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Colorado Sun takes home seven first-place awards in four-state Top of the Rockies competition

The Society of Professional Journalists recognized The Sun with 21 awards overall for its coverage of the pandemic, politics and other important news stories

From politics to priests to pandemic nursing home deaths to business coverage of evictions and investments, The Colorado Sun’s small group of journalists delivered outsized impact in the 2021 Top of the Rockies regional contest covering outlets in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah.

The Sun, which entered the “extra-large newsroom” division despite its lean size, took seven first-place awards along with six seconds and eight third-place honors in the 2021 competition. With recent additions, The Sun now has 15 full-time journalists on its staff.

“We don’t do this important work for awards — we do it for our readers. But we’re thrilled by the recognition from our industry colleagues,” Sun editor Larry Ryckman said.

The Sun’s seven first-place awards put it in a tie with Colorado Public Radio among the state’s news organizations in the contest. CPR also won three additional first-place awards for photography and podcast. The Colorado Springs Gazette won two first-place awards. The contest is sponsored by the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Neil Elms with his wife, Katharyn Phillips, beside him reacts as he tells of the abuse he suffered as a child by a priest, a close family friend, while in Catholic school at their home on Jan. 25, 2020, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (Joe Amon, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jesse Paul’s compelling account of a man’s childhood rape by a Catholic priest who also happened to be his father’s best friend took top honors for long-form feature writing. The judges lauded Paul’s story as “impactful reporting, important and moving.”

Jennifer Brown’s tale of how grassroots politics during the 2020 election played out on a single suburban street corner took first place for politics features, while judges gave top honors to Brown, Paul and colleague John Ingold for their six-part series on how the coronavirus devastated Colorado nursing homes.

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Sun writer Tamara Chuang won first-place recognition for business as well as science and technology writing.

Her detailed and nuanced account of how both renters and landlords struggled to survive during the pandemic took first in the business reporting category, and drew raves from the judges that reflected Chuang’s ongoing economic coverage during the pandemic that zeroed in on individuals’ struggles while also offering help. 

“This article was thorough and well-sourced, without feeling overloaded with numbers or too long,” the judges said. “It tackled an important, timely issue through a lens of personalized local stories placed in context with state programs and national trends. The sidebar of resources for tenants and landlords enhances the reporting.”

Chuang also took first for her business feature that explored how “impact investors” have sought to influence environmental issues, social justice and economic equity, and scored both first and second place for her science and technology writing with pieces on how Colorado shaped NASA’s first mission to collect asteroid dirt and how an Estes Park broadband project moved quickly amid raging wildfires.

Sun outdoors writer Jason Blevins also took first place for his touching and finely detailed obituary for Colorado’s “preeminent ski bum.”

Student activists Melissa Boateng, 17, and Shania Brace, 17, lead protesters onto Peña Boulevard, stopping traffic and forcing cars to turn around in Denver, on June 6, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Education writer Erica Breunlin took second place in education features for her story about how Colorado students’ childhoods facing the tragedy of repeated school shootings and economic recession prepared them to take on racism and police brutality in last summer’s social upheaval. 

The team of Paul, Ingold, Brown, John Frank and Jessica Gibbs, of Colorado Community Media, combined to win second-place honors for pandemic reporting for six pieces that explored intensely personal stories of the coronavirus.

Those stories ranged from Paul’s account of a very early case of COVID-19 to Brown’s wrenching tale of how hospital restrictions kept people from comforting dying relatives to the frightening public backlash to safety measures felt by health officials.

Kevin Simpson and Lucy Haggard teamed up for a second-place win in the environmental category that offered a detailed look at how state wildlife officials engineered a disturbing, massive fish kill in their effort to revive the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

The Sun’s second-place winners went beyond straight news reporting. A selection of pieces by columnist Theo Wilson as well as the cartooning duo of R. Alan Brooks and Cori Redford, who produce the strip “What’d I Miss?” also won runner-up recognition.

Third-place finishers encompassed a variety of topics. 

Chuang won for her coverage of the federal paycheck protection program triggered by the pandemic. Brown’s intense look at teen suicides in northwest Colorado and the Eastern Plains was recognized in the general reporting package category, while Brown and Paul won third for enterprise reporting with their coverage of the Catholic priest scandal. Ingold took third in single-subject news reporting for his story on how Colorado police have used a federal program to stockpile military equipment.

Mark Jaffe’s portrait of a ballerina confronting the end of her career during the pandemic took third in arts and entertainment coverage.

Columnist Diane Carman scored a third place for her collection of columns, while cartoonist Jim Morrissey also won third for a selection of his work while The Sun’s political poll tracker, which tracked the presidential race as well as a hotly contested Colorado U.S. Senate race, won third place for informational graphic.


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