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When Anne Keegan died last May at the age of 68, Len immediately began planning an award that would honor both her and the kind of journalism she practiced, journalism “reflecting the dignity and spirit of the common man”; in June the Headline Club agreed to sponsor the award. There will always be a place in journalism for meretricious writing that knows exactly where the frayed ends of our hearts can be yanked and unraveled an inch or two. This kind of writing has a long cynical history, and Keegan had no use for it. She walked a mile alongside the people she wrote about. And until she knew them better than any story that even she wrote could convey, she was unwilling to write about them at all. Her stories drew absolutely no attention to their author—she would have been embarrassed to be seen promoting herself in a story about someone else. Her unwillingness to make herself marketable didn’t help Anne’s career any, and she eventually left the Tribune in 1997. In newspapering's modern era of shrunken staffs, diminished news holes, and compulsory self-promotion through blogging, Facebooking, and tweeting, we weren’t certain that her kind of journalism clung to any foothold at all. It would be an odd way to honor Anne Keegan if we created an award we believed no one deserved to win.
We actually worried about this.
So we put out the call for entries uncertain whether we’d get back anything that measured up. Len and I had already talked about backup plans—which I’ll call Plan B and Plan C. Plan B was to give the Anne Keegan Award to Katherine Boo for her new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. I’d recently been in touch with Boo, so it wasn’t as if we’d just be picking her name out of the New York Times Book Review. The ecstatic reviews of Boo’s book emphasized her deference to her subjects, one writer noting that the first time Boo referred to herself was in a note on page 247. This was exactly the journalistic value we most wanted to acknowledge in Anne Keegan, who as Len likes to say, wrote with the eye, not the “I.”
But Katherine Boo is not from here, and Mumbai is not Chicago. Plan C was not to give the award to anybody, which, as I’ve already suggested, had the disadvantage of making us look ridiculous.
But then the nine submissions came in, some from writers who nominated themselves and others from friends or editors. And the stories, by and large, were so good that Len and I immediately forgot about plans B and C. You might not think so, but nine is a large number for a competition of this type, especially the first year out of the gate. Some of the entries consisted of a single story, others of multiple stories, and one evening Len and the friends he’d asked to help him judge sat in his living room and read through them all. A week later we met again and made our choice.
An article everyone admired was The Price of Intolerance, Steve Bogira’s two-part account in the Reader of a fatal shooting in 1971 in a racially changing neighborhood in Back of the Yards. The complexity of Bogira’s story, which spanned decades, juxtaposed irreconcilable memories, and ultimately drew from the reader sadness, anger, and despair, put it beyond the scope of the Anne Keegan Award for reasons that no one put into words but no one challenged. Another strong entry was a collection of long obituaries by the Sun-Times’s Maureen O’Donnell that moved a judge so deeply that he made us be still while he read aloud from one.
But ultimately, the choice was between the AP’s Sharon Cohen, primarily for her account of the destruction of Joplin, Missouri's St. John’s hospital by a tornado last May as experienced by the people who lived through it; and Mastony, whose collection included a story about a high school wrestling coach who continued to coach and inspire despite a chronic wasting illness. This above all the other stories submitted by any of the writers, or by Mastony herself, was one that might have been written by Keegan. It affected Len Aronson in a way no other story did.
Mastony wasn’t going to be in town the night of the Lisagor dinner. Len got her on the phone, made her understand that if she showed up she was unlikely to regret it.
Len and I have already talked about next year. As in—what then? An award such as this, created as a tribute to a great reporter Chicago has lost, can’t help but be understood as, in a way, a passing of the torch. Can we pass it twice? Do we discover that we will be forever making a selection from a handful of local writers who do the kind of journalism the Keegan Award was established to honor? And do we ask the Headline Club to play the video again—or perhaps offer it permanently on their website? When the Lisagor Awards were introduced in 1977, a video celebrating the career of their namesake, the Chicago Daily News’s late Washington bureau chief, Peter Lisagor, was played at the first few dinners. Then, having served its purpose, it was dropped. I’m sure few journalists who received Lisagors last week had any but the vaguest sense of who Peter Lisagor was.
Colleen Mastony was unfamiliar with Anne Keegan’s work until she looked up her old stories in the Trib archives. More time will pass, and is there any way to guarantee that the Anne Keegan Award will always stand for the values it stood for this year, when we personally chose Mastony to receive it? Good questions all, and if we’re smart we won’t think about them again for at least the next six months.