By Jeff Keeling
Johnson City News & Neighbor has won seven top awards, including four first-place honors, in national newspaper annual competition. The newspaper competed against 1,480 entries from across America and Canada. Managing Editor Scott Robertson again took top national honors for best original writing, editorial, becoming the first back-to-back winner of the contest’s only named prize, the Joseph A. Sklenar Editorial Award.
The paper also won first-place in best original writing, news, for a story on the local VA hospital’s response to the Department of Veterans Affairs crisis over patient wait times. NN placed first for an advertisement for Life Care Center of Gray created by Graphics Director Judd Shaw, and won the category for best website (first place). Other awards came in best original writing, editorial (second place) and best original writing, personal column (second and third place).
Robertson won the Sklenar award for his May 10 editorial, “In praise of the Washington County election commission.” The Sklenar award, named for the late publisher of an Audobon, Iowa paper, “recognizes a publisher or writer who exhibits courage and concern for community issues through editorials that take a stand on issue in keeping with the courage and frankness of Mr. Sklenar.”
The results were announced Sept. 20 during a joint annual meeting that includes the Independent Free Papers of America, Southeastern Advertising Publishers Association and the host organization, Community Papers of Florida. The meeting was held in Orlando.
The showing – for content published between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014 – marked the second straight year News & Neighbor has collected the greatest number of awards in the contest (this year two other papers also won seven awards). Advertising categories were judged by professional graphic artists from Kaslo, British Columbia. Editorial and news categories were adjudicated by a panel of professional journalists from Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia.
News and Neighbor was the only paper to take first place awards in editorial writing, news coverage, advertising, and website. 12 total first through third-place awards in four original writing categories, the News & Neighbor five. No other paper won more than one.
“The repeat performance in editorial writing, top spot in news reporting and top website honors all stem from a concerted effort to provide more relevant news and editorial coverage while maintaining News & Neighbor’s role as a community newspaper,” Publisher Bill Derby said. “Scott Robertson’s second-in-a row editorial award is significant when you consider the number of entries across America and Canada. Jeff Keeling’s top news story about the VA proves the caliber of our talented journalists. Our graphic department’s top design award and first place web design recognizes the talents of Judd Shaw. Jeff Derby, associate publisher, and I were thrilled to accept the awards.”
The effort Derby referred to began in earnest with Derby Publications’ 2012 purchase of the Business Journal of the Tri-Cities TN/VA, which brought well-respected, long-time area journalist and Journal Editor Robertson on board. Peer acknowledgment of the results was quick to come. The paper collected seven awards in the 2013 contest, more than any other publication, with four going to Robertson.
Last November, Derby Publications hired veteran area journalist Jeff Keeling as associate editor of both News & Neighbor and the Business Journal. spring saw a redesign of the paper’s website, which has allowed both publications deliver numerous important, breaking stories to the community before any other media outlets despite the paper being a weekly publication and the magazine a monthly.
Keeling won first place this year in the news category for his VA story, which provided significantly more facts and context regarding a variety of wait time metrics than did other local media reports. He also took second place in the editorial category for a Feb. 1 editorial: “Read my lips: Maybe, new taxes,” and third in personal column for “The cold, hard truth: Pipe-thawing becoming far too routine.”
In addition to the Sklenar award, Robertson won second place in personal column for “Midlife crisis roadtrip checked off bucket list.”
Derby said the decision to give Robertson and Keeling much of the day-to-day oversight of News & Neighbor’s editorial content was aimed at filling a void in the community. Awards are a happy side benefit, Derby said, but local readers are meant to be the main beneficiaries as the paper mixes its traditional positive community features with fair, thoughtful and tasteful news and editorial coverage.
The publisher added, “People are looking for news stories that exhibit professionalism and a concern for the community, and that can ask hard questions and report difficult issues without resorting to a ‘Gotcha Approach.’”
Such was the case for both prize-winning editorial columns. Robertson’s Sklenar winner pointed out that how one handles mistakes is as important as how one handles successes, and praised the Washington County Election Commission’s response to an election-night error that incorrectly identified the winner (and loser) of a county commission seat. Keeling’s piece explained Johnson City’s revenue situation and some of its needs, and its tax rate relative to neighboring cities. It put the impact on homeowners of a 16-cent property tax increase in understandable terms, and called for a peaceable, fact-based discussion about whether or not to raise taxes.
“There’s so much happening in Johnson City and Washington County that bears comment in editorial space,” Robertson said. “That’s why the editorials in News & Neighbor win awards. We have such an interesting community about which to write. If you write an editorial about remembering to change the batteries in your smoke detector or some such thing in this town, you’re just not trying.
“I’m old enough to remember when the term ‘community newspaper’ was a pejorative to describe a small, country paper that didn’t practice ‘real’ journalism,” Robertson said. “Today, however, the pendulum has swung entirely the opposite direction. Today it is the independent community newspapers that are still covering their local communities without resorting to filling pages with wire copy, out-of-market editorials, and tabloid material.
“It’s an honor to work for a paper that still prides itself of generating light instead of heat, of serving our community, and of practicing professional journalism, as reflected by these awards,” Robertson said. “Johnson City deserves a newspaper on par with the best in the nation. We will continue to work to be the newspaper Johnson City deserves.”