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From AJR,   April/May 2013  issue

Talking to the Voters   

That’s the key to her award-winning political reporting, says The Atlantic’s Molly Ball. Fri., April 19, 2013


By Leigh Ann Renzulli
Leign Ann Renzulli (leigh.renzulli@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

When asked why she thought she won the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, Molly Ball replied, "I just sort of knocked on doors and talked to voters."

Well there's a little more to it than that.

The Toner Prize was created three years ago as part of the Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Both the program and the prize are a tribute to the late Robin Toner, a Syracuse alumnae and the first woman to be national political correspondent of the New York Times. The prizewinner also receives $5,000.

Ball, a reporter for The Atlantic, submitted five pieces on the 2012 presidential election that she wrote over 10 months. The topics ranged from the effectiveness of the Obama and Romney campaigns to the role that issues such as gay marriage and Obamacare played in the election.

Ball recognizes that it took more than just knocking on doors to win the prize. "Every reporter talks to voters," says Ball, "but it is hard to synthesize, sit back and collect the totality of everything they've been telling you to figure out what it all means."

According to Ball, voters are the most important sources when it comes to reporting on an election. She wanted to make sure that her readers heard the story from them rather than insiders in Washington, D.C.

"I was especially interested in getting to the ground level and talking to the actual human beings, which is where the real election is playing out," she says. "There is something to be said for reporting on Washington, but I think that talking to voters tells us more about what is going on in the world. I would rather see it with my own eyes and assess it than go through consultants and strategists."

According to Maralee Schwartz, a Toner Prize finalist judge and a lecturer at Harvard University, that is exactly what Ball accomplished.

"She found a way to assess what she was looking at without armchair analysis," says Schwartz, a longtime Washington Post political editor and writer. "All of the pieces had a journal quality to them. It was a feeling that you were hearing about the election through her eyes, not through consultants or politicos."

Ball certainly has the résumé of a political reporter. Before joining The Atlantic in 2011, she was a reporter for Politico, where she covered the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and the 2010 midterm elections. In her pre-Washington days, Ball was a political reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. An English major at Yale, she also worked as a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

Ball and her editor at The Atlantic at the time, Garance Franke-Ruta, worked together to choose the pieces that Ball ultimately submitted for the Toner Prize. Franke-Ruta then wrote a nomination letter saying that the pieces "demonstrate, in their breadth and range, depth and detail, the high standards and originality of vision shown by the late Robin Toner."

There were 118 submissions to the Toner Prize across various media platforms, including 107 articles, six videos, two radio packages, two books and one documentary. To judge those entries, 33 former journalists, who now work at universities across the country, were chosen and grouped into eleven panels of three. Each panel reviewed a group of entries and chose one finalist.

A five-person panel then reviewed the work of the eleven finalists. There is only one winner of the Toner Prize, but two submissions, one by a team of reporters at ProPublica and one by a team at the Wall Street Journal, received honorable mentions.

"All judges put in hours and hours of judging for free," says Charlotte Grimes, the Knight Chair in Political Reporting at the Newhouse School, "They do it out of love for the profession and because they are good people who want to keep inspiring high quality journalism."

Adam Clymer, a finalist judge and who knew Toner personally, says the decision ultimately came down to which entries were worthy of being compared to Toner's work.

"I have never seen so many entries that I would be truly happy to see win the prize," says Clymer, a former New York Times Washington correspondent, who has judged the prize for all three of its years. "But part of it, to state it simply, is assessing whether it is Robin's kind of work. Molly's hard work shown through."

The Robin Toner Program was created after Toner died of complications from colon cancer in 2008. The program includes the Toner Prize as well as the Toner Lecture/Symposium, which brings journalists to Syracuse University to discuss political reporting, and the Toner Stipend, which is awarded to encourage innovative techniques in campaign reporting.

The award was presented March 28 at a dinner in Washington, D.C., where Toner had done the majority of her reporting and where her family still lives. Toner's 15-year-old twins, Nora and Jacob, presented Ball with the Toner Prize at the dinner, as they have done for three years.

When asked what the future holds for her, Ball replies, "I think I have the best job in the world, and I think that also was a big part that enabled me to do the work that I did during the campaign. I have freedom to travel around to see the things that I want to see and do the coverage that I think will shed light on politics. I plan to keep doing that."