Wisconsin Watch’s coverage of discrimination within state school choice programs and the racial and gender-related backlash that upended life in Kiel, Wisconsin, were recognized by LION Publishers. (Amena Saleh / Wisconsin Watch)
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Wisconsin Watch’s coverage of discrimination within state school choice programs and the racial and gender-related backlash that upended life in Kiel, Wis., earned top honors Tuesday at the fifth annual LION Awards Ceremony in Durham, N.C.  

The awards, run by LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News), recognize top journalism produced by the organization’s more than 450 members in the United States and Canada. LION Publishers supports independent news entrepreneurs as they build and develop sustainable businesses.

Investigations reported by Mario Koran and Phoebe Petrovic earned awards in two of the contest’s 10 categories. 

Wisconsin Watch won the Accountability Award (Large Revenue Tier) for Koran’s three-part series examining how partisan misinformation and distrust paralyzed democracy in Kiel. 

Kiel’s turmoil began when the school district investigated students’ reports of being bullied over their race or gender identity, and it escalated to bomb threats that shuttered schools, halted in-person government meetings and canceled the Memorial Day parade. After two stories were published, parents rallied to prevent the ousting of a popular superintendent, who a small but vocal group of parents targeted. Two far-right school board members resigned, restoring the board to a more moderate majority.

Reporter Mario Koran, who is currently a New York Times local investigations fellow in partnership with Wisconsin Watch. (Pat Robinson)

“The judges unanimously agreed that this is one of the most outstanding pieces of journalism they have read in a long time,” contest judges wrote. “Huge lessons for the whole country in this well-told saga of a small town swept up in standing up to hate, intolerance, and bigotry. Bravo! This is why local news matters.” 

Jim Malewitz and Dee J. Hall edited the series, and freelance photojournalist Lianne Milton provided photos. 

Wisconsin Watch won the Outstanding Coverage Award (Large Revenue Tier) for False Choice, a five-story series probing how Wisconsin’s school choice programs legally discriminate against certain students. 

Petrovic examined how hundreds of taxpayer-funded voucher schools in Wisconsin are allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and those with disabilities. She revealed voucher schools must accept students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students for admission, but can expel them based on those same inherent qualities. Parents complained to the state about alleged discrimination at voucher-funded schools, but state officials said they lacked jurisdiction to investigate due to the schools’ private status.  

Adding to the series, Koran examined how public schools also discriminate within the school choice system — in some cases systematically rejecting transfers of students who have disabilities, citing a lack of resources. That leaves some kids with disabilities stuck in under-funded schools with zero choice to go elsewhere.

Wisconsin Watch reporter Phoebe Petrovic conducts an interview in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 2, 2019. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch) Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

“The information provided in this series is incredibly important, and the reporting and investigation conducted are of excellent quality,” contest judges wrote. “It serves as valuable solutions journalism material, offering insights that are likely to be quite eye-opening for the majority of readers.” 

Hall and Malewitz edited the series, which included illustrations by Amena Saleh.

Wisconsin Watch, in partnership with The Sheboygan Press, was named a finalist in an additional category: Collaboration of the Year. That was for an investigation revealing long-concealed internal investigations into widespread sexual harassment within the Sheboygan Police Department.   

Resolve Philly earned that award among Large Revenue Tier participants for Broke in Philly, a five-year collaborative reporting project on economic mobility and solutions reporting on poverty.

A pair of Madison, Wisconsin organizations shared the Collaboration of the Year Award in the Micro/Small Revenue Tier. Tone Madison and Madison Minutes were named co-winners for teaming up to cover the local impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down Roe v. Wade.

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