Meet the Winners of the 2021 LION Publishers Local Journalism Awards

The LION Local Journalism Awards celebrate sustainable businesses and journalistic excellence in independent online news.

November 16, 2021 by Cassandra Balfour

Meet the Winners graphic

  • Block Club Chicago won in four categories, including Publisher of the Year (Medium/Large)
  • Voice of OC won Publisher of the Year (Small) and El Tímpano won Publisher of the Year (Solo)
  • Dallas Free Press won New Publisher of the Year
  • Kara Meyberg-Guzman won Member of the Year and her publication, Santa Cruz Local, won General Excellence for Operational Resilience.
  • Madison365 won General Excellence for Revenue Growth.

The Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers’ third annual Local Journalism Awards, presented by the Google News Initiative, announced 25 winners across 15 categories, representing the best of independent online media across the U.S. and Canada.

More than 30 judges from across the industry evaluated a record-breaking 240 award entries from LION members ranging from solopreneurs to large newsrooms. Winners were honored at a virtual Awards Show on November 16 hosted by Candice Fortman, executive director of Outlier Media, a LION member, and host of LION’s News Guest podcast. Earlier in the day, LION also hosted the “One Big Idea” Lightning Talks, which showcased seven LION members who presented an idea or process that positively impacted their news business in 2021.

This year’s awards included new categories to highlight the work members have done to put their businesses on the path to sustainability, which LION defines as the nexus of financial health, operational resilience and journalistic impact. The awards also included categories reflecting the most major and relevant topics of the year, including best coverage of protest and movements, local election/voting and COVID-19. 

The 2021 Awards were presented by the Google News Initiative and also sponsored by Broadstreet Ads, the American Press Institute, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Meet the finalists and winners of the 2021 LION Local Journalism Awards: 

General Excellence: Operational Resilience

  • Winner: Santa Cruz Local for implementing a strategy based on “how and why” statements that became the team’s North Star, allowing the organization to shore up its operational resilience, align its team, reduce burnout and clarify its focus. 

From the judges: “By taking the time to stop and deeply analyze what it does, why that matters and what it takes for the team to sustainably keep doing it, Santa Cruz Local shored up its operational resilience, aligned the team, reduced burnout and clarified its focus. By taking it a step further and setting clear goals and structures around that work, it ensured that this was much more than a thought exercise and directly benefited both team health and the bottom line. By taking it an *additional* step further and publishing their efforts, they held themselves accountable and modeled their values to their readers. This idea is practical, strategic and replicable, and every news business would benefit from doing it.”

  • Manchester Ink Link for working with a volunteer advisory board that allowed this solopreneur-run operation to benefit from a collaborative approach to problem solving and idea implementation.
  • The Objective for giving its team a three-month publishing break before relaunching in order to take time to rest and focus on developing its business operations.

General Excellence: Revenue Growth

From the judges: “A smart way to capitalize on increased online engagement at the start of the pandemic. I love the way COVID coverage was the lead daily, followed by quick bites of news. The daily podcast and the weekly Black Oxygen podcasts are equally smart audience engagement vehicles that provide additional opportunities for advertisers to reach audiences. Providing a way for folks to engage with the host directly is awesome. Love the way they pivoted to meet the conditions of the market during a very challenging time.

2021 Best Coronavirus Coverage – Solo

From the judges: “This news site does it all — deep stories on how COVID impacts families and what is driving the community’s vaccine hesitancy, along with rich data and strong engagement with the community via subtext. It all adds up to impact.

  • Winner: Grice Connect (tie) for filling a gap in local coverage and fostering collaborations with front-line workers to provide accurate, timely COVID-19-related information to their community.

From the judges: “Grice Connect filled a gap in local coverage, and fostered collaborations with front line workers to provide accurate, timely COVID information to their community. In particular, their “Grice Good” award is an innovative way to deepen their connection with the community by honoring those who stepped up in extraordinary ways during the pandemic.

2021 Best Coronavirus Coverage – Small

  • Winner: Enlace Latino NC (tie) for its array of COVID-19 coverage serving its Latinx community, including a dedicated section on its website, two podcasts covering the local effects of the pandemic, and incorporating original reporting into its WhatsApp channel and email newsletter. 

From the judges: “This is an impressive array of COVID coverage targeting a generally underserved population. It was smart to use a variety of platforms and knowing which ones, including podcasts and WhatsApp, are particularly impactful in the Latinx community.” 

From the judges: “The information hub and the county-by-county resources is a wonderful public service. Data center is a good resource for readers who want to dig into data – there’s less there for people who just want a quick snapshot. News coverage is thorough, complete, focused on the local community and written in a straightforward, useful way.”

2021 Best Coronavirus Coverage – Medium/Large

From the judges: “I appreciated the behind the scenes article about these efforts. Truly serving the community. Clean simple info in the How-To article. Getting the health officer on Instagram also gets to people where they are. All around innovative.” 

“The Oaklandside’s approach to coronavirus coverage prioritized the needs of their audience. By developing a text-message service, information resources in English and Spanish, and marketing those resources in communities with flyers and QR codes, they ensured their community had access to timely and quality information on the coronavirus pandemic.”

  • Chalkbeat for its Pandemic 360 project, a package of enterprise reporting and narrative writing about Brooklyn’s P.S. 89 and Newark’s Roseville Community Charter School, which was published in both English and Spanish.
  • Richland Source for its solutions-focused and community-informed coverage of COVID-19, including a video series called, “Coronavirus Conversations.”

2021 Best Solutions Project of the Year (Presented by Solutions Journalism Network)

From the judges: “I just love this because it is deceptively simple, but has such a tangible impact in actual changes and edits to textbooks! And having the most-affected community members (young people!) drive the change is great. Also, because it’s simple, it’s so replicable. And it takes media out of the role of being an arbiter over topics that can be divisive among parents, politicians and other actors and restores that to the affected community members and youth themselves.”

2021 Best Visual Journalism Project

From the judges: “Outstanding. The videos were beautifully shot and incredibly compelling. So little of COVID coverage has been about the grief we all feel and share. I deeply appreciated the level of dedication and craft committed to this effort.”

From the judges: A unique way to tell the story that had real impact on their community, wonderful work.

2021 Breaking News 

From the judges: “The choice to offer the story without the video was a smart editorial choice and demonstrates a deep engagement with the community.”

From the judges: “I love the rich context to these stories, even the first one, when it would have been easy to just focus on the shooting. The photos of the victims were moving. Thumbs up to the live event for community members.”

  • The Haitian Times for its coverage of the assassination of the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, and the community’s reaction to the assasination, including repurposing its monthly community conversation into a “health check-in” in recognition of the the mental health toll that the crisis was taking on the Haitian community.
  • Berkeleyside for its coverage of a fire that broke out in Berkeley’s downtown, including repeatedly returning to the scene to let readers know about the status of the street closures and the fire department’s concerted efforts to extinguish the conflagration.

2021 Collaboration of the Year

From the judges: “I really love seeing how these three organizations came together to consolidate important coverage for their local community.”

2021 Community Engagement and Service Award (Presented by American Press Institute)

From the judges: “Elevating your readers’ needs by partnering with mediums that serve underserved communities is priceless. Reporting and uncovering issues that personally affect readers and approaching coverage in this way is impactful. Kudos for making the project into something useful to readers and interesting to sponsors. Overall this project was a win-win-win-win!”

2021 Investigative Report of the Year – Solo

From the judges: “Outstanding work all the way around, from the courageous reporting to the public database to the engaging images and graphics. An essential project at the most important time.”

  • Decaturish for uncovering government corruption enabled by a school board, which resulted in the board hiring a private investigator and parting ways with a superintendent.
  • Asheville Watchdog for its threepart series about the lack of transparency of a nonprofit hospital’s surprise sale to the giant for-profit Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), and whether the community received fair value for the hospital system it had supported for 133 years.
  • This Is Reno for its reporting on the City of Reno’s misuse of COVID-19 federal relief funds to provide therapy to residents, which included reactions from residents and the mental health community.

2021 Investigative Report of the Year – Small

  • Winner: Enlace Latino NC for its bilingual investigative series, “Ignored and Forgotten,” which examined how rural Latinx community members in North Carolina experience natural disasters and the gaps in the state’s emergency response system. 

From the judges: “Excellent, in-depth reporting, human dimension is clear but not cloying, and could not be more timely. Well done.”

2021 Investigative Report of the Year – Medium/Large

From the judges: “California only recently amended its Public Records Act to permit greater access to records of police misconduct. It’s so important that local news entities take advantage of this significant change in the law to access records they are statutorily entitled to. I am delighted to see the Long Beach Post exercise their rights under the CAPRA to obtain, analyze, and report on this crucial data. That their reporting led to tangible reform is worth celebrating.”

2021 New Publisher of the Year

  • Winner: Dallas Free Press produces nonprofit journalism that amplifies voices in disinvested Dallas neighborhoods and explores solutions to the city’s systemic inequities. 

From the judges: “I think Dallas Free Press is such a stellar example of how many other local journalism entrepreneurs throughout the country could (and should) start small, while maximizing impact and being truly rooted in community and public service. I especially commend their sharp focus on certain neighborhoods and starting from a place of community listening, meeting real information needs, and centering equity.”

  • Open Vallejo is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom serving the public interest.
  • Sioux Falls Simplified cuts through the clutter and delivers the bullet-pointed, bite-sized version of the local news local residents need to stay informed.

2021 Public Service Award

From the judges: “Phenomenal reporting and outcome for the Long Beach Community. Really excellent use of visuals to help illustrate the numbers. Really impressive reporting, and the time and effort which went into it is really impressive.”

  • Block Club Chicago for its reporting on Ida Nelson, a mother fighting to change the rules at her 4-year-old son’s school after it forced her to remove his braids. Ida and her son are Black. The story inspried a state senator to write a bill that would ban anti-Black hair discrimination across the entire state.
  • Chalkbeat for its comprehensive coverage on how reopened schools could maintain the airflow needed to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, including creating a searchable database of inspection reports and creating a text-based tool allowing readers to easily look up their school’s information. 

2021 Publisher of the Year – Solo (Presented by Broadstreet Ads)

  • Winner: El Tímpano ​​works in collaboration with Oakland residents and community partners to create empowering, two-way channels of information. 

From the judges: “El Tímpano is changing the game, innovating in every area — in community engagement and accountability, reporting, partnerships, use of technology, and now in terms of revenue strategy. I’m thrilled to see this site continue to flourish and show us all what local news can be.”

  • Gettysburg Connection is an online website serving Gettysburg and Adams County residents in Pennsylvania.

2021 Publisher of the Year – Small (Presented by Broadstreet Ads)

  • Winner: Voice of OC is a local nonprofit, non-partisan newsroom located in Orange County, California. 

From the judges: Voice of OC is one of the standard bearers of nonprofit journalism for good reason. The team is very good at articulating its mission and documenting the impact of their work, which is considerable.

  • San José Spotlight is the city’s first nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent political and business reporting. 
  • Wausau Pilot & Review is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to educating the public about crucial issues in central Wisconsin, with a special focus on public policy and quality-of-life issues.

2021 Publisher of the Year – Medium/Large (Presented by Broadstreet Ads)

  • Winner: Block Club Chicago is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to delivering reliable, nonpartisan and essential coverage of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods. 

From the judges: Block Club Chicago’s emphasis on consistent presence in neighborhoods to build trust has made it a leader in community-rooted local news. The team’s responsiveness to people’s needs during the pandemic demonstrates the organization’s core commitment to public service and public trust. The range of storytelling is impressive, as is the creativity on the business side.

  • The Reader is Nebraska’s only nationally-recognized alternative news monthly.

Best (Local) Election/Voting Coverage (Presented by the Knight Foundation)

  • Winner: VTDigger for its comprehensive and audience-informed Election Guide, a 24/7 liveblog with election updates, live debates between major party candidates and over 200 election stories. 

From the judges: “This is what careful planning and cultivating reader trust looks like. VTDigger’s longtime relationship with its audience and continued fulfillment of its editorial mission has resulted in election coverage to which all organizations, no matter the size, should aspire.”

  • Berkeleyside for its Election 2020 hub featuring coverage of each race and ballot measure, results and more. It published more than 60 stories digging into each race and compiled 30 candidate Q&As so readers knew their options.
  • Enlace Latino NC for its extensive election coverage serving its Spanish-speaking audience including a “2020 Elections” website section, an election guide, podcast episodes dedicated to electoral coverage and a voter information campaign called #TuVotoEsPoder
  • NOWCastSA for its 2021 City of San Antonio Elections coverage including a page that made it possible for voters to easily find answers to complex issues using its ​​“Quick Clips,” which let viewers scroll to the issues most important to them and hear each candidates’ views on the issue in a video.

Best Coverage of Protest and Movements

From the judges: “Block Club Chicago deserves to be lauded for the editorial decision to publish two versions of the story, with and without the graphic video. Giving readers the choice about what they need to see without being retraumatized is a thoughtful approach, and one more newsrooms should consider.”

Thank you to our 2021 LION Awards judges: Larry Ryckman, Tom Davidson, Sherry Skalko, Zach Baddorf, Lizzy Hazeltine, Conor Crowley, Annelise McGough, Kim Fox, Gonzalo Peon, Erica Beshears Perel, Julia Campbell , Kanya S. Stewart, Kat Duncan, Jeff South, Dana Coester, Virginia Arrigucci, Mark Potts, Anita Varma, Sisi Wei, Fiona Morgan, Tyler Fisher, Shannan Bowen, Annemarie Dooling, Jo Ellen Kaiser, Dylan Smith, Letrell Crittenden, Emily Hilberer, Linda Shaw, Jan Schaffer, Bridget Thoreson, Becca Aaronson, Gunita Singh and Stacey Peters.

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