BGA, Partners Net Six Sarah Brown Boyden Awards Including ‘Best of the Best’

The Better Government Association and its news partners Chicago Tribune, WBEZ, Injustice Watch and DataMade, won the awards from Chicago Journalists Association, which recognized ‘Fires’ investigation with its top prize.

(Cesar Calderon/BGA)

The Better Government Association won six Sarah Brown Boyden Awards from the Chicago Journalists Association on Friday, including the best of the best award for the top work in the competition.

The awards honored reporting on Chicago’s fatal fires, Amazon’s publicly funded warehouse expansion, the hack on the state attorney general’s office, and a collaboration to analyze decades of Cook County court records.

The winners were chosen from among 41 finalists in 14 categories from news agencies throughout the Chicago area andNorthwest Indiana.

The Failures Before the Fires,” a multi-part investigation with the Chicago Tribune, won in the categories of investigative and public service journalism. It was also spotlighted by the judges as the “best of the best.”

The series revealed at least 61 men, women and children died in 42 fires where Chicago officials had been previously warned – often repeatedly – of major fire safety issues. Most of the victims were Black. A third were children.

Reporters Madison Hopkins, formerly of the BGA, and Cecilia Reyes of the Chicago Tribune detailed the deadly consequences of the systemic downfalls embedded in Chicago’s building enforcement system. They found the city perpetuates a failed system marred by informal rules, outdated records and lax oversight that put the interests of landlords above the safety of tenants. Many of the city’s failures directly contributed to the deaths, Hopkins and Reyes found.

The findings spurred an impact from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration even before the series was published in April.

After Hopkins and Reyes pressed Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot for answers, her office backed two initiatives she says will improve conditions for Chicago's tenants. The first was a rule change to require landlords to install long-lasting, tamper-proof smoke detectors over the next decade finally passed after nearly a year of inaction. Her office also published a list of problem buildings, targeting them for increased enforcement.

The BGA and Tribune followed up on the initial investigation by co-publishing a look at how other major cities have enacted stronger reforms in the wake of tragic fires.

The Circuit,” a collaboration between the BGA, Injustice Watch and civic tech firm DataMade, won best series. It was also a finalist for best investigation.

The project, which remains ongoing, had reporters and editors gather, organize and analyze decades of data from the Cook County Circuit Court system.

The BGA won in the business category for the investigation with WBEZ-Chicago Public Radio into Amazon’s massive, taxpayer-funded expansion in Illinois. The investigation by John Lippert of the BGA and Natalie Moore of WBEZ found the online retail giant commissioned 36 warehouses in the Chicago area since 2015. Most of the nearly $750 million taxpayer assistance came from Black communities.

Finally, the BGA shared the award for technology reporting with the Chicago Tribune for its reporting on the hack of the Illinois Attorney General’s office. The investigation by Jared Rutecki of the BGA and Ray Long of the Chicago Tribune was the first in-depth report about the ransomware attack and the millions spent fixing the damage.

The Better Government Association in Chicago is Illinois’ only non-partisan, full-service watchdog organization.

The Chicago Journalists Association, one of the oldest journalism organizations in Chicago with roots back to 1939, named the awards in honor of Sarah Brown Boyden, whose family established this fund in her honor.

Boyden joined the Chicago Evening American after attending Northwestern University in the 1920s and later worked at the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun. She died in 1989 at age 86.