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Buffalo News writers won three first-place awards in the New York State Associated Press Association's 2000-2001 writing contest, including taking top honors for spot news reporting for the paper's coverage of November's landmark snowstorm.

Other winners -- in the circulation category The News shares with the New York Times, Long Island's Newsday, the New York Post and the New York Daily News -- were for editorial writing and depth coverage.

Only Newsday had more first-place awards, four, in the 10 writing categories.

The News' Kevin Walter won in the editorial writing category for over-125,000-circulation papers for his series on medical care.

Among the conclusions of "Quality Care Fading Away" was that the region is overstocked not just with hospital beds, but with buildings, a situation that encourages unnecessary admissions and surgeries.

Reporters Susan Schulman and Niki Cervantes won the depth reporting category for over-125,000-circulation papers for their exhaustive, yearlong study of the region's schools, called "Halls of Injustice."

Their series found that the quality of education in the Buffalo Niagara region was extremely uneven, with wealthier districts offering high-quality programs and poorer districts offering considerably less, while taxing at a much higher rate. Also, because of flaws in the state's school aid formula, rich districts received more than their share of money from Albany, while poorer districts got less than they qualified for.

Coverage of the Nov. 20 storm, which dropped 24.9 inches of lake-effect snow onto a Monday afternoon rush hour, was a staff effort. Editors from various departments filled in for stranded writers and editors, staff slept in the newsroom overnight and went back out the next day, executives pitched in and served breakfast, and photographers grappled with gridlock and other wild conditions to show the storm's fury.

Named for writing the lead stories were reporters Charity Vogel, John F. Bonfatti, Mike Vogel, Phil Fairbanks and Michael Beebe.

The News also won three second-place awards, also announced Wednesday.

Features writer Lauri Githens received a second-place award for a collection of her Sunday columns that included topics such as the "V-word," urging teenagers to watch real-world emergency rooms on cable television, and Vietnam veterans. First and third places in the category went to the New York Times.

In the sports reporting category, writers Allen Wilson, James Heaney and Amy Moritz received a second for their series "No Sporting Chance." The series, which has led to reform efforts in the Buffalo schools, showed how scholastic athletics have long been neglected in the city.

Illustrator Dan Zakroczemski won a second place for his drawing called "Mental Winterizing." The piece, in First Sunday magazine in November, accompanied an "Ask First Sunday" column about how to prepare for the winter.

In feature photography, Sharon Cantillon received a third-place award for a photo of a migrant worker unloading crates of peppers; and Derek Gee received an honorable mention for "Over Under" -- a photo of two boys playing, one below water, one above.

Honorable mentions also went to the News staff in the continuing-coverage category for the James Kopp arrest in the slaying case of Dr. Barnett Slepian and to sportswriter Jerry Sullivan for sports columns.

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