Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel win New England recognition for 'Homeless in Maine' project

Mar. 25—WALTHAM, Mass. — The Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel were awarded three awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association on Saturday for last year's collaborative Homeless in Maine series.

The awards were presented at the professional association's annual New England Newspaper & Press Association Convention.

The papers placed first in investigative/enterprise reporting and won a first place special recognition award for best solutions journalism project, which recognizes excellence in a solutions, evidence-based journalism project that includes coverage of a widely shared problem, as well as evidence-based solutions reporting with a newsworthy response.

The same project won a third place award for excellence in newsroom collaboration and partnerships, which honors newsrooms that have formed partnerships or collaborations to cover a topic or story.

The journalists who worked on that project, from the Sun Journal, were Managing Editor/days Mark Mogensen, Web Editor Carl Natale, Audience Engagement Editor Nina Mahaleris, staff writers Chris Wheelock, Emily Bader, Vanessa Paolella, Steve Collins and Mark LaFlamme, and photographers Andree Kehn, Russ Dillingham and Daryn Slover.

Journalists at Central Maine Sunday were Managing Editor Scott Monroe, former Kennebec Journal City Editor Meg Robbins, former Morning Sentinel City Editor David Warren, reporters Amy Calder, Emily Duggan and Keith Edwards, former photographer Mike Seamans, web editor/producer Ben Pinette and graphic artist Sharon Wood.

According to Judith Meyer, who is the executive editor of the three newspapers, the project originated in the fall of 2021 when journalists from all three newsrooms were covering a number of police actions to clear homeless encampments in their papers' respective coverage areas, which "prompted a general conversation about the rising homeless population in Maine and we wondered where people were going to find housing as the temperature dropped."

She said, "winter in Maine can be a harsh environment even for those who have homes, warm clothing and access to regular meals. For those who have nowhere to go and not much to eat, it can be positively hostile," so the newspapers decided to collaborate on a six-month project looking at the homeless population's challenges, what government was doing (and definitely not doing) to establish shelters and boost services, and what possible solutions may already exist or may be implemented to provide safe shelter and support for those in need."

That investigation ultimate became a five-part series titled "Homeless in Maine."

In part one, published December 4, 2022, the papers framed the scope of this problem through data collected from local and state governments. "We learned very quickly that there is no accurate count of the homeless population, and not a whole lot of interest by public officials to track this population," Meyer said. "Local advocates told us the number of adults, families and child experiencing homelessness has rapidly increased in the past year as Maine's housing crisis persists, something we absolutely saw on city streets and in neighborhood parks as homeless encampments popped up," but there is no official number of homeless in Maine, a number that can be hard to track because the population is so fluid.

The second installment of the project looked at the working homeless, people who held full-time jobs but still didn't make enough to pay for housing, and the challenges and dangers they face on the street.

Part three examined the rising number of teens who are homeless, and what schools are doing to support their education and what social services are available to help them. According to Meyer, "we found that in too many cases, teens were becoming homeless as they struggled with gender identity and parents kicked them out of their family homes."

In part four the newspapers focused on how the homeless population is policed, and what ordinances govern shelters and encampments in Maine, and part five examined successful programs set up to help the homeless and possible future solutions to reduce the size of this population.

"We are very proud of our work on this very human story," Meyer said, and after each of the reports were published "we heard from dozens and dozens of readers how much the reporting was appreciated."

Sun Journal Staff Writer Mark LaFlamme won a first place and second place award in crime and courts reporting for his reports "A tale of two Justins," looking at Poland murder suspect Justin Butterfield who friends described as a loving father and brother and who was in and out of mental health facilities for years prior to being charged with killing his older brother on Thanksgiving Day 2021, and for "Are we having a crime wave in Lewiston and Auburn?," a story that was prompted by recent episodes of gun violence and rising community fear about a crime wave, including a double murder in Auburn and a fatal shooting in Lewiston in 2022. The report revealed that while there was a public perception that crime was rising, an examination of statistics provided by the Lewiston and Auburn police departments showed crime was actually down in most areas.

Staff writer Andrew Rice and former staff writer Vanessa Paolella won a first place award in racial, ethnic or gender issue coverage for their report "Draft resolution on diversity draws backlash, concerns," which explored the move by two Lewiston city councilors who wrote a resolution condemning optional diversity talks in the Lewiston Public Schools.

Several councilors and the mayor only saw the resolution after the Sun Journal conducted a Freedom of Access Act request, prompting ethical questions about the content of the resolution along with questions from the mayor, from councilors, and from school officials about how it was drafted outside council bounds. That resolution ultimately failed and 10 days later the City Council adopted a more inclusive resolution based on value and respect to all members of the community.

The Sun Journal staff won a second place innovator award for work recognizing its 175th anniversary celebration in 2022. The innovator award is one of NENPA's special recognition awards that go to the best new idea (or unique twist or a not-so-new idea) used to grow and/or engage a newspaper's audience.

Staff writer Christopher Wheelock won a second place award for business/economic reporting for his report "Chaga farming in Maine is on the fringe of being a multi-million dollar industry," a story about a Livermore Falls couple who started farming this unique mushroom that grows in birch trees.

And, LaFlamme won a second place award in spot news for his reporting on three separate breaking news events on Thanksgiving Day 2022, including the stabbing death of Gabriel Damour at the hands of his brother Justin Butterfield, the death of Lewiston School Committee candidate Jason Lavoie following a fall from an apartment building and a fire in Canton that damaged a family home.

The New England Newspaper & Press Association is the professional trade organization for newspapers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island, representing more than 450 daily, weekly and specialty newspapers throughout the six-state region.

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