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Inside NCR

Of awards, humility and updates

The Catholic Press Association, during its annual meeting held this year in Dallas, awarded National Catholic Reporter first place for general excellence in the national newspaper category. It was the second consecutive year that NCR won the top prize.

“This is an ambitious, authoritative publication. It has hard-hitting edge, comprehensive coverage and is well organized. The writing is smart,” wrote the judges in their critique of the paper. “Cover stories with depth, poetry, global news and movie reviews. Talk about something for everybody! The inside layouts are pleasing to the eyes with a good mix of striking photographs and illustrations. Cover designs are interesting. NCR sets a high, best-in-class standard.”

Among the writing awards received was a first place in the best newswriting/national event category for a Feb. 11, 2000, story by Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. about the controversy surrounding placement of the tabernacle. “This story uses an object that readers are very familiar with,” said the judges, “as a launching pad for a broad discussion of church issues.”

Allen also won second place for best news writing/international event for his treatment of the Vatican document Dominus Iesus. The judges said the story “presents the unvarnished truth” of the document and “vividly captures the depth of the controversy. It takes a complicated issue, gives an excellent distillation of the subject and tells the story in an extremely readable fashion.”

Gerald Renner, a freelance writer from Connecticut, won a first place award in the best investigative news writing category for “Turmoil in Atlanta,” a Nov. 3, 2000, story detailing the takeover of a private school by the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order. “We felt that this story encompassed the spirit of investigative reporting via the depth of the material covered and the exposure of the issues. The writing was solid and the reporter was evenhanded in his approach,” the judges wrote. Renner is a retired religion writer for The Hartford (Conn.) Courant and a former editor for Religious News Service.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a freelance writer from Worcester, Mass., won first place for feature writing for her Nov. 24, 2000, piece “Adopting Mordechai.” “Good story-telling, good detail,” the judges wrote. “Well-executed blend of stories of the Midwestern couple and Israel’s most notorious political prisoner. In lesser hands, this would have been a distracting mess. A dramatic story, well reported and well told.”

Managing Editor Pamela Schaeffer won third place in that same category for her profile of Kathy Doran, her fight with cancer and her long-time work for social justice in Houston at Christ the Good Shepherd Parish.

The paper won a second place award for editorial writing for “A century also rich in peacemakers,” in the Jan. 7, 2000, issue.

Judges also awarded a first place for front page design, saying, “This front page has outstanding and provocative graphics and photos.” The award is the result of work by Toni-Ann Ortiz, layout editor and art director. She’s also the one responsible for making the inside pages “pleasing to the eye.” She patiently listens to the wordsmiths around here as we try to explain our visual concepts in streams of halting prose, and then she somehow translates it all into compelling presentations.

I was able to bask in the glow of the notice of the awards for about a minute and a half before I was reminded of what a humbling pursuit journalism can be. If our goods deeds are there for the world to see, so are our mistakes. Forever.

The next e-mail I clicked open started this way: “Bishop Lucker’s full name is Raymond ALPHONSE Lucker! Where did you get that ALOYSIUS from?”

The writer was referring to the profile of the bishop I had written for the May 25 issue. My answer? I honestly don’t know. Except that Aloysius was the name of my childhood parish and grade school. Lucker himself was, not surprisingly, gracious in accepting my profuse apologies. He joked that few people get it right because no one believes anybody is really named Alphonse.

Which is simply more evidence of Lucker’s good humor and generosity in the face of grim news. In a recent note to family and friends he said that his condition “has deteriorated badly” in recent weeks. Experimental treatment at the Mayo Clinic has failed to keep tumors in his pelvis, leg, ribs and back from growing. He has begun radiation therapy to relieve pain “and enable me to carry on for a while” and is considering another experimental treatment but is not sure he will pursue it.

“Meanwhile I have put myself on the list at Our Lady of Good Counsel Cancer Home in St. Paul. The Dominican Sisters were most gracious and will have a place for me when the time comes. I hope that will be later rather than sooner.

“I place myself in the loving arms of God and commend myself to your prayers.”

NCR recently lost a good and loyal behind-the-scenes friend when Tennyson Schad, 70, died in New York of cancer May 26. Schad, who had a practice in Manhattan and whose New York Times obituary noted his pioneering enterprise in behalf of photography as an art form, was NCR’s First Amendment lawyer for the last 25 years.

During the past 35 years, he served as counsel for Time, Inc., and other major national publishers. He was a reporter’s lawyer, if such a thing can be said. In these litigious times, when small publications like NCR can face $30 million nuisance suits, it takes considerable support to keep from avoiding difficult stories. Tennyson was always ready with that support. His answer to a question about the possible problems in doing a story was always along the lines of: “Just do the journalism. Do your work and then I’ll tell you if you’re going to run into any trouble.”

He enjoyed the journalistic enterprise as much as any reporter in the field, was enthusiastic about NCR’s work, and he was a superb editor in the bargain, often offering valuable suggestions for streamlining a story or cleaning up confusing points.

When he said, “It’s fine. Run it,” you did, without any worry.

Construction update. A few weeks back I told how the news and production offices were moving out of their traditional quarters and scattering about this old building because of an ominous sag in the ceiling.

Turns out we probably moved none too soon. When workers took off the acoustic tiles and exposed the beams they found more than a dozen cracked or broken ceiling joists where they expected to find one or two.

We were fortunate, they say, that the fourth (and top) floor had not collapsed in on us. The sagging ceiling was hoisted back into place, beam by beam, and 32 new beams were wedged in and nailed to reinforce the support for the top floor. In the weeks since, walls have been taken down, a small kitchen has been moved and reconstruction of the newsroom is well under way. We’ll have some pictures of the new digs toward the end of summer.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001