I may have been in the middle of feeling sorry for myself when former CN&R staff writer Ashiah Scharaga called to tell me the California News Publishers Association had revealed the results of its annual contest, the California Journalism Awards. The announcement came weeks early—a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the industry group’s awards ceremony in Long Beach in May.
I literally ran to my computer. These days, I take in good news like a thirsty horse after a hard ride. Though nobody was watching, I’m sure it wasn’t a pretty sight. I hadn’t had a good shower for a day and a half and my quarantine attire consists mainly of yoga pants and sweatshirts.
The contest is the only one the CN&R regularly enters. If we had unlimited funds, we’d enter more, including national contests. Each year, we come up with a sort of wish list of what we’d like to submit. Inevitably, we have to cull the entries to match our pocketbook.
Despite doing so, the CN&R took home nine awards, including three for first place. Among those top honors is the coveted Public Service award—defined as “a project that performs a public service through compelling coverage of a vital community issue or event.” Our entry was Meredith J. Cooper’s excellent series of reports, including two cover stories, on the Camp Fire-related contamination in the Ridge’s water conveyance systems.
The work is among the most important published by this newspaper during my 13 years in its employ. Cooper’s intrepid reporting shed light on a public health threat when nobody else was doing so—revelations gained through public records requests and many hours of research and reporting—underscoring the scope and complexity of the problem that government agencies otherwise would have swept aside. The package was rounded out by several editorials written by yours truly holding those agencies to account for their missteps. A judge commented on the package thusly: “Impressive effort here—constant, dogged attention on an important public health issue that might otherwise be easy for the community to ignore given all the other recent developments in that area.”
Another first place was in the category of Coverage of Business News. Our submission was for a series of stories on how the local business community had come together in the wake of the mega blaze. Among those: How Meriam Park’s developer and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. had established an RV park for displaced employees; Collision Pros helped employees of its destroyed Paradise location with immediate needs and gave them jobs at the Chico location; and Ray Morgan raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for its affected personnel.
Our final first-place award was in the category of Arts & Entertainment Coverage. Submitted were two consecutive issues’ worth of the CN&R’s regular A&E coverage—from Music and Scene features to Reel World and Chow. Of course, it included our extensive calendar of events—curated by two former calendar editors, Nate Daly and Neesa Sonoquie—and Arts Editor Jason Cassidy’s beloved Arts DEVO column.
• Second place for Special Section—our Camp Fire anniversary issue, featuring numerous pieces including Andre Byik and Scharaga’s excellent story about the Magalia Community Church’s ongoing relief efforts for those still struggling.
• Third place for Coverage of Local Government—Chico’s response to post-Camp Fire population surge, including Contributing Editor Evan Tuchinsky’s reporting on schools.
• Third place for Agricultural Reporting—Scharaga’s great series chronicling the harm to farms and the environment after the Camp Fire destroyed the upper portion of the Miocene Canal.
• Fourth place for Front Page Layout & Design—Art Director Tina Flynn’s handiwork.
• Fifth place for General Excellence—a staff effort based on two February 2019 issues in their entirety.
• Fifth place for In-Depth Reporting—Cooper’s water contamination series.
It was a bittersweet moment learning about the awards. Our tiny staff of five full-timers and one part-timer competes against the largest weekly papers in the state. I wish I could’ve congratulated everyone in person, but the quarantine put a stop to that.
Of course, it also led to the entire paper’s staff being laid off and a suspension of print publication. If you’re reading this, you know that a skeleton crew from the editorial department is keeping the CN&R’s pulse from fading. Cassidy, Cooper and I are volunteers in this effort, while others are paid contributors. We’re able to do this because readers have sent in donations that have allowed us to set up and modify a new website, pay for its associated fees, and hire trusted writers to take on assignments, many of them related to the pandemic.
We’re all exceedingly grateful for the donations—sustaining our efforts and lifting our spirits. I also very much appreciate the many kind emails that have arrived in my inbox over the past three weeks—some of them bringing me to tears. A few have come from our journalism compatriots over at the Chico Enterprise-Record, who have written numerous pieces on our closure and were nice enough to mention our new site.
The CN&R is but one local business affected by COVID-19, but we’ve been an important voice for so many other businesses and people over the past 43 years. And we hope to be again—in full form—when this public health crisis passes. Until then, godspeed—we’ll be here doing what we can.