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Sentinel editor awarded nat'l fellowship to dig into local gov't secrets

Some more bureaucrats in Southern Arizona will be burning the midnight oil answering questions, after Sentinel Editor & Publisher Dylan Smith was among 10 recipients of a national fellowship to pursue in-depth reporting on government secrecy.

The inaugural Brechner Reporting Fellowships were announced Thursday by the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

The fellowships were created to support journalists at organizations that have had revenues impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We’re incredibly excited to be able to help support the work of excellent journalists from a variety of backgrounds in markets from coast to coast as they pursue stories to shine a brighter spotlight on the importance of transparency," said Prof. Frank D. LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center and a journalism professor at the University of Florida. "In the midst of twin crises over the trustworthiness of police and the trustworthiness of public-health information, the common denominator is that the public benefits from transparency and accountability. These journalists will help tell that story in their communities."

Smith intends to focus the reporting undertaken with the support of the $2,500 fellowship on how local governments in Southern Arizona have limited public access and knowledge during the COVID-19 outbreak, including their response to the pandemic, the recent protests over the death of George Floyd, and other issues.

"I'm tremendously honored to join a great group of journalists in this first class of Brechner fellows," Smith said in response to the announcement. "Now more than ever, people are realizing just how vital it is that we all have access to facts about what our elected officials and bureaucrats are doing, rather than just their spin."

Smith is known for his dogged pursuit of public records and transparency in government. He's been recognized with the Sledgehammer Award by the Arizona Press Club, and featured at the state and national levels for his investigative and breaking news reporting on Southern Arizona.

The Brechner Center announcement described him as "an award-winning investigative reporter who keeps officials awake at night with records requests."

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The other Brechner fellows are:

Matt Drange (Oakland, California)

Matt Drange is an investigative reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where his coverage focuses on the tech industry and its many intersections with government. Drange’s work has been recognized with numerous accolades, and in 2019 he received the Larry Birger Award as the best young business journalist in the country.

Mya Frazier (Columbus, Ohio)

Mya Frazier is an investigative and business journalist based in the Midwest. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, NewYorker.com, Outside, Columbia Journalism Review, Guardian Long Read, The New Republic, Slate, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Columbus Monthly. She is a former staff writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer and American City Business Journals.

Gary Harki (Norfolk, Virginia)

Gary Harki is an investigative reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. He spent a year on fellowship at Marquette University investigating the jailing of people with mental illness. In 2019, he won the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting, which honors outstanding police reporting.

Courtney Mabeus (Leesburg, Virginia)

Courtney Mabeus has worked as a journalist for nearly 15 years. Her three-part series “No Turning Back” received a first place National Headliner Award as well as an award for excellence in feature writing from the Association of LGBTQ Journalists in 2019. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Carolina Public Press and she has most recently worked on staff for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot.

Sara MacNeil (Las Vegas)

Sara MacNeil is a reporter in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has reported in newsrooms in New Mexico, Louisiana and Alabama. MacNeil has covered everything from murder trials to elections to landmark legislation, with a readiness for accountability journalism.

Steve Miller (Dallas)

Steve Miller is an independent journalist based in Dallas. He has written for Real Clear Investigations, Miami New Times, The Daily Beast and Associated Press, among others, and is the author of six books.

Hilary Niles (Durham, New Hampshire)

Hilary Niles is an independent data journalism consultant, freelance investigative and multimedia reporter, and award-winning researcher. She chairs the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freelance Community, and serves on SPJ’s FOI Committee. Her reporting for the Brechner Fellowship will document efforts to establish a free press in Native American tribal nations.

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena (Miami)

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena is a multimedia journalist and Investigative Fellow at the Miami Herald after being awarded a grant in partnership with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. She has worked in newsrooms all over the world including Fusion, CNN, The Associated Press, El Mundo of Spain, France24 and Haaretz.com.

Alia Wong (Arlington, Virginia)

Alia Wong is an award-winning freelance reporter who covers education, families, race, and other social issues. She previously worked as a staff writer and associate editor at The Atlantic, where she developed its education section. She began her journalism career in 2012 as a watchdog education reporter at Honolulu Civil Beat.

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Among the topics being reported on by the other fellows are: Secrecy in economic-development subsidies, access to public records from tribal governments, the influence of quasi-public school board associations, and the rights of corporate whistleblowers to speak to the media without retaliation.

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Sentinel Editor Dylan Smith speaks to the Board of Supervisors about updating county public records policies as they declare 'TucsonSentinel.com Day' in January 2020 to mark the tenth anniversary of the nonprofit news outlet's founding.

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