Young journalist finds passion in critiques, human connections

Kristin Butler developed her passion late. The 22-year-old from Cary always thought she would make her mark in biomedical research. But at Duke University, a bet with a friend led her to the campus paper and a position as a columnist.

Butler is happy she lost that bet. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists, meeting here on Friday, named her first-place winner of its Education Foundation Scholarship. Butler receives $1,000 and a trip to the conference.

When the group spends time visiting rebuilding efforts in the city – nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina – and meeting with residents leading the way, Butler will be reminded of why she loves journalism, even as others caution her to have a solid Plan B ready.

“It's the human connection,” the recent Duke graduate says.

That was true of her work as a scientist. At an all-girls' science and math high school in Cleveland, Butler worked on research at Case Western Reserve University that would develop micro-sensors to measure glucose and insulin. It was hoped the study would lead to advances for treating diabetes and reducing the disease's side effects.

After one semester in the engineering school at Duke, Butler said she didn't feel fulfilled. She took a writing class and excelled – surprising for someone who never liked English.

“I used to complain about the Chronicle all the time,'' Butler said, referring to the school's independent daily newspaper. A friend said she had to go two weeks without saying a word about the paper or volunteer to work there.

“I lost the bet on the second day.”

In an opinion writing class, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist William Raspberry sent her off with this advice: “Just do it.”

Butler's columns in the Chronicle have featured “blistering critiques,” she says of both Duke and Durham officials.

One of her award-winning entries, from March 2007, criticizing the higher costs of medical care for the uninsured at the Duke University Health System, won the Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism.

That award, which recognizes the best published article by a Duke undergraduate, is sponsored by the Sanford Institute's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.

Butler says any criticism is “out of love” for the university. “I want it to be better.”

Butler also has explored the sometimes contentious relationship between the university and Durham. The self-described “working-class girl from Youngstown, Ohio,” says the stereotype of privileged, rich college student doesn't exactly fit.

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Ellen Goodman – a speaker and Lifetime Achievement Award winner at this year's conference – called Butler's work “a good combination of reporting and opinion with a tough look at her own administration.”

Syndicated columnist Suzette Martinez Standring, a preliminary judge, said Butler's “voice and point of view is one to be reckoned with.”

Butler, who is planning to attend law school on scholarship at Ohio State in the fall, is spending her summer working at the (Raleigh) News & Observer.

Three weeks in, she watched colleagues affected by layoffs and buyouts.

Her first story reported on a food bank that sent children home with backpacks of food and told readers how they could help.

“I'm finding day-by-day that this is the only thing I want to do.”

“It doesn't seem like work to me.”