TAMPA — Tampa Bay Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas, who spent a year investigating abuse at unlicensed religious children's homes, has earned one of journalism's most prestigious awards for her series, "In God's Name."
Zayas, 30, was named winner Monday of the 2013 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, which includes a cash prize of $35,000.
A panel of seven judges praised the journalist's "doggedness … in the face of countless obstacles."
"The series documents Florida's utter abdication of regulation of these homes," the panel's statement said, "and shows how families were misled in entrusting their sons and daughters to religious-based camps with no accountability to anyone."
Selden Ring, a Los Angeles real estate developer who died in 1992, established the award out of respect for the journalism that exposed Watergate. The competition is overseen by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Geneva Overholser, the school's director, said this year's entries and winners showed the news industry's commitment to investigative journalism and the existence of an "emerging generation" to carry it on.
The prize often goes to a pair or team of reporters. Zayas, who joined the Times after graduating from the University of Miami in 2005, is among the few who earned it under a single byline.
She expressed gratitude to the former residents of unlicensed religious homes who told their stories. She credited the efforts of Times investigations editor Chris Davis and photojournalist Kathleen Flynn. Davis, who joined the newspaper in 2011, previously headed the investigative team at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, where he edited the Pulitzer Prize-winning series, "Florida's Insurance Nightmare."
Mike Wilson, Times managing editor, said it was not a difficult decision to allow Zayas time for the yearlong project, given the promise she had already shown.
"What this work yielded is a public service in the best sense," he said. "It informs parents and taxpayers and genuine religious believers about something they need to know to be good citizens and make good decisions."