NORTHPORT — The Sun Journal daily and Sunday newspapers were named the best in the state at the Maine Press Association’s annual conference Saturday night.

The papers serving Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties took top honors for the second year in a row. The contest was judged by editors at New Jersey newspapers.

“I’m very proud of our staff and especially proud of Jim Costello Sr. being inducted into the journalism hall of fame,” Sun Journal Executive Editor Rex Rhoades said Saturday night.

“Our success in the newsroom is directly related to the dedication to community news of the Costello family,” Rhoades said.

The Sun Journal also won the Freedom of Information award It is the ninth consecutive year the Lewiston newspaper has been so honored, winning the prize this year for its work exposing the extensive use and misuse of e-mail communication by and among elected officials in Lewiston.

The four-part “e-mail trail,” published in June 2008, was an investigation of e-mails sent by and among city councilors, the mayor and others. The investigation showed that officials routinely spent hours building consensus by e-mail, well outside the public’s notice, and then convened council meetings in a pantomime of open government.

In reading through thousands of e-mails obtained under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, the Sun Journal also uncovered a lack of civility in the mail, a reflection of the tension between the mayor and the councilors rarely seen in council chambers.

While the Sun Journal routinely seeks access to public officials’ e-mail correspondence throughout its readership area, what made the Lewiston mail notable was that it revealed a purposeful practice to “hold discussions in private, polish points of view and present a unified front in council chambers,” said Judith Meyer, managing editor/days, shutting the public out of the process, in violation of the public’s right to know.

The principal writer for the e-mail project was staff writer Scott Taylor, with contributions by Regional Editor Scott Thistle, Meyer and Forecaster staff writer Randy Billings.

Winning the FOI award for nine years in a row “is a real tribute to (Managing Editor/Days) Judy Meyer, our expert on that,” Rhoades said. “It shows that our staff is very aggressive about protecting the public’s right to know. We take that very seriously.

The Sun Journal also accepted 10 photo awards for spot news, scenic, people and news photos, and swept the sports photo category. The newspaper staff accepted top design awards for specialty page, with an illustration on skateboarding, and for its May 18, 2008, front page design depicting a chain saw cutting down a tree to illustrate the Sun Journal’s analysis of divisive politics in Rumford.

In the writing awards category, veteran reporter Bonnie Washuk took home top honors for spot news for her coverage of a washout in Minot and Hebron last summer, when sudden heavy rainfall damaged portions of routes 124 and 119, including two bridges, causing detours along these roads for months. In covering that story, Washuk was forced to park her car far from the scene and hike about 3 miles along broken pavement to the washout site as dusk was closing in, to talk with on-scene public safety officials and witnesses to the devastation.

Staff writer Daniel Hartill won first place in the arts/lifestyle feature category for his writing about the Rev. Doug Taylor’s Jesus Party, a project that took months to report as Hartill and photographer Daryn Slover met up with Taylor multiple times to report on his mission work.

Christopher Williams, who covers the police and court beat for the newspaper, won first place for his report on the increasing number of foreclosure notices served on delinquent property owners. For that story, Williams walked door to door with an Androscoggin County deputy who was serving foreclosure notices, writing about the people directly affected by the foreclosure crisis — the ones who serve the papers and the ones being served — rather than focusing simply on the number of people losing their homes.

Editorial Page Editor Anthony Ronzio won first place in editorial writing for his criticism last March of Sen. John Nutting’s proposed bill to prohibit hospitals from using public money to fund advertising, which Nutting claimed they were doing. The hospitals denied the allegation. Nutting, Ronzio pointed out, uses public money to fund advertising for his election campaign and to deny that opportunity to another entity would be hypocritical. 

Regional Editor Scott Thistle earned first place in headline writing for “Feeding ME,” a look at the vast variety of foods grown in western Maine as consumers seek local, fresh food options.

The newspaper also took top honors for its Newspapers in Education promotion campaign titled “Transfer of Power.” In that campaign, the newspaper delivered 12,467 free papers — which included a four-page keepsake section — to schools on Jan. 20 and 21 so students could follow the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama. 

In total, the Sun Journal accepted 10 photo awards, seven design awards, 12 awards for writing and eight advertising awards.

First-place winners were: Daryn Slover, news photo; Jose Leiva, spot news photo; Pete Gorski, illustration; Russ Dillingham, feature photo; Dillingham, sports photo; Gorski and Christine Crockett, specialty page design; staff, front page design; staff, advertising layout; staff, best Newspapers in Education idea; Tony Ronzio and Cameron Churchill, editorial page; Bonnie Washuk, spot news story; Daniel Hartill, arts/lifestyle feature; Christopher Williams, feature story; Scott Thistle, news headline; staff, feature headline; and Ronzio, editorial.

Second-place winners were: Dillingham, spot news photo; Dillingham, scenic photo; Dillingham, picture story; Slover, sports photo; Lincoln Benedict and Crockett, specialty page design; Michelle Pushard, local ad black and white; Jesse Richter, local ad color; staff, in-paper circulation promo; staff, sports section weekend; Mark LaFlamme and Thistle, news story; Donna Perry and Mary Delamater, spot news story; Bag Lady and Shopping Siren, local column; Steve Sherlock, sports story.

Third-place winners were: Amber Waterman, people photo; Slover, sports photo; Pushard, local ad color; Leo Baillargeon, best supplement cover; staff, best Newspapers in Education idea; staff, Sports section daily; Lindsay Tice, investigative report; and Justin Pelletier, sports headline.

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