BAR HARBOR — The Sun Journal has won the Maine Press Association’s Freedom of Information Award, the 19th time in the past 23 years the Lewiston paper has received this honor.

The award — which recognizes a newspaper’s efforts to protect and preserve public access to records and meetings — was given for the newspaper’s work to gain access to the State of Alaska v Steven Downs trial in January, a First Amendment battle to be able to see and hear the testimony and evidence presented during the 15-day murder and rape trial.

Under COVID restrictions, the public and the press were barred from the courtroom; only the jury, defendants, attorneys and the judge were physically present. The trial started with “confidential” jury selection, which goes against the public’s First Amendment right to access trials from start to finish — including jury selection.

That, along with the inaudible livestream transmission and the court’s decision to stop broadcasting during sensitive testimony, and the judge’s ruling not to permit photographs of the trial, all pushed the Sun Journal to challenge the court’s position. Had the media been allowed in the courtroom, it would have been able to hear all testimony and take photos under Alaska law.

The Sun Journal organized a group of other Maine and Alaska media covering the trial and, following more than a week of pushback, the media was given enough access to adequately cover the trial and the public had enough access to see and hear testimony.

Downs was convicted on both charges after four days of jury deliberations, and the Sun Journal published a package of stories on Feb. 20 reporting Downs had filed for a new trial (which was ultimately denied), analyzing the anatomy of this cold case, and revealing for the first time the newspaper’s fight for public access in a package titled “Anatomy of a cold case,” by Staff Writer Christopher Williams and Executive Editor Judith Meyer.


The FOI award also recognized the Sun Journal’s successful challenge after being excluded from regular Maine CDC COVID briefings and its work raising an alarm when the CDC banned certain advocacy journalism entities from those briefings. The newspaper was also honored for its work with the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition to seek police disciplinary records through the Maine Freedom of Access Act, with Staff Writer Vanessa Paolella reporting those results. Staff Writer Donna Perry’s work to gain access to financial details of the Franklin County Commission’s settlement agreement with former county clerk Julie Magoon was also noted.

Perry, who covers the commission, had asked for the amount of the settlement commissioners had reached with Magoon and was told that was private information. Perry knows that most government financial expenditures are public information, and she pushed back.

At the time, she told commissioners, “County residents have a right to know why a settlement was needed and what the cost, if any, is to taxpayers. Even if insurance is used to pay, taxpayers pay for that insurance.”

Commissioners still refused to provide that information, so Perry filed a FOAA request for the settlement documents and all images of any checks that were paid to Magoon. The commissioners sent that FOAA to their attorney, who — within hours — provided the amount of money that was paid, but noted the the settlement was signed under a nondisclosure agreement and confidential, so the public will never know why the settlement was paid.

In addition to the FOI award, the Sun Journal staff received a number of awards for writing, design, photography and advertising, including:


Staff Writer Andrew Rice won two first-place awards, one for environmental writing and another for analysis.


The environmental piece, “Dawn of a new era,” examined a Lake Auburn study that raised the possibility of swimming and “low impact” development some day. Development around the Lake Auburn watershed is a contentious issue and Rice’s examination of the report, along with interviews of stakeholders, brought clarity to the issue.

The award for analysis was for Rice’s work “A neighborhood that people want to live in,” a look at how the multi-million-dollar Choice Neighborhood Initiative will transform Lewiston’s downtown housing market.

Designer Jason Rathbun won a first-place award for specialty page design, diagramming LifeFlight’s new $6.25 million “bigger, faster, smarter” helicopter.

Rathbun and freelance writer Karen Schneider won a first-place award in the graphics category for their two-page analysis of the weather in 2021, documenting every day, every storm, every change of degree, every high, every low, every bit of humidity and the chilliest of every chilly day. This work to track and record the daily weather for an entire year is a project the two have teamed up on for the past several years, and is a reader favorite.

And, Mark Mogensen, managing editor/days, won a first-place award in headline writing on a story about the fear of going to the dentist: Dentophobia? There’s relief. Here’s the drill.


Staff Photographer Russ Dillingham won two second-place awards in the news video and spot news categories, and Staff Photographer Daryn Slover won a second-place award in the news photo category.


Rathbun took second place in the illustration category, and Designer Joel Matuszczak won second place for his front-page design of the newspaper’s annual “Power of Faith” feature.

Assistant Sports Editor Wil Kramlich won a second-place writing award in the sports profile category, and Staff Writer Steve Collins won awards in the politics and food story categories.

Former Business Writer Kathryn Skelton won second place in the news headline category for “Hold the thongs! Look before giving,” on a story about the excessive amount of trash people drop in Goodwill bins.

Other second-place winners include Ernie Anderson, for editorial cartoons, Skelton for business writing, Mark LaFlamme for health reporting, Kramlich and Matuszczak for the sports headline on a story about the tennis singles state tournament, “Court adjourned,” and Vanessa Paolella for outdoors reporting on the “art” of getting lost in a corn maze.


Rathbun won third place in the illustration category for a Perspective cover about ghosts, Sports Writer Nathan Fournier won for his sports profile on Nordiques Coach Matt Pinchevsky, Sports Editor Lee Horton won for sports column writing, Rice won third place in news writing for his report “Teetering on the edge,” looking at the homeless population in Lewiston, Staff Writer Joaquin Contreras won in the courts reporting category for his feature on Brandon Brown’s journey from prison to redemption, Collins won in the politics and arts categories, Paolella won for education writing for her reporting on why bus drivers left the Auburn School District, the newspaper’s staff won for its “Power of Faith” features, and Meyer won for editorial writing.


Creative Services Designer Alicia Tuttle won third place for best circulation promotion of “The Buzz,” a regular feature on the Sun Journal’s Business page.

Staff writers at the Livermore Falls Advertiser and the Franklin Journal, which is part of Sun Media Group, also won a host of awards, including a first-place award for scenic photo for Pam Harnden at the LFA, two second-place writing awards in the business and environmental categories, and a third-place award for business writing.

Kay Neufeld won six first-place writing awards, including her investigation into why Walgreen’s was charging customers 15 cents for bottle deposits instead of the statutory 5-cent deposit. Within a week of that story’s publication, Walgreen’s rolled back the overcharges and started charging customers 5 cents per deposit.

Neufeld also won three second-place and four third-place writing awards.

The Press Herald took home the top prize of general excellence for its website and for advertising, and the Sunday Telegram was named the top Sunday paper in Maine. The Bangor Daily News was named the top daily newspaper in Maine. The Sun Journal placed third in general excellence for its Sunday newspaper and its website.

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