Columbia Journalism Names Winners of 2020 Alumni Awards | Columbia Journalism School

Columbia Journalism Names Winners of 2020 Alumni Awards

Dean Steve Coll and the Alumni Association of the Columbia Journalism School are proud to announce the recipients of the 2020 Alumni Awards.

The winners are Michelle Johnson, ’82 M.S., associate professor, Boston University; Donna Ladd, ’01 M.S., editor in chief and owner, The Jackson Free Press (Mississippi); Natasha Lebedeva, ’94 M.S., director, international affairs, NBC News. The J-School is also presenting the First Decade Award, for graduates of the last 10 years, to Alexandra Bell, ’13 M.S., multidisciplinary artist, and Robert Fieseler, ’13 M.S., author of “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs and Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation'' (W.W. Norton, 2018).

“These alumni represent the best of the Journalism School,’’ Dean Coll said of the winners. “Their work speaks to the breadth and range of the Journalism School’s influence on the way news reaches audiences today, on a variety of subjects and platforms.’’

Each of the winners has demonstrated the qualities valued at the J-School: curiosity, persistence, creativity and adherence to the truth.

Winners are selected by a panel of jurors made up of previous alumni award winners and a representative of the Alumni Board.

The 2020 awards will be presented Saturday, May 2, at a luncheon at Low Memorial Library during the Journalism School’s Alumni Weekend.

Here is more on this year’s winners:




Michelle Johnson, '82 M.S., Associate Professor, Multimedia Journalism, Boston University, Boston

Johnson has been a pioneer in digital journalism, as a reporter, editor and educator. As an editor at The Boston Globe, she was part of the team that launched the newspaper online in 1995. She was also an editor for the Metro, National, Foreign and Business sections of the newspaper. At Boston University, in addition to teaching, Johnson oversees the award-winning Boston University News Service, a showcase for work produced by BU’s Journalism students. In 2014 BU News Service was named top online student news site by the Associated Press, Massachusetts/Rhode Island, and the Society of Professional Journalists, Region I. In 2013, the news service’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing was nationally recognized by the Online News Association with awards in both student and professional categories. Johnson has also taught multimedia workshops in newsrooms, training programs and conferences around the country, including for the the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Journalists. She is currently a trainer for the Society of Professional Journalists/Google News Initiative. Johnson was named Educator of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in 2013 and served as the very first academic representative to the NABJ board from 2015 to 2018.


Donna Ladd, '01 M.S., Editor in Chief and Owner of the Jackson Free Press, Jackson, MS

Ladd is an investigative reporter and editor who has been recognized for her political writing and her reporting on race, corruption, violence, and social justice.  Before returning to her home state, Ladd wrote for several magazines, web sites and alternative newspapers, including the Village Voice. She returned home to Mississippi in 2001 and co-founded that state’s only alternative newspaper, the Jackson Free Press, and later the Mississippi Youth Media Project. She also freelances for The Guardian and is now starting the nonprofit Mississippi Free Press to report historic causes and solutions to inequities across the state. She is the Susan G. Komen 2020 breast-cancer survivor of the year for Mississippi. Here is a recent column that portrays Ladd’s values about journalism and a piece she wrote about her mother here.


Natalia (Natasha) Lebedeva, '94 M.S., Director, International Affairs, NBC News, Washington, D.C.

Lebedeva has been a producer and contributed to numerous international stories over the years. In her current job, she works for all NBC News platforms and serves as a liaison between NBC and foreign countries where NBC pursues news coverage. She has received numerous awards, including several Emmys and the Alfred I. duPont - Columbia Award. Previously, Lebedeva was an editorial and planning producer for political coverage at NBC and MSNBC. She also worked as a producer for CNN, a reporter for Newsweek and a producer for the Charlie Rose show on PBS. Lebedeva, who was born in Russia, has produced a number of documentaries that aired on PBS, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. She also serves as vice president of the Columbia University Alumni Club of Washington, D.C.






Alexandra Bell, '13 M.S., Multidisciplinary Artist, New York

Since Bell graduated in 2013, she has put her journalistic education into an exhilarating and now widely acclaimed direction: doing media criticism through visual art. Starting in late 2016 with an unofficial installation on the side of a building in Bedford-Stuyvesant and continuing through her exhibition in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Alexandra has produced a provocative and unique body of work interrogating racial bias in the most respected newspaper in the world, The New York Times. (And, by inference, in the mainstream media more broadly.) Alexandra's ongoing series, “Counternarratives,” revises and reassembles original Times coverage of racially charged events -- the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo.; the false claim of robbery during the Rio Olympics by white American swimmers; the portrayal of alt-right leader Gavin McInnes, among others -- to show how media frameworks construct memory and inform discursive practices around race, politics, and culture. Recently, Alexandra received a major grant from the Open Society Foundations to produce an interactive newspaper that is set in the future.

Read about her here and here.


Robert Fieseler, '13 M.S., Author, New Orleans

Fieseler was a part-time J-School student who graduated as the co-valedictorian of his class and received the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing and the Richard T. Baker Award in Long-form Journalism. Upon graduation, he published an environmental story called “Consider the Can,” which was featured in a 2014 “Best of Journalism” roundup in The Atlantic. His first book, “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation,’’ was published in 2018 and explores the devastation that the New Orleans’ LGBTQ+ community experienced when a gay bar called Up Stairs Lounge burned to the ground in a mysterious arson in June of 1973. Tinderbox made the Kirkus Review’s Best Book of the Year list and won the 2019 Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime from the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the 2020 Louisiana Literary Award from the Louisiana Library Association. Fieseler also writes for The Daily Beast and others.