Montclair Local Nonprofit News is the recipient of 26 awards in the New Jersey Press Association's 2021 Better Newspaper Contest, with work judges credited for thoughtful storytelling, an emphasis on accountability for those in positions of power, deep explorations of issues key to Montclair's culture and community, and creative use of online platforms.

The nonprofit newsroom garnered 25 of those awards in the 2021 editorial portion of the contest for weekly newspapers, and the 26th in a photography contest open to daily and weekly newspapers alike. Notice of awards for work conducted in 2021 was sent to newsrooms on Friday.

Montclair Local's awards included 11 first-place prizes, including for pieces on anti-AAPI bias; the battle over returning to Montclair school buildings last winter and spring; the stunning "whistleblower" report that alleged years of health hazards and abusive behavior toward employees in Montclair schools; the racial remarks by the then-township attorney and the revelation that he'd continue to get about $86,000 in paychecks after stepping down; and efforts to get more Black and brown Montclair residents vaccinated. Montclair Local additionally won first-place prizes for its online coronavirus tracker; breaking news coverage of the damage Ida wrought on Montclair, including video of photographer and videographer Neil Grabowsky trapped in his studio as floodwaters poured in (provided by Grabowsky to Montclair Local even as he sifted through the debris and damage); its live forum on the debate over 2021's referendum to give the township an elected school board; and Shane Paul Neil's ongoing "Our Montclair" video and podcast series, exploring the life, culture and activism of Montclair.

Photographer Kate Albright won the third-place award in the "Protest" category of NJPA's photography contest for her image of Analilia Mejia, deputy director of the women’s bureau of the US Department of Labor, at the October New Jersey Women’s March for Reproductive Rights (see the image above).

Previously, for work in 2018, 2019 and 2020, Montclair Local was the recipient of the contest's "General Excellence Award," presented to the publication that wins the highest tally of points assigned for its other awards. The NJPA will announce this year's "General Excellence" winner at a banquet on April 28.

The work of Montclair Local, as a nonprofit newsroom, is only possible through the continued support of the community it serves. The vast majority of Montclair Local's expenses go directly to journalists' salaries — for the reporting judges recognized as deeply valuable to the people of Montclair. Your sustaining contribution of as little as $10 a month both supports that continued, important work and entitles you to our weekly print edition. See MontclairLocal.news/donations for details.

Praise for first-place awards

Judges said Montclair Local's coverage of AAPI issues treated an important topic with "respect and thoroughness," in presenting the newsroom with the first-place award for "Public Service" writing. "The writing humanized the issue, and that's important to making readers care," the judges wrote. A package of winning pieces consisted of those by freelancer Richard Cowen on the bias Asian American and Pacific Islander residents face, by former staff reporter and continued freelancer Erin Roll on the public school district's promise to better protect AAPI students, by Associate Editor Jaimie Julia Winters on a Montclair police officer's racially charged online post, and by Albright and Human Connections Reporter Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena on a lantern festival presented by grassroots group AAPI Montclair as it expanded its mission into cultural celebrations.

Talia Wiener's in-depth report on the schools "whistleblower" letter, which involved dozens of interviews and extensive research into accounts that corroborated, contradicted or put context around its many claims, was a "thorough job to explain complicated issue," the judges wrote, selecting her story for the first-place "Investigative Reporting" award. A package of that and related stories (also showing the how the investigation spilled over into another town's school district, revealing that a consultant looking into the letter had then been hired to replace one of the officials he was investigating, and detailing the Montclair district's conclusion that there was indeed "unacceptable" behavior in management) also won Wiener the first-place "Enterprise" award, with reporting the judges said stood out for "the way it relates the harm that this problem causes to teacher and student health."

Judges called a breakdown on the issues surrounding the return to school buildings, by Roll and Editor in Chief Louis C. Hochman, "by far the strongest entry" in the "Fresh Approach to Routine Reporting" category, awarding it first place and saying what made the report stand out was the "tight writing, excellent reporting and the organization."

Stories by Mena, Winters and Roll on barriers to vaccination for Black and brown residents led the contest's category for coronavirus reporting, with what judges described as "great personal stories and details throughout."

Montclair Local's Ida coverage was full of visual elements that helped "propel the story and draw the reader's eye," the judges wrote. They said continuous updates — nine frequently updated stories in the first 24 hours after the storm hit — "were likely very crucial for this community," selecting the full-team initiative for the first-place "Online Breaking News" award. The reporting included work by Hochman, Wiener, Mena, Albright, Neil and then-Sports Editor Andrew Garda, detailing the extent of the damage, avenues for relief and ways neighbors were beginning to help one another. The video of Grabowsky trapped in his studio, provided by Grabowsky and edited by Hochman, was a "very interesting, unplanned documentation of heart-wrenching events," the judges wrote, selecting it for the first place "Best Video" award.

Hochman won the contest's first-place "First Amendment Award," given to work that highlights the importance of a free press, for his stories breaking the news that then-Township Attorney Ira Karasick had called a Black housing official "three-fifths of a human," that Karasick was stepping down, and that he'd remain on the payroll for another half-year-plus. "Wow, an astonishingly racist comment by the township's attorney," the judges wrote, praising the work for shedding light on a matter that until then had gone publicly unaddressed by township leaders, though outside counsel they'd quietly hired had completed an investigation weeks earlier.

Neil's "Our Montclair" series, distributed in video and podcast form, has been a "a great example of multimedia reporting to reach a broad audience and engage the community," the judges wrote in selecting Neil for the "Best Video Portfolio" first-place award. The portfolio included his discussion with visual artist Armando “OUTthere” Diaz and tapdancer Maurice Chestnut about art as activism, with the Human Needs Food Pantry leadership about needs in the pandemic, with a graduating Montclair High School student about coming of age amid racial justice activism and the pandemic alike, with Evelyn Colbert about new beginnings for Montclair Film, and with a refugee family trying to bridge digital and language divides (reported in collaboration with Mena and Hochman, who also co-edited the video episode).

Montclair Local's coronavirus tracker, created by Hochman and updated daily by staffers, won first-place for the "Best Web Project;" it includes snapshots of vaccination rates, new coronavirus cases and deaths and related statistics for Montclair, Essex County and New Jersey. The live discussion on the referendum that gave Montclair an elected school board, produced by Hochman and hosted by longtime education reporter Dale Russakoff (who also served as an adviser for Wiener's "whistleblower" pieces), won first place for "Best Web Event."

Second and third-place awards are described below.

Second place

• "Headlines" — Copy Editor Joe Dziublenski — "Geese flying in V-formation after win over Columbia"; "Bumblebees are anything but bumbling when it comes to pollination"; "If ever, oh ever a wiz there was: Oz the cat teaches life lessons"
• "General Coronavirus/COVID-19 Coverage — Wiener and Hochman — "District: We can't mandate vaccination for staff"; "For some parents, frustration"; "No vote on school repairs before November 2022;" "Outdoor classes, masks and an evolving plan;" Parents worry about air cleaners"
• "Editorial Section Layout & Content" — Paginator Andrea Bondy — Montclair Local's March 11 and Oct. 28 editions
• "Coverage of Government / Art Weissman Memorial Award" — Winters — "Audit finds issues in library budget"; "Battle over library's finances put on pause"; "Township still 'overreaching,' library leaders say"
• "Coverage of Elections/Politics" — Wiener, Hochman and Winters — "Voters to decide: appointed or elected"; "The big question looms: elected or appointed"; "Montclair will have an elected school board"
• "Coverage of Crime / Police / Courts" — Winters — "Nine summonses so far"; "Leaf blower law heading to court"; "Leaf blower ordinance upheld"
• "Best Video" — Neil, Mena and Hochman — " How a refugee family is bridging digital, language divides"

Third Place

• "Protest (Photography)" — Albright —  Women's March
• "Responsible Journalism / Public Service / Lloyd P. Burns Memorial Award" — Winters — "Repeal or Referendum"; "Town to appeal rent-control ruling"; "Landlord group sues again"; "Landlords set to sue again"; "Rent control rules likely going to voters"
• "Investigative Reporting" — Winters — "National intervention into local election"; "Pelham retains leadership post"
• "Arts & Entertainment Writing" — Mena — "Montclairian restores a groundbreaking film"
• "Special Subject Writing" — Mena — "Fleeing persecution, Nicaraguan family found a home in Montclair"; "Bridging the divides"
• "First Amendment" — Hochman — "Black firefighters allege bias in promotions test"
• "Coverage of Government / Art Weissman Memorial Award" — Winters — "Council moves on LGBTQ inclusive policies"; "Glenridge closure surprises businesses"; Organizations at risk of losing their homes
• "Best Video" — Neil — Coming of age in extraordinary times