2023 News (Small Newsroom) Winner

Laura Pappano, The Hechinger Report

About the Winner:

When Laura Pappano first began reporting on the school board battles in West Bonner, Idaho, she was met with closed doors and unreturned phone calls. The northern Idaho community is tight knit, and the fights roiling the district over curriculum and school leadership were volatile. One teacher felt that she was in a “vulnerable spot by speaking out against extremism.” Another was wary of having “my name out there.”

But Pappano persevered, making it known to locals how much she wanted to get their story right. Her resulting article is a master class in feature writing. She weaves together the stories of West Bonner residents. Pappano describes the efforts by parents – especially moms – to fight back and reclaim their district from culture warriors. Her story helps elucidate the 2023 school board races around the country, which marked the fall of many Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates. 

It also shows that, increasingly, these school board races are not about Democrats vs. Republicans, but about “casting those who cared that students had books, buses, and teachers with a decent wage, against those who embraced extremist rhetoric.” After her story was published by The Hechinger Report and Vanity Fair, Pappano heard from others around the country sharing similar experiences in their communities and expressing their gratitude for making them feel seen.

Comments From the Judges:

“This is a very well-written story and an interesting take on the education culture wars from a hyperlocal viewpoint. The story also does a good job of explaining the ideology of the far-right without allowing them or their detractors to veer into hyperbole.”

“This is a wonderfully written story that pulls you in right away, illustrating the extremes at foot in the culture wars over public education. This story successfully does what several others about the same topic attempted to do: personalizes the stakes and shows why it matters.”

Photo credits: The Hechinger Report/Joan Morse