Meet the winners of the 2020 LION Awards

We’re excited to announce the winners for the 2020 LION Awards, which celebrated the best of independent online media

October 22, 2020 by Kelsey Ryan

We’re excited to announce the winners for the 2020 LION Awards, which celebrated the best of independent online media across the U.S. and Canada, from solopreneurs to large newsrooms. 

This was the second year for the awards, which invited nearly 30 judges from across the industry to evaluate 169 entries from LION members — more than double the number of entries from last year. 

This year, we added several new categories to reflect where we think our members excelled: Public Service; Best Coronavirus Coverage; Emerging Publisher; and Collaboration of the Year. LION staff also announced the LION Members of the Year, who went above and beyond in supporting their fellow LION members and community.

Thanks again to the 2020 judges: Madeleine Bair, Heather Bryant, Sterling Cosper, Kat Duncan, Rick Edmonds, Patricia Gaston, Rodney Gibbs, Sommer Ingram Dean, Jiquanda Johnson, Damon Kiesow, Yvonne Leow, Frank LoMonte, Ben Monnie, Josh Moore, Meghan Murphy, Alexandra Nicolas, Gonzalo Peon, Aron Pilhofer, Rachel Rohr, Mary Sanchez, Linda Shaw, Mazin Sidahmed, Craig Silverman, Chrissy Towle, Ryan Tuck, Sisi Wei and Yumi Wilson. 

The awards were celebrated virtually on Thursday, Oct. 22, sponsored by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. The evening included a keynote panel sponsored by Google News Initiative, and composed of S. Mitra Kalita, SVP of News, Opinion and Programming at CNN Digital; Mazin Sidahmed, co-executive director of Documented; and Kate B. Maxwell, publisher and co-founder of The Mendocino Voice. You can watch a recording of the ceremony here

2020 Winners by Category

  • Winner: Public Source for its project, “The True Cost of Court Debt.” From the judges: “This is phenomenal work. It’s local, smart, well-written and exactly the kind of work that makes a difference. The presentation absolutely sings as well. Brilliant work.” “Fabulous. Tangible and important impact. Beautiful presentation that keeps you engaged. Also love how you can see where you are in the series and navigate to other pieces (Part 1-4 on the upper right).”
  • Finalist: El Tímpano for its reporting on gaps in local news serving Latinx and Mayan immigrants in Oakland, particularly in the wake of COVID-19
  • Finalist: Richland Source for its community listening tour and series looking at trash issues in the city of Mansfield, Ohio

  • Winner: The Beacon: A Kansas City-based nonprofit online news outlet focused on in-depth journalism in the public interest in Kansas and Missouri. From the judges: “Excellence all around — from editorial content to revenue generation to audience engagement. I’m particularly impressed with the storytelling and photography.”
  • Finalist: Austonia: A public benefit corporation focusing on “all things Austin”
  • Finalist: Main Street Daily News: A local independent online news site dedicated to telling the story of Gainesville and Alachua County in Florida
  • Finalist: Sahan Journal: An independent, nonprofit digital newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting for and about immigrants and refugees in Minnesota

  • Solo

    • Winner: Documented for its resource guide in Spanish, English and Simplified Chinese on where undocumented immigrants could get funds and food, and answered questions on labor rights and tenant rights; its reporting on the virus’ disproportionate impact on immigrant communities and ICE’s continuation of deporting children during the pandemic. From the judges: “Very important coverage of an under served community and innovative use of off-platform channels (WhatsApp, Facebook, Univision) to reach and engage with readers.”
    • Finalist: California Health Report for its stories covering how COVID-19 affected low-income Californians of color early in the pandemic
    • Finalist: The Charlotte Ledger for its series, “Hidden Health Crisis in Charlotte,” which examined isolation of seniors, substance abuse, child abuse, people not seeking needed heart care, and anxiety and depression during the pandemic
  • Small

    • Winner: Detour Detroit for its coverage that sought to directly answer reader questions about the pandemic and engage readers through virtual events and social media. From the judges: “An outstanding entry — service and a sense of where to find some hidden news in an underserved community.”
    • Finalist: Crosstown for its interactive COVID-19 map that showed the impact on different communities in Los Angeles, and its dynamic social content that helped alert people to the growing domestic violence crisis
    • Finalist: San Jose Spotlight for its coverage of COVID-19’s impact on Silicon Valley’s massive homeless encampments and disadvantaged East San Jose students 
  • Medium

    • Winner: Public Source for its expanded coverage of COVID-19, including breaking news, a podcast, video production from quarantine and over 30 first-person essays. From the judges: “I’m impressed by not just the quality of the reporting, but the breadth of angles and voices reflected in PublicSource’s coronavirus coverage. From the ‘You Are Not Alone’ project to community essays and coverage of school reopening plans and homeless services, the outlet’s coronavirus coverage provides context, connection, and vital information, and gave me a real sense of the community PublicSource covers.”
    • Finalist: The Nevada Independent for its COVID-19 data page, weekly “Coronavirus Contextualized” series and accompanying enterprise reporting
  • Large

    • Winner: VT Digger for its daily and investigative reporting on COVID-19, and new critical projects including a 24/7 liveblog, a daily COVID-19 newsletter (with 8,000+ subscribers), coronavirus tip drop email address, an essential services business directory, a searchable FAQ knowledge base for readers and a Vermont Remembrances series about people who have died of the virus. From the judges: “The fact that VTDigger’s pressure on the state led to it releasing more town and hospitalization data and increasing the frequency of public briefings is exactly why local journalism is important. Huge impact.”
    • Finalist: Cascade Public Media/Crosscut for its more than 250 original news stories, videos, podcast episodes and commentaries on the coronavirus pandemic, and its commitment to highlight the inequitable impacts of COVID-19
    • Finalist: Chalkbeat for its coverage of COVID-19’s impact on schools and educators, which amplified the enormous educational inequities students of color in underserved communities face in non-COVID times

  • Winner: Chalkbeat for its work with The Chicago Tribune on the impact of COVID-19 on schools, and its work with THE CITY reporting on flaws in the New York City Public School’s special education program. From the judges: “This is a great example of two newsrooms contributing their unique strengths to produce a story and, through this collaboration, increase its impact. Bravo!”
  • Finalist: Manchester Ink Link for its work with the Granite State News Collaborative — sharing daily content and pooling freelancers, and greatly expanding statewide COVID-19 coverage
  • Finalist: VT Digger for its work with Vermont Public Radio to tell the backstory about how local white supremacists and their sympathizers drove Vermont’s only Black woman lawmaker out of office, and how state and local investigators failed to fully probe the case

This award is sponsored by Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and includes a cash award for the winner.

  • Winner: Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service for its reporting on state preparations for closing two youth prisons, an examination of what juvenile justice looks like in New York, and its implications for Milwaukee. From the judges: “A very important project that was well executed. A truly exceptional example of solutions journalism, taking a pressing local problem, and displaying how other communities have solved it. While it remains to be seen whether or not Wisconsin takes on the model, this work leaves decision-makers few excuses on how to build a better model.”
  • Finalist: California Health Report for its coverage of increased domestic violence during the pandemic, including how “housing first” programs in California offer survivors housing as a first step in the next chapter of their lives
  • Finalist: Chalkbeat for its coverage of the challenges that hold low-income students back and the innovations that are underway to propel them forward
  • Finalist: Richland Source for its listening tour in each of Mansfield’s six wards as part of its pre-election coverage

  • Winner: Cascade Public Media/CrossCut for its coverage of diverse communities throughout western Washington — immigrants, farmworkers, grocery shoppers in rural and urban areas alike — in its reporting on food deserts. From the judges: “A well-rounded package of thoroughly reported stories. Exceptionally produced in a non-judgmental way, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.”
  • Finalist: California Health Report for its coverage of Californians who are low-income, live in rural parts of the state and are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented; children who are medically fragile; and foster youth in California, who are disproportionately Black and Native American.
  • Finalist: Detour Detroit for its Emerging Voices fellowship, which recruited citizens of color with an interest in journalism or writing but limited to no professional experience from underrepresented Detroit neighborhoods
  • Finalist: Documented for its coverage of New York’s immigrants and the policies that affect their lives; particularly coverage of news stories in Spanish through a WhatsApp news service

This award includes a cash award.

  • Solo

    • Winner: TAPInto Westfield: Online local news in Westfield, New Jersey. From the judges: “Solid example of a hyperlocal news organization providing quality journalism to its community while achieving profitability!”
    • Finalist: Community News for Lyme and Old Lyme, Connecticut
  • Small 

    • Winner: San Jose Spotlight: The city’s first nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent political and business reporting. From the judges: “Wow, I am impressed with the Spotlight! The writing is crisp, love the diversity of coverage, translation of English into Spanish and Vietnamese to reach their readers, use podcasts, mobile app…what don’t they do? That two-way conversation with their community is so very important, something that a lot of publications have lost sight of. I also appreciate their use of several ways to make their business sustainable — recurring donations, one-time donations and major gifts, digital advertising on our daily newsletter, events and foundation grants. Looks like they have taken advice to heart.”
    • Finalist: Montana Free Press: An independent, nonprofit source for in-depth Montana news, information and analysis
    • Finalist: A nonprofit local independent online news organization that covers Southern Arizona
  • Large

    • Winner: Cityside: nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization committed to building community through local journalism at Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. From the judges: “The vision and principles they’ve built for their role in the community is powerful.”
    • Finalist: Public Source: A nonprofit digital-first news organization that delivers public-service reporting and analysis in the Pittsburgh region
    • Finalist: Richland Source: An online community news organization serving North Central Ohio

  • Solo

    • Winner: California Health Report for its investigation into how much federal money for mental health care California counties left on the table. From the judges: “Solid reporting, clearly written in a concise and understandable way. Well done.”
    • Finalist: The Austin Bulldog for its investigation of the Travis Central Appraisal District that exposed faulty management decisions that resulted in more than three times the number of formal Appraisal Review Board hearings, skyrocketing costs, doubled complaints, and more litigation over unresolved value disputes
    • Finalist: The Charlotte Ledger for its investigation of the complicated and troubling history of a man who was once one of Charlotte’s most influential economic development officials, who in recent years had a string of court cases involving stalking and harassment
    • Finalist: The Lincoln Squirrel for its investigation revealing that a major town department had almost no oversight by officials for years
  • Small

    • Winner: The Colorado Independent for its investigation into a police killing of a man and the community’s lack of discussion around mental health issues. From the judges: “This is absolutely beautiful and engrossing writing, methodically laying out how an avoidable tragedy unfolded. The reporter does an especially excellent job weaving in public-affairs reporting with human-interest reporting, never lapsing into the maudlin that can be so tempting when writing about a death. Excellent use of videos, documents and other source materials to make the story more forceful and credible. Strong work.”
    • Finalist: Bethesda Beat for its investigation into AirBnB rental violations under a newly passed law that left the county no options for enforcement
    • Finalist: The Highlands Current for its investigation of how legislators had attempted to quietly enact a statute that would allow any county employee or contractor to write “Confidential” on a document to keep it secret from the public, press and even other elected officials
    • Finalist: for its coverage of a Latino man’s death while in Tucson police custody, which prompted the adoption of new internal review, transparency and notification policies by the Tucson Police Department and City Council
  • Large

    • Winner: Chalkbeat for its investigation that revealed Indiana’s most struggling high schools had marked down 3,700 students as leaving to home-school – but in actuality they were dropping out. From the judges: “A gut-punch of a series. Chalkbeat took something that others probably walked past unknowingly — statistics about homeschooling — and took the time to look behind the numbers with the healthy skepticism that effective investigative reporting requires. Schools so often get a free pass under the assumption that they’re on the side of the angels doing the Lord’s work, but Chalkbeat didn’t shrink from calling out what can only be deliberate ‘cooking the books’ to portray a deceptively favorable picture of graduation rates. The stories methodically take apart all of the ways in which state oversight broke down and needs improvement. Excellent work.”
    • Finalist: VT Digger for its investigation surrounding the Kiah Morris case, in which a white supremacist harassed Vermont’s only Black lawmaker until she resigned, only to avoid criminal charges

  • Winner: This is Reno for its reporting that rioting was not a part of a Black Lives Matter demonstration earlier in the day, and how one of its  journalists was assaulted. From the judges: “This is outstanding coverage of protests, and includes all kinds of great details. Terrific work, especially given the size of the organization. That one of their journalists was attacked during the protests demonstrated the degree the site went to. Outstanding.” “Critical reporting that clearly defined the different demonstrations and led to a change in policy for the Reno Police.”
  • Finalist: Bethesda Beat for its reporting on the first COVID-19 cases in Maryland
  • Finalist: for breaking the news of a Latino man’s death while in Tucson police custody
  • Finalist: Wausau Pilot & Review for its reporting on a man who rigged his apartment with explosives, then shot three victims at the cemetery where he once was employed

  • Small

    • Winner: Oil City News for its coverage of the bittersweet closure of a beloved local business after 103 years; the joy of a graduation ceremony in the middle of a pandemic; and the pride of a community coming together to march peacefully for justice. From the judges: “Dan Cepeda’s reports reflect important moments in the life of this Wyoming community. I particularly liked the lovely pairing of words and photos used to discuss the closing of the wardrobe cleaners after 103 years of operation. I also liked the pairing in the story about the community coming together during a peaceful march for justice.”
    • Finalist: The Batavian for its coverage of the first-ever civil rights protest in its community
    • Finalist: The Beacon for its coverage of Black Lives Matter protests in Kansas City
    • Finalist: SweetwaterNOW for its coverage of the local American Legion baseball team as it navigated the early stages of spring training and the opening of the season
  • Medium

    • Winner: Public Source for “Good River: Stories of the Ohio” — a collaborative, visual reporting project about the waters and ecosystem that helped to build and sustain the region. From the judges: “Yay for collaborative projects! I especially love that the two PublicSource pieces that were submitted center the voices of Native Americans as part of this complex project and narrative.”
    • Finalist: The Nevada Independent for its COVID-19 data visualizations
  • Large

    • Winner: VT Digger for its coverage examining why deaths at the hands of police are rising in Vermont and what can be done to prevent police shootings. From the judges: “Both the video and the broader piece itself are very well done and led to clear impact. The way the video weaves together raw footage, interviews, data etc is very strong and impactful.”
    • Finalist: Cascade Public Media/Crosscut for its coverage of life during the pandemic

  • Winner: Broadstreet Ads. From the judges: “I’ve heard from MANY people (too many to count, honestly) about the quality and effectiveness of Broadstreet’s webinar series (and witnessed one of them firsthand). I’ve heard particular praise of the ‘Launch a Hyperlocal’ series. All of these resources have been so well designed and executed, meeting these publishers at their moments of dire need and offering scaleable, replicable, and easy-to-implement inspiration and ideas. I’m also impressed with Broadstreet’s commitment to serving lower-budget members with the new Broadstreet Solo package. It’s an example of them practicing what they preach, which is top-notch customer service and ‘playing the long game.’ Keep up the fantastic work! You’re doing a lot for a community in need (serving even more: communities in need).”
  • Finalist: RebelMouse
  • Finalist: TownNews
  • Finalist: Web Publisher PRO

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