SPJ Top of Rockies 2020 Winners Are Announced

By SPJ Colorado Pro

April 17, 2020

Those awards, and dozens more in numerous categories, were announced Friday [April 17, 2020] by the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. SPJ Colorado Pro, which conducts the annual contest, had planned to grant the awards Friday night at the Denver Press Club – but that gathering was canceled because of the coronavirus.

“This is an especially difficult time for everyone, including journalists,” said Tony Flesor, president of SPJ Colorado Pro. “Thank you to everyone who participated in the contest – and special thanks to all the working journalists who continue to bring essential information to people who need it.”

The contest drew a record number of entries from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. The Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ and the Chicago Headliners Club judged all categories, except the four individual honors. They were judged by the SPJ Colorado Board.

“The judges were impressed with the quality of the work,” said Deb Hurley Brobst, a board member for SPJ Colorado Pro who coordinates the contest. “Thanks to everyone who entered and to the judges, who managed to get judging done as the COVID-19 crisis was ramping up.” The contest covered material published or presented in 2019, before the coronavirus story exploded on the scene.

The four individual honors went to:

Journalist(s) of the Year: A team from Colorado Public Radio for their productions on teen stress, and the terrible toll it takes on young people, their families and their friends. Confronting the very sobering question “Why are young people killing themselves,” these reporters, and some of their colleagues, asked experts and teens themselves for answers. Named in the award: Kevin J. Beaty, Jenny Brundin, John Daley, Ashley Dean, Hart Van Denburg, Avery Lill and Kate Schimel. Their reports were informative – and chilling.
Freedom of Information: An extraordinary two-person cooperative effort to get information that officials wanted to keep secret about a police-involved civilian death in Rangely, Colo. Niki Turner, editor of the Rio Blanco Herald Times of Rangely and Susan Greene, editor of the Colorado Independent (Denver), teamed up to make public information – well – public.
Keeper of the Flame (for a lifelong body of work): Merle Baranczyk, owner of the Arkansas Valley Publishing Co. in Salida, Colo. He has owned and published The Mountain Mail, a five-day daily since 1978, and he started working there in 1974. He was president of the National Newspaper Association, Colorado Press Association and is in the CPA Hall of Fame. Baranczyk, 73, is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin.
Educator of the Year: Rob Reuteman is retiring after serving as an adjunct professor at Colorado State University – Fort Collins. Earlier he was the longtime business editor of the Rocky Mountain News, as well as national president of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He holds a bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s from the University of Colorado – Boulder.

Listings of winners in categories of individual stories, photos, design, radio, TV online and other entries are on this site, below. Note: Entrants may stay in their own size class, or move up, but they may not move down.

Print (includes online), circulation more than 75,000; Radio, large market commercial stations; and TV, large market commercial stations. Among leaders (total awards): Deseret News (Salt Lake City), 47; Salt Lake Tribune, 36; Colorado Sun (Denver), 28; Albuquerque Journal, 21.  
Print (includes online), circulation 30,000-75,000; Radio, small market (includes non-commercial); and TV, small market. Among leaders (total awards): Colorado Public Radio, 25 (includes Radio General Broadcast Excellence from fifth link, below); Boulder Weekly, 24; Colorado Springs Independent, 16. 
Print (includes online), circulation 10,000-29,999. Among leaders: Colorado Independent, 18; Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne), 13; Daily Herald (Provo, Utah), 12; Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.), 11. 
Print, circulation less than 10, 000. Among leaders (total awards): Durango Herald (Colorado), 24; Jackson Hole News & Guide (Wyoming), 19; WyoFile (Lander, Wyo.), 19; Colorado Politics (Denver), 9; St. George News (Utah), 9. 

Radio, TV General Excellence. First listing is for commercial radio; second is for non-commercial radio and third is for TV.

Brobst, the contest coordinator, said the 2020 Top of the Rockies contest received 1,328 entries, a 6 percent increase over the previous year. Certificates for winners will be printed and mailed, a process expected to take several weeks.

The Journalist(s) of the Year Award, won by CPR, was for a continuing project reporting that mental health and substance abuse issues among teens are soaring – and that suicide is the leading cause of death among Colorado’s young people. The state’s suicide rate has soared by 58 percent in three years and has been nearly double the national rate. In this extraordinary project, CPR reporters supplied tape recorders to willing teens, and asked them to speak their minds about topics such as hopelessness, stress, despair and sadness. The teens disclosed a lot, and CPR shared much of it.

The project included online text, as well as broadcast elements. This was the third consecutive year that journalists who now work for CPR won this award. Last year, it was Donna Bryson, a reporter for Denverite, which subsequently was acquired by CPR. The year before, it was Bente Birkeland, who then worked for KUNC in Greeley, and later went to work for CPR. 

Niki Turner
Susan Greene

Freedom of Information Award winners often are authors of FOI demands, official denials, even lawsuits. But the 2020 winners earned their freedom of information through shoe-leather reporting. When officials said no to making public information available to all, Turner and Greene refused to take that for an answer.

Turner was suspicious of her small town’s police shooting of a mentally ill civilian. She asked questions but got few answers. Then, in brief, she turned to veteran reporter and editor Greene for advice. Greene’s Independent and Turner’s Herald Times joined in a Pro-Publica-style partnership, asked a lot more questions – and got some answers. In the end, the readers of the Herald Times learned some news about their town that they had a right to know, and the Herald Times gained a lot of thanks and a half-dozen new subscribers – nothing to be disregarded for the struggling tiny weekly.

Merle Baranczyk

The Keeper of the Flame Award is but the latest honor for Baranczyk, owner and publisher of The Mountain Mail (circulation 3,162) in Salida, as well as three other Colorado newspapers: the Chaffee County Times (Buena Vista), the Leadville Herald Democrat and The Flume (Fairplay).

In accepting one of his earlier state honors, Baranczyk said: “We (small newspapers) are the heart of the community. We are there to serve our community and our readers.” He said that the duty of journalists is to write stories that are fair, accurate, objective, timely and complete. He has been a strong supporter of Sunshine Week, an effort to focus attention on the importance of freedom of the press, and he won a lengthy and expensive libel suit filed against him by a public official who had been subject to recall.

Rob Reuteman

Educator of the Year Reuteman came late to that chapter in his career. He was selected a Donald J. Reynolds Visiting Professor to CSU-Fort Collins in 2012, and later served as an adjunct professor of journalism at CSU, where he has taught economic reporting, data journalism and newswriting. He brought numerous professionals to campus for panels, and to help students with their resumes and job-interview skills.

Earlier, he was business editor and a weekly columnist at the Rocky Mountain News, where he also served as news editor and city editor over a 26-year career at the newspaper. His Rocky business section won overall excellence among the largest papers in a national competition, and the sections and writers won several other Best of Business awards. He also served on several Colorado Press Association committees, and he headed the host committee for an Associated Press NewsTrain nationwide seminar in Denver.

Dates, categories and other details for the 2021 Top of the Rockies contest will be announced late in 2020. Flesor, the SPJ Colorado Pro chapter president, added: “We look forward to getting back to our regular format for the 2021 Top of the Rockies Award ceremony.”