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The SUN shines: Pagosa paper wins Service to the First Award

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Community journalism is more than asking tough questions at school board and town council meetings – it’s asking those tough questions of neighbors and friends, fellow Rotarians and assistant coaches.

It’s challenging, uncomfortable and daunting. It can also be illuminating and empowering.

The Pagosa Springs SUN’s commitment to transparency and fact-finding in Archuleta County has proven all the above. It also earned The SUN’s four-person newsroom the Colorado Press Association’s Service to the First Award at the CPA’s annual convention held in April in Colorado Springs. The award honors a news organization's service to the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press.

Publisher Terri House has done that by cultivating a watchdog culture at The SUN, a weekly that strives to cover every publicly funded entity in Archuleta County and is a fixture at public meetings. SUN reporters familiarize themselves with Colorado Sunshine Law and the Colorado Open Records Act, and officials are held accountable.

“This is a community newspaper that is doing it right,” one of the judges wrote of The SUN.

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Doing it right has meant calling out conflicts of interest and challenging local county commissioners to be more specific when entering executive session. It’s meant uncovering illegal Water Conservancy District email meetings and twice successfully fighting for the release of audio recordings of closed-door meetings. Doing it right has meant doing what’s right.

“It can be challenging,” House said. “I’ve lost friends over stories I’ve had to print.”

Doing it right has meant bridging departments and fostering collaboration.

“We have a very open newsroom with plenty of dialogue that makes for a relaxed atmosphere,” House said. “We also bring our layout and design staff and advertising people into our editorial meetings to keep them informed and to keep us informed about what they are hearing.”

Reporter and assistant editor Randi Pierce emphasizes communication both within the newsroom and inside the newspaper’s pages. Her approach has resonated with the readership, which often submits 50 to 80 inches of letters to the editor each week.

“We believe that by letting people know not just what local boards are doing, but also how they’re doing it, we can better inform citizens and provide them with the information they need to decide if they should become more involved,” Pierce said. She added, “We very much take a team approach to our coverage.”

Doing it right also means wearing a lot of hats. House describes herself as “editor, publisher, photographer, bookkeeper, payroll, advertising sales, social media person, layout and design, business manager, gardener and whatever else I need to do.” Pierce is assistant editor, reporter, photographer and copyeditor, and reporters Chris Mannara and Avery Martinez double as proofreaders. Another reporter position remains unfilled, so everyone pitches in on that front.

Still, The SUN’s editorial team finds time to educate local boards on open meetings law, as well as lead watchdog journalism webinars for the Colorado Press Association.

“When you just do it everyday as part of your job,” House said of watchdog journalism, “it becomes second nature to you.”