St. George News takes home a dozen awards in regional Top of the Rockies 2021 contest

The St. George News production suite at Canyon Media's headquarters in St. George, Utah, Dec. 9, 2017 | File photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

ST. GEORGE St. George News had its biggest takeaway yet in the annual Top of the Rockies journalism contest, winning a dozen awards — including a first-place finisher — across a variety of reporting categories for stories published in 2020 in the large newsroom division.

The Top of the Rockies is a regional contest that includes publications and journalists in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. The competition is sponsored by the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization describing itself as dedicated to encouraging a climate in which journalism can be practiced more freely and fully, stimulating high standards and ethical behavior and perpetuating a free press.

St. George News’ reporting is emblematic of the ideals and goals espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists, the fruits of which are on full display in this year’s winning stories.

“The award-winning work of our staff, be it covering a global pandemic through a local lens, reporting on regional sports or documenting the rescue of a beloved family pet, represents the kind of news that Southern Utah readers value most: stories and information laser-focused on the local community,” St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joseph Witham said. “We take this responsibility seriously and are so proud of our entire team for making this mission possible 365 days per year.”

First place award

Stephen Matthew Gardner, appearing in this 2018 booking photo, was convicted in the beating and robbery of a local business owner. St. George News crime reporter Cody Blowers won a first place award in the 2021 Top of the Rockies competition for her coverage of Gardner’s criminal prosecution. | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

St. George News’ top finisher in the 2021 competition was crime reporter Cody Blowers, whose work covering a harrowing robbery and its aftermath received first place in the legal news reporting category.

Blowers’ reporting on the case began in July 2018 when Stephen Gardner entered a family-run business in St. George at 4 a.m. and struck the elderly owner, Ralph Lee Sr., multiple times in the head before ransacking the business. Blowers followed every step of justice in the case, from before Gardner was identified as the suspect to his sentencing in 2020, where he received the maximum sentence.

Second place awards

Like many reporters across the country prior to 2020, St. George News’ health care writer, Chris Reed, had no inkling that he’d be reporting on a global pandemic, but he came through with flying colors, offering readers exhaustive, frequent updates about how the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded in Southern Utah. His innovative reporting received second place in the pandemic reporting category.

Representative of St. George News’ commitment to round-the-clock coverage of breaking news was reporter Jeff Richards, whose story on a man being rescued by heroic bystanders and first responders won second place in the breaking news category.

Bystanders and first responders work to help an unresponsive driver on Brigham Road, St. George, Utah, Aug. 12, 2020. St. George News reporter Jeff Richards received a second-place award in the 2021 Top of the Rockies competition for his coverage of this breaking news event. | File photo courtesy of Ty Empey, St. George News

Aspen Stoddard, who currently servers as a managing editor for St. George News, took two second place awards: one in the agriculture/environment category for a story on the preservation of 419 acres of property near Virgin that was previously considered for development and one for a story about the complex legacy of Robert D. Covington in the religion news category.

Former St. George News reporter Hollie Stark took second place in the enterprise reporting category for her look at how a small, rural community is coping with the loss of its post office.

Blowers was also awarded second place in the legal news category for a story about a woman whose fraudulent behavior put a local company out of business.

Third place awards

Senior Reporter Mori Kessler was honored with two third place awards. His coverage of a major demonstration against police brutality that occurred in downtown St. George last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder placed in the breaking news category. On a lighter note, his skill in photography was also recognized for a candid shot he took of a cat being rescued from a lamppost in St. George.

A cat named “D-O-G” is prepared to be rescued by firefighters after she got herself stuck on top of a lamppost, St. George, Utah, April 9, 2020. This photo won third place in news photography in the 2021 Top of the Rockies competition. | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Richards’ coverage of the mystery of the metal monolith in the desert south of Moab received third place in the category of news reporting-single story. Richards went to great lengths to report the story with information from several sources unique to St. George News.

In the spot news photography/videography category, three St. George News staffers — videographers Aaron Crane and Sheldon Demke, along with Stark — took third place for their video coverage of former Gov. Gary Herbert’s visit to St. George in the aftermath of major flooding caused by a massive storm in August 2020.

Sports contributor Mark Musgrave, production assistant Kaden Foremaster and former reporter Ryne Williams were recognized with a third place win for their entertaining sports commentary in the podcast category.

This year’s winners were but a few of the many award-worthy stories that St. George News’ dedicated team of reporters, videographers and editors worked to deliver to readers throughout Southern Utah and beyond. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the St. George News newsletter for free, daily access to the best in local news, sports and informative shows.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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