Maui News staffers bring home 21 SPJ Excellence in Journalism honors

A Maui Fire Department unit proceeds down Kuihelani Highway on July 11, 2019, with smoke and flames from a runaway brush fire that burned more than 9,000 acres. This photo accompanied the story “Dry brush fuels fire storm,” published July 12, 2019, in The Maui News, which earned first-place honors in the Spot News reporting category for photographer Matthew Thayer as well as reporters Kehaulani Cerizo, Melissa Tanji, Lila Fujimoto, Robert Collias and Lee Imada in the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Hawaii competition. According to the judges, “The reporters and photographer expertly covered a dangerous situation. Not only did they provide a real service to readers, they did so in a clear and compelling way.” The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Maui News

The Maui News captured 21 awards in the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards, which was highlighted by a first place story by Staff Writer Melissa Tanji on a Maui Little Leaguer, playing in the Little League World Series, who lost his dad seven months earlier.

Tanji’s story, which leads off with the quote “hit one for daddy,” took first place in Sports Reporting in the All Media division, with The Maui News stories competing with Honolulu media entries from Civil Beat, Hawaii Business, Honolulu Magazine, Hana Hou! and Hawaii News Now.

The Maui News placed 10 entries in the All Media division, led by Tanji’s story about the late Anthony Pascual’s son Jaren who smashed a three-run home run in the championship game of the Little League West Regional that help send Central East Maui to Williamsport, Pa., and the island’s first appearance in the Little League World Series.

“I enjoyed reading this piece,” said a judge. “It was a great way to humanize the LLWS and make it a story people would want to read, particularly people who don’t normally read about sports. This is a story that many can relate to — it’s a mom’s story . . . I appreciated the angle; It was an angle others didn’t take, and that’s what made it special.”

MELISSA TANJI – First place in sports reporting

Wife and mother Lynn Pascual, who made the journey with Jaren, told most of the story. Another son, Zach, helped his team to the Little League’s Senior League World Series title earlier in the summer.

The Maui News swept the Sports Reporting category with stories by veteran sports reporter Robert Collias finishing second and third. Collias’ report on a Kamehameha School Maui transgender girls volleyball player took second and a story about Little League officials finding two illegally altered bats among the ones to be used by Central East Maui at the Little League World Series captured third.

The other All Media winners included:

• State of Aloha by Ben Lowenthal, third place in Column Writing or Blog/News.

• Sharing Mana’o by Kathy Collins, third place in Column Writing or Blog/Features or Sports.

Robert Collias

“Dry brush fuels fire storm,” story about a massive brush fire in Central Maui in July that burned thousands of acres, forced evacuations, threatened a power plant and snarled traffic. Reporters Kehaulani Cerizo, Tanji, Lila Fujimoto, Collias and Lee Imada participated in the coverage. “Bravo for covering a major event quickly,” the judges said.

• Photos by photo chief Matthew Thayer on the July fire, second place in the News Photography/Videography category.

• Photos by Thayer in the Sports Photography/Videography category taking second and third place. The second place photos “Big waves, epic wipeouts,” focused on the cbdMD Jaws Big Wave Championships and the third place photos, “Maui Invitational Champions,” at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.

• An array of pictures of the Central Maui brush fire by Thayer also took second place in the Photo/Video Essay category.

The Maui News dominated the Daily Newspapers division, capturing four first places, including for reports on the Central Maui brush fire; a riot at Maui Community Correctional Center; a personal interview with the voice of the Portland Trail Blazers, a childhood hero; and a historical retrospective on Maui after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Kehaulani Cerizo

In the General News/Enterprise Reporting category, the story headlined ” ‘Disturbance’ at MCCC resolved after 3 1/2 hours” captured top honors. The reporters were Tanji, Fujimoto and Imada. “This entry reflects a true team effort to uncover a story that very easily could have gone untold,” the judges said. “Reporters dug deeper, utilized sources and would not take no for an answer. This is what journalism is all about!”

Collias’ “Return to ‘Rip City’ “ took first in the Feature Writing/Short Form category and involved an interview with Bill Schonely. “This columnist balanced recollection with his own personal thoughts and experiences to make this a well-rounded slice of life column about a sports legend,” the judges said.

Uechi’s retrospective, “In wake of Pearl Harbor, Maui braced for an attack,” captured first place in the Feature Writing/Long Form category. “What an interesting way to weave a recollection into facts from such an iconic event in America’s history . . . The writing was clear, strong and powerful,” the judges said.

The other winners follow:

“Dry brush fuels fire” story by Cerizo, Tanji, Fujimoto, Collias and Imada, first place in Spot News Reporting. “The reporters and photographer expertly covered a dangerous situation. Not only did they provide a real service to readers, they did so in a clear and compelling way,” the judges said.

Lila Fujimoto

“Hiker found alive,” the breaking story of Amanda Eller’s discovery after being lost in the Makawao forest for 17 days, took second in Spot News. The reporters were Cerizo, Fujimoto and Uechi. “What a gripping story! The reporters told this breaking news story with a lot of heart.”

“Tensions hit tipping point at Molokai health center” by Uechi took second in the General News/Enterprise Reporting. The story chronicled the problems at the health center. “Excellent work telling a complex story in a clear and compelling manner,” the judges said.

“Maui Little League has a guardian angel” by Tanji, second place in the Feature Writing/Short Form category.

“40 years later, mystery still surrounds the Sarah Joe and its five Hana fishermen who didn’t return” by Cerizo, which took second place in the Feature Writing/Long Form category. “An intriguing mystery told through the memories and eyes of those whose lives were forever altered by the disappearance of the Sarah Joe. The use of storytelling in this piece made it stand out compared to other entries,” the judges said.

“County paid for councilors to stay at Wailea hotel for HSAC” by Uechi took third in the General News/Enterprise Reporting. The story reported on council members and their executive assistants who stayed at a Wailea hotel essentially on the county dime. “It’s clear that a tremendous amount of reporting went into this unbelievable story,” the judges said.

Lee Imada

“In Unified Basketball League, everyone gets a shot” by Dakota Grossman, third in the Feature Writing/Short Form category. “Good use of quotes in this story, particularly for student athletes, that emphasize the importance of inclusive behavior in the sports world. An interesting mix of daily features content that shines a light on how the ordinary can be extraordinary,” the judges said.

“For former combat photographer, every day is Veterans Day” by Terrie Eliker, third in the Feature Writing/Long Form category. “A heartwarming story about veterans. I love the quote at the end where she says she had to experience what she did to be able to relate to other veterans how she can. That’s powerful,” the judges said.

A series by Honolulu Civil Beat on “Black Market Babies” won the top honor in the contest, the Public Service Reporting category.

The judges were from the SPJ Louisville Chapter.

Matthew Thayer

Colleen Uechi

Dakota Grossman


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