NORMAL — After several years of near-misses, the Ford County Record finally has claimed the top prize in the Illinois Press Association’s annual Excellence in News Contest.

On Friday during the association’s annual convention at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, the Ford County Record was awarded the coveted David B. Kramer Memorial Trophy, which goes to the best small, non-daily newspaper in Illinois.

The trophy, established in 2014 by the Kramer family in memory of the late publisher of the Gibson City Courier and other Kramer weekly newspapers, is now prominently displayed in the front window of the Record’s office at 208 N. Market St. in downtown Paxton — where it will remain for at least the next year.

"As an organization, we take our role as providers of quality local journalism very seriously. It’s a tremendous honor for the Ford County Record to be recognized as the best in the state among its peer group. My hearty congratulations goes out to the entire staff," said John Reed, chief executive officer and publisher of News-Gazette Media, which owns the Ford County Record.

The Record won 25 awards for editorial excellence in the contest, winning its division ahead of another News-Gazette Media-owned weekly paper, the Mahomet Citizen, which finished second with 12 awards. Finishing in third place was the El Paso Journal, which had eight awards, and in fourth was The Navigator & Journal-Register of Albion, which had six awards.

Notably absent from the contest this year was a perennial contender in the small, non-daily newspaper division — the Woodstock Independent, which had won the division three out of the past four years. Last year, the Woodstock Independent won 26 awards to edge out the Ford County Record — with 21 — to win the David B. Kramer Memorial Trophy, leaving the Record with a runner-up finish a year after the Record finished third.

In this year’s contest — which was for work completed in 2017 — Editor Will Brumleve led the Record with 14 awards, including three first-place awards, three second-place honors, four third-place awards and four honorable mention honors.

Brumleve also shared a first-place award with correspondents Ross Brown and Jean Noellsch. Brown won another first-place award for a sports feature, as well.

Sports Editor Andrew Rosten won seven awards, with an eighth being shared with correspondent Ryan Ferguson. They included two first-place honors, three second-place awards and three honorable mention awards.

The Record’s staff also won a second-place award for the newspaper’s editorial page.

"Editor Will Brumleve is no stranger to winning awards at journalism contests," Reed said. "But coming home with the David B. Kramer Memorial Trophy is a real testament to the skill and dedication of both our staff and community correspondents who work so hard to keep you informed. I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve achieved."

Also at Friday’s Illinois Press Association convention, The News-Gazette was named the state’s best medium-sized newspaper for the fourth consecutive year. The reward: retaining the hefty Mabel S. Shaw Memorial Trophy.

Investigative Reporting

Brumleve again claimed the University of Illinois Department of Journalism Knight Chair Award for Best Investigative/Enterprise Reporting. Brumleve also took third and honorable mention in that same category.

The first-place entry was for Brumleve’s coverage of the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley school district’s $1.1 million in expenses incurred in challenging the One Earth Energy ethanol plant’s property tax appeal.

Members of the Missouri Press Association and Pennsylvania News Media Association — which judged the more than 2,500 contest entries — called Brumleve’s first-place entry "a sharp example of reporting that shows how the public money goes to pay endless legal bills."

Brumleve’s third-place entry was for his coverage of Bob Bane’s firing as Paxton’s police chief. As part of his coverage, Brumleve obtained a memo from the city through a Freedom of Information Act request that detailed a previously undisclosed ultimatum that Mayor Bill Ingold gave Bane prior to his firing.

"A good use of the FOIA law to obtain a memo that shed detailed light on the firing of a police chief," judges said.

Brumleve’s honorable mention award was for his coverage of the Gibson City Council’s decision not to donate funds to improvements at Railside Golf Course — specifically, a letter obtained from the city through a FOIA request that influenced the council’s decision.

"An enterprising piece of work on a land deal," judges said of the entry.

Public Notice Award

Brumleve also won the Public Notice Journalism Award, beating out much larger papers for the top honor. The award was in an "open division," meaning non-daily papers and daily papers of all sizes competed for it.

Brumleve’s first-place entry was a story he wrote about the Ford County Public Building Commission having to re-vote on a contract it had approved for the installation of a new generator at the county jail. The reason for having to redo its vote was that the contract was deemed invalid because a proper legal notice was never published in a local newspaper.

"Very well-written, and obviously the interests of the public were held in high regard when looking at and resolving this issue and addressed solutions given where it would not happen again," judges said.

Business Reporting

Brumleve also won first place, third place and honorable mention for business/economic reporting.

His first-place award was for coverage of a start-up vodka-making business founded by three brothers from Ford County.

"This story was interesting and touched on the issue of adding value to crops as a form of economic development for rural areas," judges said. "The context on the hoops you go through to produce alcohol was of interest."

Brumleve’s third-place award was for coverage of economic development in Paxton’s tax-increment financing district.

"Good coverage of what leaders are doing to bring development to the community," judges said.

The honorable mention award was for coverage of the sale of Railside Golf Course in Gibson City.

"Strong coverage on the future of a facility that played a big role in the community," judges said.

Government Beat Reporting

Brumleve also shared a first-place award with correspondents Brown and Noellsch in the government beat reporting category. Brumleve also claimed second place and honorable mention in that same category.

The first-place award was for coverage of the Gibson City Council’s decision not to donate funds to improvements at Railside Golf Course.

"Lots of details in the search for the email that influenced council’s decision," judges said. "Easy to read — the key to government reporting. Like that the reporter asked why it happened."

Brumleve’s second-place award was for coverage of the Paxton’s police chief lawsuit against the city seeking unpaid overtime, as well as his subsequent firing by the mayor.

"Good research. Lots of detail. FOIA requests add to the story," judges said.

Brumleve’s honorable mention award was for a story about the Ford County Public Building Commission’s invalid contract.

"Small-town politics in action," judges said. "Good job capturing it."

Best School Board Coverage

Brumleve claimed runner-up honors for the Illinois Association of School Boards’ Robert M. Cole Award for Best School Board Coverage. Brumleve’s entry was for coverage of the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board.

"Well-written series of stories not only provides the school district’s budget numbers, but explains them in plain language," judges said. "Nice job of reporting!"

News Reporting (Single Story)

Brumleve also won second place in the "News Reporting — Single Story" category, for a story he wrote about an elderly man who was beaten at a Buckley bar.

"It’s a sad story to tell but an important one," judges said.

Public’s Right to Know

Brumleve won third place for the Illinois Public Policy Institute Award for Best Promotion of the Public’s Right to Know. The award was for coverage of the GCMS school district’s expenses fighting the One Earth Energy ethanol plant’s tax appeal.

Spot News Photo

Brumleve won third place in the "spot news photo" category, as well, for a photo he took of a fire at the Coulter farm east of Paxton.

Best Coverage of Taxation

Brumleve won honorable mention for the Illinois Taxpayers Federation-sponsored Maurice Scott Award for Best Coverage of Taxation.

"A good selection of stories about tax issues between school and municipal jurisdictions," judges said.

Editorial Page

The Record’s staff took second place for best editorial page. Entered as an entry were editorial pages from April 12 and June 21 last year.

Sports Section

Rosten wowed the judges by the thoroughness and depth of coverage in his sports section on his way to receiving a first-place honor for best sports section.

"WOW!" judges said. "Talk about blowing away the competition. Great art, nice breakouts, unbelievable space (I’m jealous). It doesn’t get much better than this."

Sports Feature

Correspondent Ross Brown won first place for best sports feature, for a story he wrote about the life — and death — of GCMS sports fan Roy Roemer.

"Seems like we all know a ‘Roy’ from our own home town," judges said. "A well-developed, close-to-the-heart tribute."

Rosten took second in the same category, for a story he wrote about the retirement of Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School Athletic Director John Overstreet.

"Comprehensive, with a personal touch," judges said. "Nice summary of an impressive career."

Headline Writing

Rosten won both first and second place for headline writing. His first-place entry’s headlines were: "Medaling Kids," "Four Old Times," "Zen fans 11," "Let’s win two" and "Six-cess."

"Witty, charming headlines," judges said. "Really enjoy ‘Medaling Kids.’ Well done."

Rosten’s second-place headlines were: "State-Ment," "Spirit Soar," "Splitsville," "Nine is Nice," "Six-cess" and "Dandy Dozen."

Sports News

Rosten won second place in the sports news category, with an honorable mention award in that same category shared between Rosten and correspondent Ryan Ferguson.

The second-place entry was for a story Rosten wrote about the PBL High School cross country team’s appearance in the IHSA Class 1A state meet last November.

"I liked this," judges said. "Almost seemed overdone with the size of the headline, but then reading on and understanding the gravity of the event and all the coverage and photos that followed, it synthesized quite well. Good job."

Rosten and Ferguson’s honorable mention award was for coverage of a boys’ basketball game between rivals PBL and GCMS for the regional championship.

"My favorite? The art," judges said, "particularly the team photo and the shot of an excited Eshleman. Good stuff."

Sports Column

Rosten won honorable mention in the sports column category, as well. It was for a series of columns he wrote, including one about PBL High School graduate Caitlynn Riblet and another in which he predicted the outcome of one of the GCMS High School football team’s playoff games.

Special Section

Rosten also won honorable mention in the special section category. It was for a section he did on the GCMS High School football team’s run to the state championship in Class 2A.

Other contest highlights

Brumleve and Rosten picked up the awards Friday at the IPA’s annual convention in Normal.

More than 100 daily and non-daily newspapers competed in 36 editorial categories in six circulation divisions, submitting more than 2,500 contest entries. Sweepstakes trophies were awarded to the newspapers earning the most points in the six circulation divisions. The Record competed in Division A, which is for non-daily papers with a circulation under 3,000.

The News-Gazette in Champaign was awarded the Mabel S. Shaw Memorial Sweepstakes Trophy, which is awarded to the best medium-sized daily newspaper in the state. Runner-up for the trophy was the Northwest Harold in Crystal Lake; the Quincy Herald-Whig won third.

The Journal Star in Peoria won the Stuart R. Paddock Memorial Sweepstakes Trophy for large dailies. Runner-up for the Paddock Trophy was the Chicago Sun-Times. In third place was the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights.

In the small daily newspaper category, The Register-Mail in Galesburg claimed top honors. The newspaper was awarded the Patrick Coburn Award of Excellence. Coming in second for the Coburn Award was the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, followed by the Pekin Daily Times.

In the large, non-daily newspaper category, the Kane County Chronicle in St. Charles claimed the Will Loomis Memorial Trophy. The Suburban Life Core Group of Downers Grove received second place. The Austin Weekly News in Chicago received third place.

The winner of the Harold and Eva White Memorial Trophy, awarded to a medium-sized, non-daily newspaper, was The Galena Gazette. Second place went to the Bureau County Republican in Princeton, and in third place was The Hinsdalean in Hinsdale. 

The Illinois Press Association, located in Springfield, represents approximately 450 daily and weekly newspapers.

Thanks to community

Rosten had the following thoughts about winning the David B. Kramer Memorial Trophy:

"There are a lot of people to thank for the trophy, and for our individual awards, as well. Will Brumleve has been around for a long time and has done many things to make our paper a known part of the Illinois newspaper scene. Our sales representative, Sheryl Schunke, and our office manager, Pat Killion, deserve praise, as well, for helping our paper make money so we can provide the editorial content that won us the trophy. Above all, though, it is our community that deserves a bulk, if not most, of the thanks.

"Throughout 2017, we have covered some of the greatest moments in the county’s history — Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley’s football team winning the state championship, among one of them — and have mourned the losses of some beloved members in our community.

"Among those beloved members was GCMS Superfan Roy Roemer, whose life-remembered feature earned Ross Brown his first-place award.

"Whether it was Roy Roemer, Caitlynn Riblet (a 2016 Paxton-Buckley-Loda graduate who passed away last September) or Dylan Benningfield, who gave me a thumbs-up at the GCMS football team’s victory parade last November before passing on the next spring, sports — and other aspects of our community — have given them a chance to experience some of the best times of their life.

"Unfortunately, we all know too well that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Therefore, we must cherish some of the best moments of our lives.

"I know that the last six years I’ve worked here have provided some of the best moments of my life, and this job has given me an opportunity to witness some great times. It is my hope — and I’m sure it is the hope of everyone who works for our paper — that our work has helped you, the community, further enjoy the more precious moments of your lives, as well."