The stage of the opera house in Bern, Switzerland, waiting for the curtain to open on the first True Story Award celebration.

The stage of the opera house in Bern, Switzerland, waiting for the curtain to open on the first True Story Award celebration.

The ceremony was held in a gilded, 115-year-old opera house in Bern, Switzerland. A giant faux bear shared the stage with a prominent news anchor, who emceed the event in four languages. Theater troupes performed interpretative readings of journalist stories. And when the winner was announced, he took the stage wearing sneakers, cargo pants and a T-shirt.

This was the first celebration of the International True Story Award, a new venture supported by a foundation in Switzerland with the goal of identifying and honoring the best in-depth journalism in the world.

“The goal of the True Story Award is to show that there is a link between all the people on the planet,” said Daniel Puntas, publisher of Switzerland’s Reportagen magazine and primary founder of the award.

Daniel Puntas, publisher of Reportagen magazine, and founding visionary of the International True Story Award.

Daniel Puntas, publisher of Reportagen magazine, and founding visionary of the International True Story Award.

Puntas’ vision was to reach across borders, where journalism contests have long been housed, and to bring a spotlight to essential work being done around the world. Creating a community of inspiration and support for journalists is especially important, he said, in times when journalists are under ever-greater physical and legal risk, press freedom is under attack, and accusations of “fake news” are adding confusion to the nonstop flood of information. The foundation also wants to broaden the “predominantly Western view of the world with other perspectives,” according to its mission statement.

At heart, the award is a celebration of what is called “reportage” in much of the world, and “longform” in the U.S. In its first year, it drew more than 900 entries of stories from dozens of countries, published in 12 languages. Fifty jurors representing 29 countries selected 42 nominees, which were sent to an 8-member panel of judges.

There were no categories dividing stories by definitions like investigative, feature, beat coverage, or breaking news. Rather, the award criteria are for “a narrative account of real events, in-depth research on location, rigorously researched facts and linguistic richness.” That’s according to the website. Renowned Swiss journalist Margrit Sprecher, chair of the judges’ panel, articulated the core characteristic that was found in all the nominees and winners this way: “The common denominator was whether the start made it to you heart.”

All the winning and nominated stories have been translated into English.

First place went to Shura Burtin of Russia for “Monitor 1,” the profile of an underground human rights active working in Chechnya 10 years after the most recent war with Russia.

Second place to American Mark Arax for “A Kingdom from Dust,” published in California Sunday Magazine. Arax spent years tracking the tentacles of one of the biggest farmer in the U.S., and its reach into politics, the environment, culture and the fortunes of entire towns.

Third place to Du Qiang of China for “The Vagabond Club,” which takes readers deep into the subculture of a “new loafer class” of migrants living in defiance of China’s bustling Shenzhen economic district. He went undercover for his story, which reveals the social and emotional problems spawned by China’s aggressive industrialization.

The award, and the stories it highlighted, provide an interesting glimpse into what journalists have in common, but also the different challenges they face, around the world. Stay tuned for the call for next year’s award.

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