The staff of the Sun Journal accepted three major awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association Thursday at the New England Newspaper Conference.

Sun Journal Staff Writer Emily Bader was named the 2021 Bob Drake Young Writer Award winner by the Maine Press Association.

Staff writer Emily Bader and staff photographer Andree Kehn were honored with a Publick Occurrences award for their project, “Legacy of Pain.”

The Publick Occurrences award, which recognizes the very best work that New England newspapers produce each year, was established in 1990 to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of Publick Occurrences, the first newspaper published in America. Four days after it appeared in Boston in 1690, Publick Occurrences was suppressed by the royal governor.

The three-part “Legacy of Pain” project, published in partnership with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, was an exhaustive analysis coupled with on-the-ground reporting with data that looked at how prescription opioids streamed into the state over the past 15 years. The report examined the rising death toll from opioids as changes to the law and a booming drug trade shifted the crisis away from pharmaceuticals to illicit and increasingly lethal drugs, and the growing pressure on schools and the child welfare system as the state grapples with how to handle this multi-generational crisis.

Bader’s analysis was beautifully complemented by Kehn’s portraits of people in recovery and the people who support that recovery.

According to NENPA judges, the project “was superbly written and edited and has many, many voices. A multi-sourced project with real impact.”


Judy Meyer. Submitted photo

Sun Journal staff writer Christopher Williams and Judith Meyer, the newspaper’s executive editor, were awarded the New England First Amendment Award for their work to force the Alaska court to open the Steven Downs murder and rape trial proceedings to the public and the press.

The award is presented to a New England newspaper that shows leadership on First Amendment issues, either by the exceptional quality of its reporting, editorials, commentary or legal challenges that illuminate or uphold the First Amendment or educate the public about it.

When the Downs trial started in Alaska last January, as a virtual proceeding, the Alaska court selected the jury behind closed doors, which Williams immediately recognized as a violation of the public’s right to witness all steps of court proceedings. He raised an alarm with Meyer about that, and about a clerk’s message noting that audio and video of the proceedings would be shut down without public notice to block images or testimony that may invade the privacy or harm the dignity of the victim in this case.

Court proceedings, regardless of the delicacy of evidence presented to the jury, are public proceedings and Williams and Meyer worked with a coalition of journalists in Maine and Alaska, along with Alaska attorney John McKay, to draft a letter to the presiding judge expressing the coalition’s objections to blocking the public from any portion of the trial. Each of the coalition’s requests were eventually granted, with the court granting full access to the trial.

NENPA judges praised the work as a “relentless and lengthy pursuit of public information and public access to a criminal trial … demonstrating a strong commitment to providing necessary information to readers on a matter of public interest.”

And, they noted, “as news organizations nationwide seek to rebuild public trust and confidence in good journalism, there is no better approach to that effort than doing the work well in a manner that both informs the audience and educates it in the value to them of an independent and free press.”


In her nomination letter to NENPA, Meyer wrote: “I am convinced, beyond doubt, that had the Sun Journal not organized this mighty little band of interested media and pushed as we did for access, that this trial would have been held in the dark, beyond the public’s reach and well outside the mandate of the First Amendment.”

Sun Journal staff writer Steve Collins was awarded the Bob Wallack Community Journalism Award, an award recognizing an individual who has an exceptional record of commitment to community journalism.

Collins, who was named the Maine Press Association’s Journalist of the Year in October, was hired in 2016 to cover politics for the Sun Journal, but very quickly took on every topic imaginable and brought his love of history’s stories to the pages of the newspaper.

Steve Collins

Steve Collins

The Sun Journal is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year and, on May 15, published a special edition for the anniversary, most of which Collins wrote.

The special section featured a thorough history of the newspaper’s business history and its journalism from 1847 to present, a story about the first owners and why they wanted to start a newspaper in Lewiston, a portrait of Frank Dingley, who was Lewiston’s longest-serving and most influential editor, and a number of other things Collins found in the newspaper’s archives, including exclusive coverage of the sinking of the Titanic.

Also, over the past year, Collins has kept careful focus on Affordable Cremation Solutions in Lewiston, and on the pain the owner caused the families of the dead, and reported as each of the families filed suit against the man. He broke surprising details about the secret life of former rapper Alpo Martinez, who was believed to have killed 14 people during his drug kingpin days, while Martinez was living under witness protection in downtown Lewiston. And, Collins maintained his regular beat covering politics, including Maine’s 2nd congressional district.


He also authored a 29-chapter historical series, published on Sundays from May through December, titled “The Mystery of the Headless Skeleton: The Story of Maine’s most spectacular murder case.”

NENPA judges praised Collins’ remarkable breadth and the scope of his work, which spans more than three decades. According to the judges, who compared Collins’ talent, energy and dedication to journalism to those of Dingley, said “it would be hard to find a journalist more valuable to a newspaper franchise or more impactful to Sun Journal readers throughout Androscoggin County than Steve Collins.”

Judges also remarked on Collins’ “impassioned work with young journalists both at the Sun Journal and with Youth Journalism International,” a nonprofit he founded with his wife Jackie Majerus-Collins

In accepting the award, Collins said “journalism remains a worthy and necessary calling, more now than ever,” noting “we have a duty to promote swirling everchanging debate about the issues and forces that shape the places where we live and work. We write stories to expose problems, spotlight solutions, and provide the information people need to choose wisely and well. The only agenda we should push is a broad and nonpartisan one to improve the quality of life in the communities we cover.”

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