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John S. Knight Gold Medal
Hannah Allam
Cairo Bureau Chief
Knight Ridder

Last year, Hannah Allam won the Journalism Excellence Award for her hard-hitting stories that captured the actions and nuances of developments in Iraq, and for features that showed the effect on the lives of the people who live there. This year, she was honored for her extraordinary effectiveness as a leader.

At 28, Allam, until recently Knight Ridder’s Baghdad bureau chief, is the youngest recipient of the John S. Knight Gold Medal. She spent two years in Iraq, where she supervised and inspired a staff that consistently beat the competition. (Her deputy in Baghdad, Tom Lasseter, won this year’s journalism award.)

Allam mastered challenges that few will ever face. She has run down a street with bullets pinging off the pavement to cover the siege of a mosque. She has felt the concussion from a roadside bomb. She saved a colleague from assassins. She comforted sobbing employees grieving the loss of a staffer who drove into an intersection where a military operation was under way and was killed by an American bullet.

“She has squeezed into two years what many others don’t experience in a lifetime,” said Knight Ridder Chairman and CEO Tony Ridder. “John S. Knight would be very proud.”

Allam now heads Knight Ridder’s new bureau in Cairo. Her father, of Sudanese-Egyptian heritage, also lives in the city and is helping to establish the bureau. “He’s my negotiator – he knows those haggling Egyptian ways,” she said with a laugh.

Setting up a new bureau doesn’t end with finding a good spot for an office or apartment, she says. “Unlike Iraq, where you walk out and the news almost literally hits you in the face, Cairo is much more challenging for a reporter because it’s a regional beat,” she explained. “I’m looking at the tentative reforms in the area, how the war in Iraq has affected those reforms and how the whole region is involved in the war on terror.”

In Baghdad, Allam left behind a staff that was like family and is in every memory she holds of Iraq. “With all the close calls, the exciting scoops, the heartbreaking stories – we ran the gamut of emotional highs and lows,” she said. “Our Iraqi staff is such a fabulous group of reporters, I’d hate to come up against any of them. They have such pride, ethics and independence.”

If Iraq has a future as a peaceful country, it may look a lot like Knight Ridder’s bureau, where the staff includes Americans, Europeans and both Shiite and Sunni Iraqis. Allam’s first concern as bureau chief was for their emotional and physical well-being.

“When everyone was really stressed out, I’d go to the Babylon Hotel and hire a masseuse and give everyone 20-minute massages,” Allam said. “Or we’d go out in the sunshine, put picnic tables together and eat outside as a staff. I also left my door open so people could come in and talk, and they did.”

A striking aspect was the presence of female Iraqis. “I’ve hired a lot of Iraqi women of all ages,” Allam said. “These women are tough, hard as nails. They’ve lived through sanctions, two wars, a lack of electricity and basic services. It got to the point where my driver said, ‘Thank goodness women don’t drive over here, or Hannah would be recruiting them for that, too, and we’d all be out of our jobs.’ ”

(With Nancy Youssef’s succession to the position of Baghdad bureau chief, frustrated American competitors agreed with Allam’s driver. “Somebody asked me if Knight Ridder has a laboratory somewhere where they grow young Egyptian-American women reporters,” Allam recounted.)

Being a young woman in the Middle East has never been a hindrance to Allam. “It actually helped me immensely,” she said. “I’ve come to enjoy when people underestimate me. They’re candid, chatty and genuinely surprised when their quotes are on the front page of major American newspapers the next day.”

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