The past week has been bittersweet in the Pine Knot News office as its staff said goodbye to the traveling Mills Trophy that marked the newspaper as the best weekly in Minnesota the past three years. While Millie is now 313 miles away in the office of the Worthington Globe, the Pine Knot remained the most decorated weekly paper this year, earning 28 awards in the Minnesota Newspaper Association's annual newspaper contest.
"We did very well, like past years, but other papers definitely stepped up their efforts. That's a good thing," said Pine Knot News editor Jana Peterson.
The awards were announced at MNA's annual convention in Brooklyn Park Feb. 1-2.
"It's fun being recognized by our peers, but that's not why we do it," Peterson said. "We love covering the news and making sure our readers know what's going on."
The 157th annual MNA convention hosted Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Star Tribune publisher Steve Grove at its Friday convention luncheon.
Child safety advocates Patty Wetterling and Joy Baker gave the keynote address at the Thursday lunch. Throughout the convention, there were informational sessions on improving news coverage and increasing the bottom line for operations.
Among several hundred awards presented to journalists, advertising professionals, newspapers and college journalists at Thursday's awards banquet were the Vance and Mills trophies, which recognize the state's best multi-day and weekly publications based on award points. The Vance Trophy was awarded to the Brainerd Dispatch this year and the Mills Trophy to Worthington.
In five years of competing, the Pine Knot News has been honored for journalism excellence 129 times, three times garnering enough points to claim the Mills Trophy as the best weekly.
The Pine Knot had nine first-place awards this year.
Firsts included the Freedom of Information Award with the judge saying the paper did a "good job of reporting on real-time examples of law-breaking actions (of public bodies) and marrying them with education about what went wrong and what should happen."
Another first came for the Pine Knot's school board coverage. "This dream team ensemble of writers put together an exceptional series of expositions that were brave, artfully crafted, attention-grabbing, thought-provoking, and critically important," the judge wrote. "This is just outstanding work that is worthy of the highest position on the awards podium."
"That's high praise," Peterson said. "But we work hard to cover public bodies. We are small, but we take our watchdog role very seriously."
Brady Slater got firsts for both business story and business profile (where he also took second) and Amber Nichols got first place for sports photo and feature photo. Other firsts came in the categories of headline writing, use of social media, and advertising.
The Pine Knot had seven second-place and 12 third-place awards.
In the "general excellence" category, which marks the best papers according to circulation sizes, the Pine Knot captured a third place for papers between 1,500-3,000 subscribers. "So many areas to be proud of," the judge wrote. "Layout, special election section, great art. Very strong story-telling and news reporting. Great letters to the editor."
The Pine Knot began in the fall of 2018 as a homegrown paper, running against the current journalism tide, with fewer newspapers and journalists covering communities across the country.
"We get asked throughout the convention: How do you do it?" said Pine Knot staffer Mike Creger. "We continue to amaze colleagues, and I hope inspire them, with our ability to put out such a quality paper with such a small staff."
A common theme at the annual MNA convention is how to staunch the trend of newspapers offering less coverage or fewer issues or simply shutting down.
"We're still here," Peterson said. "In the end, it isn't about notoriety from afar. It's about serving our readers in the best way we can. And between our professional staff and a platoon of freelancers, we put together a pretty good newspaper week in and week out."
Millie may not be greeting people in the office in the West End, but the mission of excellence in journalism remains, Peterson said, along with those 129 awards hanging around the office.
"The best praise comes from people who call or walk into the office telling us how much they enjoy the paper," Creger said. "That's all we need."
Business story, Brady Slater
Business profile, Brady Slater
Sports photo, Amber Nichols
Feature photo, Amber Nichols
Use of social media, Ivan Hohnstadt
Freedom of information use, explanation
Coverage of school boards
Human interest news story, Mike Creger
Sports feature story, Brady Slater
Business feature, Brady Slater
Breaking news coverage, Jana Peterson
Coverage of courts and crime, Mike Creger
Columnist, Ann Markusen
Page design portfolio, Mike Creger
Self-promotional ad, Mike Creger
Human interest news story, Jana Peterson and Dan Reid
Business story, Jana Peterson
Breaking news coverage, Jana Peterson and Brady Slater
Personality photo, Jana Peterson
News photo, AJ Miller
Use of graphics, Mike Creger
Government and public affairs reporting, Brady Slater
Note: Story originally printed in the Pine Knot News. Reprinted with permission.