Press Democrat Named Best Newspaper of its Size in California Journalism Contest

The Press Democrat was named the best newspaper of its size in California, earning the top award for general excellence this month in the state’s largest journalism contest.

In addition, The Press Democrat won 15 other top honors for investigative and breaking-news reporting, coverage of local government, the environment, agriculture and youth and education.

“The class of California daily journalism,” read the judge’s citation for general excellence, which grades newspapers not only on their journalistic content, but also on their overall design, presentation and advertising excellence.

The Press Democrat was recognized as best in class among papers with 15,000 to 50,000 print subscribers — a category that includes all but a handful of the largest metro papers and the state’s smaller dailies.

Overall, the newspaper and its website,, won 41 awards for print and digital journalism in the annual contest, which is organized by the California News Publishers Association, the state’s largest media trade group.

Among those honors, the newspaper received the top two of the three awards given for investigative reporting in its circulation division.

Reporter Andrew Graham and watchdog columnist Marisa Endicott won for their 11-part series on the flawed Fire Victim Trust set up by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to compensate survivors of the 2017 North Bay firestorm and other wildfires tied to the utility.

Reporter Alana Minkler and photographer Beth Schlanker won top awards for their enterprise series on the Yuki tribe of Northern California’s long fight for recognition and justice, culminating with the name change last year of the University of California’s San Francisco-based law school.

The Press Democrat’s monthlong, special coverage of the 5-year anniversary of the 2017 North Bay firestorm won the top honor for in-depth reporting among papers of its size.

“The scope and sweep of this reporting, and the stories it reveals, is apt and fitting for a newsroom that won a Pulitzer for coverage of the original event five years before,” judges wrote. “Just as the community it covers rebuilt, The Press Democrat has not gone anywhere and indeed is setting the bar for excellence in community journalism for California.”

Four of the 16 first place awards, for breaking news reporting, coverage of local government, news and feature photo, were for digital journalism judged against work by the largest news organizations in the state.

In that same field, the newspaper’s coverage of the sexual harassment and retaliation scandal at Sonoma State University and resignation of campus president Judy Sakaki earned the second place award for public service journalism, one of the most prestigious honors.

“Excellent example of dogged reporting that combines material from public records requests, interviews, public statements and other information sources,” read the judge’s citation. “The hits just kept coming from The Press Democrat staff.”

Richard A. Green, executive editor of The Press Democrat and chief content officer for its parent company, Sonoma Media Investments, said the recognition reflects the entire staff’s dedication to serving the community.

“I’ve always said we don’t do this for the awards, but it’s always nice when hard work of our staff is recognized by our peers in the industry,” Green said. “Our goal is first and foremost to serve our readers with quality, high-impact journalism, and to have that journalism honored as the best in our class in all of California is truly special. ”

Overall, Sonoma Media Investment publications won 77 awards in the contest.

The honors, announced over two weeks this month, recognized journalism published in 2022.

In most categories, entries were judged against work produced by daily newspapers in California with 15,000 to 50,000 subscribers. In others, including digital and open entries, the work was judged against the largest media outlets in the state.

Senior reporter Mary Callahan won the top award for environmental reporting by circulation division — and two of the three awards in that category — for stories on the rising menace of megafloods in the new climate era and the protracted struggle over logging of century-old redwoods on state land in Mendocino County.

Senior photojournalist Kent Porter took home the top two awards for news and sports feature photos by circulation division, as well as the top two news and feature photo awards in the digital division.

The Press Democrat’s features team also swept all three awards in its circulation division for inside page design and layout.

The 16 first-place awards include:

General excellence, for two consecutive issues of The Press Democrat (Sept. 3-4) that showcased incisive investigative reporting — on the history of racist real estate covenants and their harmful legacy — with breaking news coverage of a deputy’s fatal shooting of a farmworker; features on the region’s signature wine industry; bread-and-butter reporting on local businesses, sports and government; and special section coverage celebrating the region’s diverse Latino community. Judges based their decision on general news coverage, local news coverage; opinion pages; quality of writing; headlines; use of photography, graphics and other artwork; advertising design and layout, and copywriting; and graphic design and typography.

Breaking news (digital division), for coverage of a sheriff’s deputy’s fatal shooting of migrant worker David Pelaez-Chavez, reported by Andrew Graham, Colin Atagi, Nashelly Chavez, Alana Minkler, Phil Barber and Matt Pera.

“Excellent coverage on this from first story to last,” the judges wrote.

Coverage of local government (digital division), for Paulina Pineda’s story, “A refuge postponed: How a ‘vocal minority’ stalled plans for a long-sought Roseland park,” with photos by Chad Surmick and Beth Schlanker.

Coverage of youth and education, for reporter Kaylee Tornay’s chronicle of the pandemic setbacks endured by Sonoma County students and efforts to catch up, with photos by Christopher Chung.

News photo, for Kent Porter’s image of a firefighter at work in a midwinter wildfire on the flank of Geyser Peak in northeastern Sonoma County.

Coverage of the environment, for Mary Callahan’s look at the specter of even greater floods in California’s future, and how those warnings resonate in Sonoma County.

Enterprise news, for Alana Minkler’s stories on the plight of the Yuki tribe and their campaign for recognition and redress. The reporting helped spur state legislation to amplify Yuki voices in moves to address historical traumas inflicted on their tribe.

Feature photo, for Christopher Chung’s shot of dunk-tank action at Santa Rosa United Soccer Club’s Fall Festival.

Investigative reporting, for Andrew Graham and Marisa Endicott’s series on the troubled PG&E Fire Victim Trust.

“These stories successfully pull back the curtain on how and why fire victims were not receiving compensation in a timely way,” read the judge’s citation. “The reporters clearly and impressively explained the complex financial workings of the trust and those responsible for overseeing and dispersing it.”

Inside section design, for Antonie Boessenkool and Jonathan Byrd’s “Sounds of Bond” feature and page layout. “Typography beautifully integrated with images, and excellent use of photography,” the judge wrote.

Sports feature photo, for Kent Porter’s layered shot of a decisive point in a volleyball title game between Windsor and Maria Carrillo high schools.

In-depth reporting, for team coverage marking the five-year anniversary of the 2017 fires, including nearly 30 stories, hundreds of photos, dozens of videos and a half-dozen podcast episodes. Together, the coverage aimed to be a mosaic that explained how the fires changed us and how the repercussions are still etched in our community’s DNA. Reporters Phil Barber, Mary Callahan, Martin Espinoza, Kerry Benefield, Austin Murphy, Paulina Pineda, Andrew Graham and Marisa Endicott led coverage, with contributions from the entire photojournalism, web production, print design and editing team.

Feature photo (digital division), for Kent Porter’s image of a ballet folklorico performer.

Coverage of business and the economy, by Marisa Endicott, for her stories on the demise of recycling centers statewide and the impact in the North Bay.

Agricultural reporting, for stories by Andrew Graham, Marisa Endicott and Bill Swindell on the struggles of North Coast cannabis growers six years after legalization.

News photo (digital division), for Kent Porter’s shot of the nighttime response to a wildfire in western Sonoma County. “Dramatic light illustrates the scene very well,” read the judge’s citation. “A keeper.”

The 15 second-place awards include:

Investigative reporting (open division), for Marisa Endicott and Andrew Graham’s stories on the Fire Victim Trust.

Enterprise news (open division) for Alana Minkler’s stories on the Yuki people and their efforts to right historical injustices, with Beth Schlanker’s photos.

Public service journalism (digital) and investigative reporting for leading coverage of the sexual harassment and retaliation scandal at Sonoma State that began with The Press Democrat breaking news in April 2022 of a secret $600,000 settlement paid to a former top SSU administrator. Reporters Kaylee Tornay, Martin Espinoza and Marisa Endicott led coverage, with contributions from Andrew Graham and Austin Murphy.

“Turning around a story of this magnitude in two days is an impressive feat, as is the ability to turn around 40 stories in the following two months,” the judge wrote. “Coordinating dozens of interviews and poring over thousands of documents, the team was able to effectively convey the shocking details behind a power couple’s fall from grace.”

Photo story, by Christopher Chung, for his essay on the last run of The Press Democrat’s storied print plant in Rohnert Park, which closed in April 2022. “Captured the heroes of the press in their final hours with great humanity and left no detail of the wonders of a press room undocumented. Bravo!” wrote the judge.

Health coverage (digital division), for Kerry Benefield’s story on the failures of California’s death with dignity law for a Santa Rosa woman and the deep grief of her husband. “This is a beautifully written, moving piece that shows the gaps in California’s system for medically assisted dying,” the judge wrote. “As the best stories do, this one offers the opportunity for change.”

Writing, by Phil Barber and Randi Rossmann, detailing the largely untold story of a daring 2 a.m. rescue amid the Tubbs Fire that saved dozens of vulnerable seniors in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood. “Wow. Just wow. A heart wrenching story. Hard to put down,” the judge wrote.

Front page layout and design, for covers designed by Lisa Ostroski and Bryce Martin.

Breaking news, for team coverage of the fatal shooting of migrant worker David Pelaez-Chavez by a sheriff’s deputy.

Feature photo, by Kent Porter, of welders at work on Sonoma County’s new courthouse.

Enterprise news and coverage of business and the economy, for a pair of stories by Andrew Graham and Kent Porter from Humboldt County, where the legalized market for cannabis has left many growers bitter and broke.

Feature story, by Alana Minkler and Kent Porter on the case of a missing Yurok woman and the wider crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Inside page layout and design, for “Milestone with Marsalis,” by Antonie Boessenkool and Jonathan Byrd.

The 10 third-place awards include:

In-depth reporting (digital and circulation divisions), for stories by Andrew Graham and Ethan Varian on squalid housing and broken promises endured by vulnerable residents of two publicly funded homeless housing sites, the Palms Inn and former Gold Coin motel in Santa Rosa, with photos by John Burgess and Kent Porter.

“Such an important story to tell, and it was done with rich detail and interviews that only could have been gotten by boots-on-the-ground reporting,” the judge wrote.

Columns, by Marisa Endicott, highlighting unionizing efforts among low-income tenants to safeguard themselves against corporate landlords, and an exposé on the suddenly shuttered Huntington Learning Center in Windsor.

Photojournalism, by The Press Democrat’s team (John Burgess, Christopher Chung, Chad Surmick, Beth Schlanker and Kent Porter)

Sports feature story, by Kerry Benefield, on former Sonoma State soccer player Courtney Shoda’s new heart and legacy on the Seawolves. “Really nicely written, engaging and filled with unexpected moments,” the judge wrote. “It has the best kicker of the bunch.”

Environmental reporting, for Mary Callahan’s series on a fundamental question for California and the North Coast: Should logging of century-old redwoods continue on public lands in an era of advancing climate crisis?

Feature photo (digital division), by Kent Porter, of a Santa Rosa firefighter rescuing Rihanna the dog from a home that caught fire June 1, 2022.

Inside page layout and design, for a feature page by Antonie Boessenkool, Elissa Torres, John Burgess and Allison Gibson, on the proud legacy of Italian winemakers in Sonoma County.

Profile story, by Austin Murphy, of star climate scientist and North Bay native Daniel Swain.

Special section cover, for a series by Elissa Torres promoting Latino Living, the northern Sonoma County community section, and year-end 23 People to Watch in 2023 feature.

SMI sister publications

The Petaluma Argus-Courier won 16 awards, including seven first-place awards: for photojournalism by Crissy Pascual; health coverage by Amelia Parreira spotlighting shortfalls in local mental health care; editorial comment by Emily Charrier calling for improved workplace treatment of female firefighterswriting by Don Frances; and public service journalism for team coverage in an 11-part series on the twisting fate of Petluma’s prized fairgrounds, eyed for sale and redevelopment.

It also was named second for general excellence in its circulation division among weeklies with 4,300 to 11,000 print subscribers. “This is a newspaper that knows its readers well,” judges wrote.

The Sonoma Index-Tribune won 13 awards, including four top honors: for Daniel Johnson’s profile of Sonoma native and U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón; a sports feature story on USA Team Grappler Brady “Copper Head” Wicklund; and feature photos by Robbi Pengelly. It earned a second-place award for public service journalism, for reporting and editorial comment on the poor response by city and county government to a series of punishing cold snaps and heat spells that threatened the region’s most vulnerable residents.

The North Bay Business Journal won seven awards, including three second-place awards and four third-place awards.