Aspen Journalism was honored recently with six awards in the Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies competition for work published in 2022. 

Aspen Journalism received three first-place awards, one second-place award and two third-place awards for work by AJ staff and freelance reporters covering environment, data and social justice.  

Top of the Rockies, a regional, multiplatform contest for reporters and news organizations in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, is sponsored and managed by the SPJ Colorado Pro chapter. An awards reception was held April 22 at the Denver Press Club.

Categories were open to news media outlets in all platforms, and entries were judged on overall excellence, service to the community, balance and contributions to the public’s understanding of issues and events. The work was judged by the members of SPJ professional chapters in Chicago and in Ohio.

Top of the Rockies honors are awarded across four divisions based on newsroom-staff size. Aspen Journalism was initially placed in the small-newsrooms division, as our 2022 editorial staffing capacity was roughly equivalent to three full-time employees (FTEs). However, we opted to move up a category and were judged as a medium newsroom, up against organizations with between five and nine FTE staff members. Each division had between 15 and 25 media outlets competing.

Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 with a mission to provide in-depth and investigative journalism for those with a stake in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley region, is supported by local, state and national donors and foundations. We are grateful for the support from our community and pleased to see the work we produce honored with these awards. Last year, Aspen Journalism received nine Top of the Rockies honors and six from the Colorado Press Association, which will be announcing award-winning stories from 2022 later this year.

Here are details about this year’s awards for Aspen Journalism:

First place, social justice reporting

Hector Salas, freelancing for our Social Justice Desk, reported on a “cluster” of Rifle-based freelance housekeepers who have built their livelihoods taking care of properties around Aspen and Snowmass. Salas, a Grand Junction-based journalist who contributes to both English and Spanish publications, conveyed how these workers enjoy flexibility in their schedules, dependable income and working with their peers, but lack benefits that others take for granted such as paid time off and health coverage. Citing the growth of the private-home-employment sector in Pitkin County, Salas took readers inside the world as these women experience it.

First place, information graphic

Aspen Journalism Data Editor Laurine Lassalle, who produces interactive data visualizations tailored to Aspen Journalism stories, recorded another hit with the infographics for her story about the fundraising profiles of the candidates in the race for the Western Slope’s 3rd Congressional District seat in Washington, D.C. Lassalle’s graphics show how much money each candidate had raised from each state, illustrating how out-of-state donations are central to fundraising success. SPJ judges deemed the entry “a fantastic representation of how a local race intersects with a national campaign” and “very illustrative.” The story that accompanied the infographics — “Out-of-district fundraising a key source for Boebert, as Frisch gains ground in third quarter” — won a third place award in the politics news category (see below).

First place, business news

Longtime Aspen journalist Andrew Travers, on a freelance assignment for our Social Justice Desk, profiled the work of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to scale up its housing production, breaking news about ambitions to develop a modular-home manufacturing facility in Rifle. Illustrated with photos by award-winning Carbondale photographer Daniel Bayer, this first-place reporting effort also explored outcomes from one of the chapter’s most recent projects, including the story of a family that credits the resident-built Basalt Vista project with keeping them in the community. 

Second place, agriculture or environment feature

Carbondale-based freelance journalist Sarah Tory’s story for our Connie Harvey Environment Desk explored the debate stirred by the notion of a project that would capture or otherwise address what is estimated to be vast quantities of methane gas escaping from shuttered coal mines in Coal Basin, near the Crystal River Valley hamlet of Redstone. Tory’s reporting helps unpack a central question: How can the global benefits of a project that would reduce heat-trapping emissions be reconciled with the impacts the project would inevitably have on the local environment? Local photographer Will Sardinsky contributed images gathered outside in Coal Basin and in Redstone on a crisp December afternoon. SPJ judges noted that this category was “packed with many worthy contenders.” This piece followed up on Tory’s 2021 report “In Coal Basin, a hidden source of climate pollution,” another award-winner in that year’s Top of the Rockies and CPA competitions. 

Third place, climate reporting

Written for our Connie Harvey Environment Desk, this piece by Amy Hadden Marsh is a must-read primer on the Uinta Basin Railway (UBR), its backers and the mounting obstacles that it confronts. Marsh, a freelance journalist and longtime resident of the Roaring Fork Valley, delved into the legal and environmental issues raised by the project that would create a significant new link in the global oil supply chain. Concern over the potential of between three and 10 new oil trains per day on the tracks passing through Glenwood Canyon on their way up the Colorado River’s headwaters as a result of the $1.5 billion rail line across the Tavaputs Plateau has brought together local governments, federal elected officials and national environmental watchdogs, squaring off against state and oil industry officials in Utah. Featuring aerial photos by Aspen-based educational nonprofit Ecoflight, the story is the first of three that Marsh has written about the UBR for Aspen Journalism. 

Third place, politics news

Data Desk Editor Laurine Lassalle wrote one of the most-detailed campaign finance stories covering the race for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, between incumbent U.S. Rep. Lauren Boerbert, a Silt Republican, and her Democratic challenger, Adam Frisch, a former member of Aspen City Council. Lassalle’s reporting and data analysis showed how each candidate’s fundraising tracked with their political profiles and how big a role out-of-state donations played in the race for the sprawling and rural district. Published about two weeks before the nail-biter election, the story helps explain how the race turned out to be much closer than most expected.

Other news organizations in the division we were judged against include:  Albuquerque Business First, Aspen Public Radio, BizWest, Boulder Reporting Lab, Capital & Main, Colorado Politics, Colorado Springs Independent, Denverite, Kaiser Health News, KBUT, KRCC, Santa Fe Reporter, Source New Mexico, Southern Ute Drum and WyoFile. See complete contest results here