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WKNO Reporters, Collaborators Win National Journalism Honors

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WKNO News Director Christopher Blank, IPSR Director Marc Perrusquia and WKNO/IPSR intern Caleb Jamal Suggs won a variety of journalism awards for the 2020 year in news.

From the Memphis rape kit crisis to the impact of the pandemic on students, stories from the inaugural year of WKNO's collaboration with the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting has brought national recognition to local journalists.

When investigative reporter Marc Perrusquia began digging into the infamous rape kit crisis at the Memphis Police Department — talking with victims still awaiting answers to their cases and former police officers who were now speaking out about past practices — WKNO's News Director Christopher Blank had one question: was any of this on tape?

While some writers rely on copious note-taking, Perrusquia had long been recording interviews to assure accuracy for publication. The controversial nature of his stories made having voices on tape essential.

But many of those tapes would never be heard by the public, and some of what they contained — the raw emotion, the dramatic pauses, the confessional spirit — simply couldn't be transcribed.

Much has been written in recent years about the "crisis" facing local journalism. As traditional newsrooms shrink or migrate to abundant digital platforms, some important stories facing our community can easily get lost or overlooked. Partly this is due to the proprietary nature of media organizations. And competition certainly hasn't abated between reporters jockeying for scoops.

WKNO and the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting are small, nonprofit local newsrooms with similar missions and ideals. We may not have the staffing to cover the day-to-day workings of government or offer daily crime reports, but we embraced the opportunity to pool resources.

By early 2020, Perrusquia had upgraded his recording equipment and Blank joined IPSR as its Senior Producer in the role of adapting big-issue stories for the radio. The partnership also brought another resource to this station, Caleb Suggs, a multi-talented journalism student identified by IPSR as a standout among his peers.

In August, WKNO premiered its first-ever half-hour special report centered on the rape kit crisis. This week, the Public Media Journalists Association, made of radio news directors from across the country, awarded the story First Place in Investigative Reporting and First Place in Short Documentary in the small-station division. The piece also won Second Place in Public Service Reporting from the Green Eyeshade Awards, a competition between newsrooms across the southeastern United States.

A few months ago, Caleb Suggs became the first University of Memphis journalism student to win a William Randolph Hearst prize for a WKNO feature on how the pandemic affected student life. He also claimed a second Hearst Award — this one with a $10,000 prize — for a feature on business returning to Beale Street.

In addition, the Tennessee Bar Association recognized Perrusquia's reporting on the MPD's use of force tactics with its annual Fourth Estate Award. That reporting, too, has been amplified on this station.

2020 may not have been the best year for award ceremonies, but it was a transformative year for Memphis journalists. Pivoting between coronavirus coverage, police protests and, yes, plenty of unrelated features, the ability to collaborate brought increased coverage to media consumers at a time when it was desperately needed.

WKNO and IPSR continue our collaboration in 2021. Our newest intern starts in the fall. And we are working to fully fund a year-long fellowship for a young journalist who has a hunger for public service reporting.