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Dear friends of Aspen Journalism,

As our dedicated supporters and readers, we wanted to let you know that the work you make possible was recognized with six awards — five of which were first-place honors — in the Colorado Press Association’s 2021 Better News Media Contest.

The awards, judged by members of the Michigan Press Association, were announced at a ceremony at Coors Field in Denver on Sept. 17, occurring as part of CPA’s annual conference. 

Aspen Journalism competed in circulation Class 1, which includes daily newspapers with 150 stories or less per month. Other publications in the category were Aspen Daily NewsBizWest, Cañon City Daily Record, Chronicle-News, Colorado Newsline, Durango Herald, Fort Morgan Times, Fresh Water News, La Junta Tribune-Democrat, Montrose Daily Press, and Sterling Journal-Advocate.

Each of Aspen Journalism’s reporters and editors — Heather Sackett, Curtis Wackerle, and Laurine Lasalle — as well as freelance journalists Sarah Tory and Luna Anna Archey, took home first-place awards. The honors recognized coverage from our water, environment and data desks, while entries from Lasalle were awarded both first and second place in the Best Informational Graphic category. Editor and Executive Director Curtis Wackerle received first-place honors in the Best Newsletter category for The Roundup. 

Earlier this year, Aspen Journalism won nine awards from the 2021 Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies contest. In 2021, we were honored three times by the Colorado Press Association, with 11 awards from Society of Professional Journalists.

See the awards received by Aspen Journalism, read comments from the judges and comments on each story, and find links to the award-winning coverage. Thank you again to all our donors and supporters for making this work possible.

– Curtis Wackerle, editor

Award-Winning Reporting Header

Best Agriculture Story

First Place: Heather Sackett, Aspen Journalism

Judge comments: “Fascinating look at the larger ecosystem around us and the unintended consequences of the decisions we make.”

Kremmling bird count studies how birds use irrigated agriculture

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

As the state of Colorado grapples with whether to implement a demand-management program, which would pay irrigators to temporarily dry up fields in an effort to send more water downstream, there could be unintended consequences for the animals that use irrigated agriculture for their habitat.

This story takes readers on an early-morning bird counting mission in an irrigated meadow at a high-country ranch, as a window into the to ecological consequences of our water-use choices. Water Desk Editor Heather Sackett explains how these choices are coming under increasing pressure due to climate change and shows how the scientific community is working to give us the tools to better understand our impact on the environment.

Best Business News/Feature Story

First Place: Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Journalism

Judge comments: “Story vividly illustrates the clash of values in back-country area. Good work!”

More intense backside land use a sticking point for Pandora’s

Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

SkiCo officials have taken the position that broader character and use concerns on the backside should not hinder the review of their ski area proposal. County planning staffers disagree.

This story represented a significant effort to unpack the difficulty some in the Aspen community are having with a proposal to expand Aspen Mountain ski area into a “rural and remote” backcountry zone. Curtis Wackerle, AJ’s editor and executive director, writing for our Connie Harvey Environment Desk, dug through county and real estate records to uncover new information related to development proposals and analyzed buildout projections. The story grapples with the possibility that the emergence of short-term rentals may be changing this special area in potentially dangerous ways, and puts the debate around the most significant change to one of the world’s great ski areas in 40 years in its proper context.

Best Environmental Story

First Place: Sarah Tory & Luna Anna Archey, Aspen Journalism

In Coal Basin, a hidden source of climate pollution

Credit: Luna Anna Archey/Aspen Journalism

A coalition is pushing land managers to deal with the methane leaks by authorizing a project to capture the methane and either use it somehow or destroy it. To do that, they’ll have to surmount a host of bureaucratic challenges.

This story explores how a legacy of mining in one rural district presents both threats and opportunities as it relates to the climate crisis. Of particular note in this piece, expertly written and photographed by veteran Western Slope journalists working as freelancers for Aspen Journalism’s Connie Harvey Environment Desk, is how methane capture brings a chance for new skill and economic development to communities suffering from the contraction of coal mining as an economic staple. 

Best Newsletter

First Place: Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Journalism

The Roundup: A weekly newsletter showcasing Aspen Journalism’s original stories, insights from our newsroom and a selection of what we’re reading.

Judge comments: “An impressive round-up of need-to-know news.”

The Roundup began long ago as an automated RSS feed of recent content sent out to subscribers weekly. But beginning in late 2020, AJ’s editor since that July Curtis Wackerle began customizing the newsletter every week, beginning each mailing with a “letter from the newsroom” sharing insights related to the news Aspen Journalism had published in the week prior. The Roundup then has easy-to-navigate links to the stories themselves, and includes a curated list of relevant stories from other sources our staff has been reading, known as “The Bucket” (which is a nod to the Aspen Mountain gondola).

The Roundup has emerged as a critical link to our audience (if you are not already subscribed you can sign up here). Its number of subscribers doubled over the course of 2021 and Aspen Journalism staff have used it to share additional information relevant to the stories we publish and to put them in a deeper context. We also use the newsletter to highlight images that readers may have missed in our story posts. Examples sent to judges for their consideration included an edition concerning why Glenwood Canyon was being considered for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, after we ran a story about a controversy over cell phone tower development in the canyon, while another highlighted edition mused on the significance of the Hunter Creek Valley to Aspen’s industrial and environmental history, after we ran a story about early settlers of the valley.

Best Informational Graphic

First Place: Laurine Lasalle, Aspen Journalism 

SNOTEL snowpack monitoring

Click image to see interactive graph on aspen

Data Editor Laurine Lassalle built a most-useful tool to monitor snowpack in our region. Harvesting data from SNOTEL monitoring sites that keep track of weather and snowpack, Lassalle’s tracker highlights a handful of points on a map around the Roaring Fork River watershed. The user can easily see, in one interactive window, see how much snow each site has and where that value is in relation to average conditions for the date. This illuminates how geographic factors influence snowpack; for example, the lower-elevation station at McClure Pass often underperforms, in relation to snowpack accumulations as a percent of average, the high-elevation, colder stations, like Ivanhoe or Schofield Pass.

Best Informational Graphic

Second Place: Laurine Lasalle, Aspen Journalism

Lake Powell hits record low

Screenshot: Water Storage at Lake Powell since 2000

Click image to see interactive graph on aspen

As the nation’s second largest reservoir has dwindled to record-low levels since 2021 — imperiling water and power supplies to the southwestern United States — Aspen Journalism has been documenting every lost inch in surface elevation. Our weekly Data Dashboard feature has been tracking Lake Powell’s total storage and surface elevation since summer 2021, when the amount of water stored behind the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River crossed into new, troubling territory. Data Editor Laurine Lassalle’s tool visualizes Lake Powell’s storage totals and surface elevation going back to 2000, just before the now two-decade-long mega drought began. The user can adjust the dates shown in the visualization, taking as long, or short, a lens as needed.  

Our nonprofit mission is to produce good journalism for people who care about Aspen, the Roaring Fork Valley, and the upper Colorado River basin.

Curtis Wackerle

Curtis Wackerle

Curtis Wackerle is the editor and executive director of Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Connie Harvey Environment Desk. Curtis has also served as editor, managing editor, and reporter...