History

1933

Atlantic City Mayor Harry Bacharach, addressing the Press Club of Atlantic City on June 4 at a dinner at Hyman’s Restaurant, says the club should sponsor some kind of movement to pay more attention to distinguished visitors, with the upside being that the city would secure more good will nationally and internationally. Find a way, the mayor suggests, to raise some money to entertain such influential visitors. Before adjourning, the club votes to do just that and sets up a committee to organize it.

1934

Atlantic City Press Club invites dozens of foremost news personalities from the newspaper, radio and newsreel industries for the “National Headliners Frolic,” a three-day, all-expenses-paid June junket. NBC radio broadcasts the banquet with speeches from leading journalists and news executives. Participants get parties, sailing trips, a golf tournament at the historic Atlantic City Country Club, rolling chair excursions and floor shows. Ninety journalists show up. “Tremendous success,” reports the Atlantic City Press. “Plans are already underway to make it one of the city’s permanent gestures of hospitality.”

1935

A jury of industry and academic professionals selects the first 11 winners of the National Headliner Awards, instilling the contest’s respect for shoe-leather reporting. First is Harvey Duell of the New York Daily News, who so schmoozed the courthouse staff in Flemington, N.J., where Richard Hauptmann was on trial for his life in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping that the News was on the streets with the guilty verdict before it was announced in the courtroom; and Jack Laitt of International News Service who flashed news of gangster John Dillinger’s death to New York before it was verified in Chicago. New Jersey Gov. Harold Hoffman welcomes participants, explaining that he was once a cub reporter himself, making $8 a week. And, he says, judging by editorials in New Jersey papers, some editors still thought “that I was worth about $8 a week.” … Both NBC and CBS radio networks broadcast the awards ceremony.

1936

President Roosevelt is invited to the Frolic. He declines, sending Vice President John Garner instead. Ten awards, chosen by judges from the newspaper, radio, magazine and newsreel industries, are given. Among the winners: Lauren D. Lyman of The New York Times for his report on the secret departure of Col. Charles Linbergh and his family from America, and William Thomas of Pathe NewsReel for scenes of the Johnstown flood. … CBS Radio carries a half-hour report on the awards ceremony, seen as tangible proof of the publicity value of the contest. “While the main objective of the Frolic started in 1934 is to obtain the good will of the key men in journalism, radio and newsreels for the resort,” says the Atlantic City Press, “the city has already obtained a direct return for its investment.”

1937

William Randolph Hearst is among the 11 winners of a Headliner Award for enterprise in journalism. He never picks it up.

1938: Among the winners: W.B. Ragsdale of the Associated Press for best colorful story – a piece he wrote about Al Capone and the Detroit Purple Gang.

1939: Headliners is first to recognize Edward R. Murrow, making his first appearance on radio from Vienna when the Nazis annexed the country. … Honors go to columnists Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun.

1940: Shoe leather journalism: “The Last Christmas Tree,” broadcast Christmas Eve from the trenches occupied by Finnish troops at war with Russian infantrymen. It goes to William L. White of CBS. Another award goes to a relatively obscure editorial cartoonist, Herbert L. Block of the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

1941: Helen Hiett is the first woman to win a Headliner Award. To get a story for NBC in late 1940 about how British troops were enduring a Nazi siege at Gibraltar, she infiltrated a group of chorus girls bound for a gig to entertain the troops. After the troupe landed, Axis air fleets unleashed attacks on the British citadel. She was the only journalist there and broadcast exclusive scenes about waves of bombers attacking the fort.

1943: Because of wartime occupations of resort hotels, the Headliners Frolic is cut back to one night. All 11 winners come to collect their awards, including two women: Virginia Scott of the Great Falls Leader in Montana for feature writing and New York’s wizardly financial columnist, Sylvia Porter, then 29. … Valor awards are announced for five war correspondents killed in action. Navy Secretary Frank Knox sends a letter read at the banquet praising the nation’s correspondent corps for keeping the public informed at great jeopardy to themselves. At least 15 correspondents have been killed since Pearl Harbor, Knox says, 28 were being held as prisoners of war and 60 have been wounded. “No other country in the world enjoys such complete coverage of world-shaping battles now in progress,” Knox writes. “This is due not to modern miracles of transmission, but to heroic dedication to duty and actual bravery of individual correspondents.”

1944: Ernie Pyle, who wrote battlefield profiles for Scripps-Howard Newspapers, becomes the first to win foreign feature writing two years in a row. Edward R. Murrow wins his second Headliner Award for his coverage of the bombing of Berlin.

1945: Lee Carson becomes the fourth woman honored with a Headliner Award, but – in a shore town where bathing beauties are everyday objects – she attracts more publicity than the other 10 winners, including the great Red Smith, sports columnist of the New York Herald Tribune (and later The New York Times). When she reaches Atlantic City, her arrival at the Hotel Claridge is covered by the Atlantic City Press, which identifies her as “Lee Carson, comely war correspondent for INS.” … Vern Haugland, AP war correspondent, is honored for meritorious journalistic achievement. Five months later, a letter arrives thanking Headliners for the honor – the medallion had finally caught up with him in Tokyo after traveling through the mails from previous duty stations in New Guinea and Guam.

1947: “Meet the Press,” the radio forerunner to the longtime TV public affairs broadcast, originates from Atlantic City with a panel from Headliners. Seven-year-old Christopher Gilmore comes to the banquet to accept the award for his father, Associated Press Moscow correspondent Eddie Gilmore. Young Gilmore was in the United States, summering at nearby Margate with his mother. He is driven to the luncheon in a police car by Atlantic City patrolman William Kraft. After politely thanking Headliners for the award on behalf of his father, he asked Kraft to blow the siren on the way home. That brought down the house.

1948: Headliners awards its first medallion to the nascent new media called “television.” WFIL-TVin Philadelphia is honored for a nightly newsreel of the day’s events. (Four years later, WFIL would rock American television with an afternoon teen dance show, “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark.)

1951: Eight print judges sift through 1,400 entries to determine 17 winners. … Eight war correspondents killed in the Korean War are honored posthumously. … Headliners’ publicity value remains strong, says an editorial in the Atlantic City Press. “Since publicity is one means of reminding the rest of the country that Atlantic City is an attractive resort that has the welcome mat out for visitors, the generous publicity attending the Headliner awards is of undoubted value.”

1952: Headliners honors Jake Weiner for his humor column “Life Hereabouts” in the Camden Courier Post. “Consistently outstanding writing,” the judges say. Weiner, who would go on to positions at the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer, becomes a Headliners judge the following year and later the long-time chairman of judging. Each year, Headliners awards the Jake Weiner Memorial Award to the best-of-show print entry. … By this time, Headliners had broken its top print – and later broadcast – categories into circulation and market size, giving organizations in smaller communities the same opportunity of national recognition as metropolitan and national publications.

1956: Eight judges work all day Friday until 3 a.m., then return at breakfast and work well into Saturday night. They settle on 22 winners for print and broadcast. And they all paid their own way to Atlantic City. “We considered it an honor to serve,” says Tom Paprocki, AP sports cartoonist and longtime chief of judges. … At the banquet, a posthumous award is given to Benjamin Franklin, “Father of American Journalism.” … Also honored is Gene Symonds of United Press, who was dragged from a taxi and beaten to death by a Singapore mob while covering labor riots. His uncle, Harold Moore, comes from Dayton to accept the award.

1960: Awards are made in 24 categories at the Dennis Hotel.

1967: Mark Waters of the Honolulu Star Bulletin is one of 31 winners for his first-person story, “Cigarettes Are the Death of Me.” It was published the day he died of lung cancer.

1971: James Haught of The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia is honored for investigative reporting. In accepting the medallion, he mentioned a menace faced by those in his field. “I only wish there was a cash prize attached to this because this week I inherited the major pitfall of investigative reporting,” he says. “I got my paper sued for $12 million.”

1972: Terry Anne Meeuwsen, Wisconsin’s first Miss America, serenades the awards banquet with “He Touched Me,” a gospel song by Bill Gaither she had performed as her talent selection in the pageant. Then she presents a photo award to Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president’s daughter, for her work on the photo essay “Eye on Nixon.” … Muckraker Jack Anderson is keynote speaker. It is the first year the banquet sells seats to the public, $20 a couple.

1974: Former Miss Americas Phyllis George and Terry Ann Meeuwsen attend awards banquet at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge. Patrick J. Buchanan, aide to President Nixon, is guest speaker.

1975: Attendance hits 400 at the banquet at the Howard Johnson Regency, the highest since it was opened to the public three years earlier. Ronald Reagan, the California governor, is the speaker.

1979: Penthouse Magazine publisher Robert Guccione is keynote speaker at the awards banquet. Howard Berger, Headliners chairman, explains the unusual selection: Guccione was building a $60 million casino hotel complex, expected to be the fourth to open in the city after legalization of gambling. “Guccione will be able to relate not only to the journalists,” Berger says, “but also to local residents because of his dual role as publisher and casino developer.”

1981: Betty Cuniberti becomes the first female sportswriter to win an award. Her newspaper, The Washington Star, folds six months before the banquet.

1982: Among broadcast winners is ABC News for outstanding reporting on its “America Held Hostage” nightly series on the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. That show would be rebranded the following year as “Nightline” and continue for decades. … Special awards go to notable journalists Ellen Goodman, Shana Alexander, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley. Tickets for the banquet sell for $30 a seat to the public. It includes cocktails, filet mignon at the Sands.

1984: Seats at the banquet rise to $50 each including dinner, speeches, presentation of best photos and dancing to the Paul Mann Orchestra.

1986: A crossover sports/investigative series is the winner for the Lexington Herald Leader, which exposes under-the-table payoffs and gifts to University of Kentucky star players, stories that lead to NCAA investigations and a storm of protest against the newspaper from loyal fans.

1988: Michael Schurman, longtime Headliners administrator and head of the Atlantic City Press Club, reflects on the early history of the sponsoring organization founded in 1888. “This town was on the map for gangsters, playboys,” he says. “The press club had ties with the mob. We had a little to do with the founding of the Miss America Pageant … it was a press club member who suggested we change the name from Miss Atlantic City to Miss America.”

1997: Awards are handed out in 45 categories. Miguel Sancho of Inside Edition is honored for his expose of shady insurance sales. He took a job as an insurance salesman and detailed the techniques for taking advantage of the poor in rural areas.

1998: Bart Tessler accepts a broadcast best-of-show award shared by Westwood One, Mutual News and NBC Radio for “Race in America.” It was a homecoming for Tessler. As a teenager, he was a waiter and busboy at the Ambassador Hotel. That night, others were waiting on him at the Tropicana.

2001: Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz wins first place in spot photography for his dramatic image of Elian Gonzalez, a 5-year-old seized by immigration agents in Miami to be returned to his father in Cuba after an international custody and immigration controversy. Diaz had gained the trust of Gonzalez’s Miami relatives and was staked out on the property when agents raided at dawn.

2003: Some entrants get impressive results through their work. Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wins best of show in print for a profile of a wrongly accused man. “Not only did she render a compelling portrait of a man falsely accused of a crime,” the judges write, “but her narrative forced the real criminal to come forward.”

2005: Online journalism is added as a single category. Dallas Morning News wins first place. … Tickets to the banquet are still $50 a pop. Host is the Penn-Atlantic.

2006: Someone counts up all the Headliner’s medallions issued so far: More than 1,600.

2008: Digital categories are expanded to three, recognizing work done by newspapers, radio and TV outlets.

2009: Three more digital categories are added, focusing on visual applications for the medium.

2012: A “Best in Show” award is added to digital categories carrying a $1,500 prize. Detroit Free Press wins for online videography.

2013: Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press wins the best in print award for her determined practice of unearthing bodies in the desert to confront the government of Mali about its murderous tactics against opponents.

2014: Suspended since the 2007 recession, the banquet is renewed for a year to mark Headliners 80th anniversary. Among the big winners is The Boston Globe for several categories, including its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. … Longtime Press Club and Headliners administrator Michael Schurman dies at 71. Best-of-show awards in broadcast are named in his memory.

2019: Perversion of Justice” wins first place in investigative reporting and is honored with best of show. It meets every criteria for shoe-leather journalism. Reporter Julie K. Brown and photographer Emily Michot of the Miami Herald methodically tracked down victims – including one in Australia – of financier and serial predator Jeffrey Epstein, who molested scores of underage women in Palm Beach County, Fla., their names largely masked by the court when Epstein agreed to a brief state sentence. By finding, gaining the trust and telling the stories of the now-grown women, the series sparked outrage and fueled the growing “Me-Too” movement against sexual criminals and led to a congressional hearing. Overlooked by the Pulitzers, the series is still cited in briefings to rookie Headliner judges as an example of what kind of work the contest values.

2021: Judging for all categories is done remotely because of the Covid epidemic. … Special categories are created for pandemic coverage in different media. In print, The Washington Postwins for a deep dive on how the contagion exacerbated mental health issues. … Following the death of Phoenix Arizona Republic photographer Nick Oza, a Headliners photo judge since 2015, the best-of-show photography award is named in his memory.

2024: Digital entries expand to 18 categories with the addition of “Best Community/Local Website” award. … Headliners celebrates its 90th anniversary.

Lindberg baby kidnapping

Richard Hauptmann on trial for the Lindberg baby kidnapping. Harvey Duell of the New York Daily News would win one of the first Headliner awards for his coverage.

Cuban boy being seized

AP photographer Alan Diaz camped out for weeks to be in position to take this dramatic shot of a young Cuban boy being seized by an immigration agent in Miami.

Rukmimi Callimachi

Associated Press reporter Rukmimi Callimachi who unearthed executed civilians in the Mali desert.