For the fourth year running, the Voice has won top honours through the Ontario Community Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Competition. Now in its 71st year, the annual awards program identifies and celebrates the best in Ontario community journalism.

The awards announcement came last Friday, April 23, through an online presentation.

For the second year in a row, the Voice managed a double-hat-trick of sorts, winning a pair each of first, second, and third- place awards, for stories running from autumn 2019 into autumn 2020.

First place honours came in open categories in which the Voice also faced competition from significantly larger news organizations from across the province. The newspaper’s series of articles about Pelham Town Councillor Ron Kore’s determination to punish Mayor Marvin Junkin for raising funds for the volunteer Bandshell Committee won first place in the Best Feature/News Series.

“I’m particularly proud of this one,” said Voice publisher Dave Burket. “There’s a term that’s been in vogue for the last few years—‘gaslighting,’ meaning to attempt to fool people into thinking that something abnormal and wrong is okay. There were times that we had to pinch ourselves over what happened last spring. The petty vindictiveness of two councillors in particular, about Junkin and his fundraising for refurbishments to the Peace Park Bandshell, was one of these moments. It was one of those ‘Are we the only ones seeing this?’ kinds of things.”

The peculiar series of events did not escape the jury’s notice.

“Anyone who lives in a small town knows how turbulent relationships can be, especially in politics,” wrote the judge in her comments. “[Voice staff] wades into a hornet’s nest and emerges un-stung because of fair, thorough reporting. They exhaustively lay out council’s bizarre infighting and let readers make up their own minds. Of course, there are times when you wish the reporter(s) would come out and say, ‘This is crazy but true.’ Instead, they let others do it for them in follow up coverage.”

The paper’s other first place win came in the Best Online Breaking News category, and again featured coverage related to Councillor Ron Kore. Almost exactly a year ago, on April 22, 2020, news broke that Kore had tested positive for COVID-19—after having continued to attend Town Council, and go to work in his Fonthill Sobeys store, while ill with symptoms of a respiratory illness for nearly four weeks, ignoring calls for him to stay home until he was well. Councillor Mike Ciolfi, who had attended a March council meeting in which Kore was visibly unwell, also later tested positive, as did two others present in council chambers that evening. Ciolfi’s symptoms were severe, although he seemed to be on the road to recovery when he suddenly passed away early in the morning of April 13. No official cause of death was released.

“Detailed and quick reporting on a matter of immense public interest, accompanied by relevant photos,” commented the judge. “The legwork that went into this piece is admirable.”

Speaking of the entrants, the judge added, “I was pleased to see the amount of legwork many of these community reporters put into their articles. The [Voice] entry set itself apart in this regard.”

The story, which was updated frequently over the course of several days, has been viewed some 131,000 times to date, by far the most read news item in Voice history.

The coronavirus also featured in the paper’s second-place win in the Best COVID-19 Coverage category, with recognition given to a trio articles related to the pandemic: Three Pelham Town councillors’ attempt to muzzle Mayor Junkin from communicating about the virus; news that Pelham’s historic infection rate was the highest among any Niagara municipality; and the story of two Fonthill residents trapped aboard the MS Zaandam cruise ship.

“Thorough and well packaged reporting by Dave Burket and John Swart on several different aspects of this pandemic,” commented the judge. “The feature on the MS Zaandam was particularly well done, but each of the articles in this submission stand on their own as compelling journalism.”

A January 2020 article on disappearing songbirds won second place in the Environment Ontario category, with the judge calling it a well researched piece by Don Rickers, “that no doubt caught the attention of bird watchers but also offered others an opportunity to learn more about bird migration.”

Third place wins came for a May 2020 editorial, “The Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight,” which criticized the attempt by Pelham Councillors Haun, Hildebrandt, and Stewart to muzzle Mayor Junkin; and for a January 2020 action photo by sportswriter Bernie Puchalski, showing the intense competition of a high school basketball game.

Burket noted that producing each week’s paper is a team effort.

“I’m a broken record on this, but we are fortunate to have so many talented contributors, often working long hours for not much money. These are wonderful people, and it’s gratifying to see their efforts recognized by their peers.”

In addition to those named above, contributions by John Chick, Samuel Piccolo, and Warren Mason rounded out the talent recognized in the 2020 competition.