Aspen Journalism won three awards from the Colorado Press Association this week in its 2020 Colorado Better News Media Contest, including one first place award and two second-place awards. 

The CPA contest this year was judged by reporters and editors of the Louisiana Press Association.

Competing in Class 1, which includes daily newspapers with fewer than 16 employees, Aspen Journalism won first place in the “Best Health Enterprise/Health Feature Story” category for a story by Aspen Journalism Editor Curtis Wackerle and reporter Laurine Lassalle. 

The story, “Nonresident COVID-19 cases are a significant part of virus’ footprint in Pitkin County,” was published on Aug. 31, 2020. It was the most detailed early local reporting on how many people tested positive in Pitkin County for COVID-19 who were not county residents.

The story relied on compiling data from public records requests and comparing already-available case count data; it played a role in Pitkin County increasing public disclosure of so-called out-of-jurisdiction cases. The story was also published by The Aspen Times and won an award this year from the Society of Professional Journalists.

According to the CPA’s contest guidelines, judging in the health-story category was based on “quality of writing and reporting skills” and with an emphasis on “initiative shown by the writer and the impact of the story.” It also noted that “extra consideration will be given to entries that show a strong ability to explain complicated health and health industry issues.” 

Second place in the CPA’s Best Health Enterprise/Health Feature Story went to Jonathan Romero of the Durango Herald for “History’s lesson for us,” concerning the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Aspen Journalism also won second place in the Best Editorial Collaboration category for its work on a series of stories called “Cash Flows” done with KUNC, a public radio station in Greeley; the Nevada Independent, a nonprofit news organization in Las Vegas; and KJZZ, a public radio station in Phoenix. 

Aspen Journalism’s story in the series was called “Western Colorado water purchases stir up worries about the future of farming” and was written by Heather Sackett, AJ’s managing editor and the editor and reporter on our water desk, and by Luke Runyon, who covers the Colorado River for KUNC. Also credited on the award were reporters Bret Jaspers at KJZZ and Daniel Rothberg at the Nevada Independent who worked on two other stories included in the “Cash Flows” series. 

The story by Sackett and Runyon required lots of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, including multiple trips to the Grand Valley, knocking on doors, tracking down and cold-calling potential sources and poring over public records. 

The work turned up that New York private equity firm Water Asset Management had spent $16.6 million buying up 17 parcels encompassing 2,222 acres of irrigated agricultural land in the communities of Fruita, Loma and Mack, west of Grand Junction. The resulting story has influenced the ongoing public-policy discussion of a potential “demand management” program in Colorado to pay irrigators to use less water in an effort to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.

(This story was also recognized earlier this month by the Radio Television Digital News Association and given a regional Murrow Award. However, the award was recently rescinded as the award application, in an oversight, did not list KJZZ in Phoenix as a collaborator. If KJZZ had been included, the submission would have been judged in a larger-market category than it was.)

Taking first place honors in the CPA’s Best Editorial Collaboration category was an opinion-page package credited to Jackie Hutchns of the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Aspen Journalism also won a second place award in the Best Business News/Feature Story category entitled “Local ranchers face backlog of cattle due to coronavirus. Now comes the drought,” was published on Sept. 7, 2020 and written by reporter Laurine Lasalle, who is now the editor and reporter on Aspen Journalism’s data desk. It also ran in The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.

The story explained the challenges that ranchers in Colorado, including Bill Fales of Cold Mountain Ranch in the Crystal River Valley, were facing in a year that brought both drought and plague. It relied upon on-the-ground reporting in local ranching communities as well as a data-driven explanation of the pandemic’s effect on demand and beef prices. It was also richly illustrated with photos taken by Lassalle. 

The first place story in the Best Business News/Feature Story category was “Oil price collapse could cut deeply into Weld County jobs, tax revenues,” by Dan Mika of BizWest.

The contest was open to members of the Colorado Press Association for work published between Nov. 1, 2019 and Oct. 31, 2020. A presentation showing the winners in every category can be found here.

In the competition, media outlets are put into five classes by CPA based on whether they are daily, weekly, or monthly publications and then by how many employees they have. 

Aspen Journalism competes in Class 1, for dailies with less than 16 full-time employees. Other news organizations in this category include the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Daily Camera in Boulder, the Pueblo Chieftain and the Aurora Sentinel.

Class 2, dailies with more than 16 full-time employees, includes news organizations such as The Aspen Times, the Aspen Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Colorado Sun and the Denver Post.  

Class 3, weekly publications with fewer than eight employees, includes organizations such as the Snowmass Sun, The Sopris Sun, Sky-Hi News in Grand County and the Telluride Daily Planet.

As an online publication that can publish when it pleases, Aspen Journalism does not fit neatly into the CPA’s classes, as we are neither a daily or a weekly newspaper. Our work is typically published in collaboration with daily newspapers. It was CPA’s decision to place Aspen Journalism in Class 1 to compete against other daily newspapers with under 16 employees. Aspen Journalism has three full time employees and works with freelancers.

We’re pleased to note that many of the news organizations that Aspen Journalism collaborates with also won awards in the CPA contest, including The Aspen Times, the Aspen Daily News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, Sky-Hi News and Sopris Sun

In last year’s CPA contest, Aspen Journalism also won three awards, including a first-place award in the Best Environmental Story category, first place in the Best Story/Picture Combination category, and first place in the Best Photo Slideshow or Gallery category.

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit organization based in Aspen, Colorado whose mission is to produce investigative and in-depth journalism, but we can’t do it without the support of our readers. Will you consider supporting our award winning journalism?

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Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...