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Austin360 wins 8 awards from Society for Features Journalism, including 4 top prizes

American-Statesman staff
The Austin360 team at the American-Statesman, which covers arts and entertainment, won eight awards in the Society for Features Journalism's Excellence in Features contest. The prizes were announced this week.

The Austin360 team at the American-Statesman won eight awards in the annual Excellence in Features contest from the Society for Features Journalism, including four first-place prizes, it was announced this week.

"We don't do the work for the awards, but these awards do make us feel proud that what we're putting into the world matters," Executive Features Editor Sharon Chapman said. "Our team really pivoted during hard times. We took a step back to see what we needed to do when we have less staff and we are being affected personally by what's going on in the world."

The team won first place in best digital presence.

”Whether you’re going out on the town — in one of America’s most vibrant cities — or staying home, Austin360 is the perfect guide,” contest judges wrote, adding, "If you want to have a good time in Austin, this is your ticket.”

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Restaurant writer Matthew Odam won first place in food criticism from the Society for Features Journalism.

Restaurant writer Matthew Odam won first place in food criticism for his review of Deckhand Oyster Bar.

“The characters resonate as memorably as the food in Matthew’s vivid take on this restaurant,” judges wrote. “The review is filled with sharp observations and descriptions, which are detailed enough to paint a picture — surely readers who venture to this restaurant will take note of whether the owner is donning those ‘loudly checkered golf pants.’”

Austin360 Entertainment Editor Eric Webb took the top prize in the arts and entertainment commentary portfolio category, which included a piece about the 2020 Waxahatchee album "Saint Cloud."

Among the judges’ comments: “We loved the piece on ‘Saint Cloud’ for a jillion reasons. It’s a review. It’s a (brief) chronicle of the plague year(s). It has some great sentences: ‘We had to cut spring off at the stem and stick it in a vase, and then summer came and dried the petals all up, so now we’re sitting in the dying days of a Texas summer waiting to see how fall and winter will express their own distinct stillness and sorrow.’ We wish we could write like that. We wish we could think like that. For now, we will have to rely on you, Eric. Keep it coming.”

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Austin360 Entertainment Editor Eric Webb won first place for his arts and entertainment commentary portfolio from the Society for Features Journalism.

Brontë Wittpenn, who left the Statesman earlier this year for a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, won first place in the short feature category for her story on Jessie Thibideaux, who operated a shoe shine business on Congress Avenue.

“A beautiful example of bright and tight writing,” judges wrote. "In only 600 words, Bronte creates a wonderful profile of a man often ignored — the shoeshine guy. The key to her story is the judicious use of details and quotes.” 

Music writer Deborah Sengupta Stith won second place in the diversity in features category for her Monday Music Mashup series. Judges praised the range of topics, which included looks at the experiences of Black, Latino and LGBTQ musicians in Austin.

“This is a cool idea and a great way to encourage important conversations during the pandemic. The discussions, sometimes frank and brutal, are a refreshing change from what we normally expect from newspapers," judges wrote.

Music writer Deborah Sengupta Stith took second place in the diversity in features category from the Society for Features Journalism.

Addie Broyles, who left the Statesman earlier this year to pursue freelance projects, won second place in best special section for a guide about where Austin gets its food.

From the judges: “News publications do a great job of providing guides to local restaurants, but what do we do when the eateries are shut down? The American-Statesman has a creative answer: a look at where we get our food, from local markets to farmers markets.”

The team won second place for best section, which is judged based on a portfolio of three to five print issues.

“This publication excelled in its coverage of the twin challenges of 2020 — the pandemic and the reckoning after George Floyd’s killing," the judges wrote. "Though these topics can be tough fare for an arts and entertainment section, Austin360 rose to the occasion with well-reported packages on the experience of being a Black musician in Austin and a deeply reported piece on the struggles restaurateurs and club owners faced after the lockdown.” 

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They also praised "Are You Happy," a multimedia feature created by Webb and former Statesman visual journalist Ana Ramirez, as "a clever person-on-the-street piece in the vein of the Humans of New York photoblog."

The judges added: "Overall, this was an engaging and inventive collection of features in a challenging year for feature writers.”

The team also received an honorable mention for a series of stories about how the pandemic affected the arts and entertainment scene. 

The contest covered stories, videos and other journalism produced in 2020. Entries are grouped into divisions based on circulation. The team also place third in the sweepstakes category, which honors the total number of awards from a publication.

The Austin360 team has taken home many prizes throughout the years. In 2020 and 2019, the team won best section in the Excellence in Features Awards, and it took second place in that category in 2018. This is the team's third year in a row to win best digital presence. Earlier this year, the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors awarded Odam second place and Webb third place in its comment and criticism category.

"We're heading into some of the busiest months of the year, as Austin festival season comes roaring back after 18 months," Chapman said. "Getting this recognition helps boost our energy at a time when our community relies on us the most."