Newhouse School awards first Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting

By Wendy S. Loughlin

March 11, 2011

Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic is the first recipient

Craig Harris, reporter, The Arizona Republic

Craig Harris, a reporter with The Arizona Republic, is the first recipient of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, given by the Newhouse School.

Harris, 43, won for an eight-part series on Arizona’s broken and expensive public pension plan, which costs taxpayers nearly $1.4 billion each year. His coverage was among the first in-depth looks at troubled pensions that have now become major news in states across the country. In Arizona, his series instigated reform from state lawmakers and mayors to change the pension systems and correct the abuses.

The Toner Prize is part of the Newhouse School’s Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting, which honors the late Robin Toner ’76, a SU alumna who was the first woman to be national political correspondent of The New York Times.

Honorable mentions for the Toner Prize also went to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker and Sebastian Jones and Marcus Stern of ProPublica. Lizza’s narrative, “As the World Burns,” demonstrated the failure of climate change legislation this summer meant to transform the nation’s use of energy. Jones and Stern reported on the ways money influences public policy and the electoral process, such as political fundraisers at a Super Bowl and a Bruce Springsteen concert.

“We’re delighted to honor such outstanding examples of political reporting,” says Lorraine Branham, dean of the Newhouse School. “This extraordinary journalism enriches democracy by giving voters crucial information to shape their communities and hold public officials accountable. It exemplifies the insight, incisiveness and passion for public policy that were hallmarks of Robin Toner’s work.”

The journalists will be honored March 28 at a celebration at the Newhouse School. The event will also feature the Toner Lecture on American Politics and Political Journalism by award-winning journalist Marilyn Serafini. She is the first Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow for the Kaiser Family Foundation and reports on health policy and politics for Kaiser Health News.

The Toner Prize competition drew 103 entries from across the country and from across media platforms. They included a rich mixture of American journalism: the largest news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, PBS and NPR; online, non-profit publications such as Voice of San Diego and ProPublica; and community newspapers such as the Times West Virginian (circulation 10,400) and the Morris (Ill.) Daily Herald (circulation 7,950).

To judge the competition, 30 veteran journalists—most of them now teaching journalism at universities—served on 10 juries to recommend finalists. 

The Toner Prize and honorable mention recognition was awarded by the five finalist judges: Adam Clymer, formerly chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and a member of the Toner Program Fundraising Committee; Dorothy Gilliam, formerly of The Washington Post and now director of the Young Journalists Development Program at The George Washington University; Paul Delaney, formerly head of the journalism department of the University of Alabama, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and formerly a reporter and editor for The New York Times;  Marcy McGinnis, formerly executive vice president of news coverage for CBS News, where she spent 35 years, and now associate dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism; and David Yepsen, who spent 35 years with The Des Moines Register, often in friendly competition with Toner covering the Iowa caucuses, and who is now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

In praising Harris’ Toner Prize-winning work, judges cited the depth and thoroughness of his series on the public pension system. “He did it the old-fashioned way—lots of sweat equity, patience and perseverance,” says Delaney.

In The New Yorker, writer Lizza “took a boring topic—cap and trade legislation—and made it compelling through good storytelling and reporting,” says Yepsen. “We need to see more of this kind of reporting and writing on lots of subjects because it so completely engages a reader.”

Of the follow-the-money reporting on ProPublica by Jones and Stern, one of the judges described it as a “brilliant entry.” Added Clymer: “This entry clearly connects politics and policy, one of Robin Toner’s greatest strengths.”

Toner, who graduated from SU in 1976 with a dual degree in journalism from the Newhouse School and political science from The College of Arts and Sciences, spent 25 years as a reporter for The New York Times. She began her journalism career in West Virginia for the Charleston Daily Mail and reported for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For The New York Times, she covered five presidential campaigns, scores of Congressional and gubernatorial races and most of the nation’s major public policy issues. She died in 2008. She was married to fellow journalist Peter Gosselin and the mother of twins, Nora and Jacob. 

Her husband, friends, classmates and Syracuse University are fundraising for a $1 million campaign to endow The Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting.  For more information on the program, visit

Below are links to the winning entries for the first Toner Prize:

Craig Harris, “An Arizona Republic Investigation: Public Pensions, A Soaring Burden”: 

Ryan Lizza, “As the World Burns”: 

Sebastian Jones and Marcus Stern, “ProPublica’s Money & Politics Series”: