Webb wrote.

After reviewing the eye-popping scope of the reporters’ work, the judging committee agreed. “Neighborhoods For Sale” represents the very best of investigative journalism in the public interest and a commitment to public service that should be both applauded and emulated by media outlets everywhere.