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For the fourth consecutive year, the Oregon Observer has been chosen among the top two newspapers in the state for its size.

The Observer, which took home three first-place awards and eight overall from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, finished second in the category of General Excellence from the WNA, which announced the winners May 15. It was first in that category in 2017 and 2019 and second in 2018.

The awards covered the period of Sept. 1, 2018, to Aug. 31, 2019, and were judged by the New York Press Association that fall. The WNA alerted newspapers of the awards in December but planned to announce and present them in March, before the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancellation of its annual convention.

The Observer won first place for a photo essay shot by Amber Levenhagen of the controlled burn of the Waterfall Motel by the Oregon Area Fire/EMS. Levenhagen, who had taken third place in Rookie Reporter of the Year in 2017, was unable to accept her award, as she died in August 2019 in an automobile accident.

Mark Nesbitt’s story about Oregon’s girls soccer team winning the state championship in a shootout was judged the best sports news story. And Observer staff collaborated to win best advertising special section for our preview to the 2019 Oregon Summer Fest festival.

Kimberly Wethal won second place in environmental reporting for a story about flooding in the area. That story took third place in enterprise/interpretive reporting, as well.

Emilie Heidemann’s story about an Oregon family preserving land in a rapidly developing area took third in environmental reporting. UNG also took third place for best use of color in an advertisement for Mark’s Barber and Styling.

The Observer shares its staff with two other weekly news publications in Unified Newspaper Group, the Verona Press and Stoughton Courier Hub. UNG took home five first-place awards and 29 awards overall.

UNG staff dominated several categories, including first, second and honorable mention in photo essay; first and second place in features (profile); first and third place in special sections; second and third place in enterprise reporting; and second and third place in environmental reporting. UNG performed similarly in 2019, winning first and second place in education reporting; first and third place in photo essay; second and third in enterprise reporting; and first and third in general news story.

In addition, for the third consecutive year, a UNG staff member earned a Rookie Reporter of the Year award. Wethal, who primarily focuses on Verona and Fitchburg, took third place in that category. Alexander Cramer was an honorable mention in 2019, and Levenhagen was third place in 2018.

UNG’s quarterly magazine, Your Family, which is distributed with the Observer, won a third-place award for Best Ongoing Niche Publication, though it was submitted as a Verona Press award.

The WNA recognizes winners in six categories – daily and weekly newspapers of three sizes each – in its statewide competition. The Observer was competing in the smallest category of weeklies, F, with circulations of 2,500 or fewer, along with its sibling publications.

UNG also publishes the monthly Fitchburg Star, which is not eligible for WNA awards as a free publication.

UNG also got first-place awards for feature (profile) and open records reporting.

UNG’s three weekly news publications earned 28 awards last year, 17 awards in 2018, 17 in 2017 and 16 in 2016 – when all nine members of the UNG editorial staff won at least one award – and 17 in 2015.

First placeLevenhagen’s photo package of the Waterfall Motel provided a colorful cover for the Dec. 6, 2018, Observer, and inside photos had a mix of bright flames, billowing smoke and silhouetted firefighters calmly going about their business.

“You would never know this was a controlled burn unless you read the story,” the judge wrote. “The vibrant colors of the fire contrasted with the starkness of the lone firefighter in the smoke are captivating. It’s a nice palette of colors that are especially vivid against the night sky. Amber Levenhagen clearly had a great time putting together a gorgeous photo spread. Fantastic job showing the dramatic intensity of a fire.”

Nesbitt’s soccer story combined the semifinal and final games of the WIAA tournament last June, focusing on the pressure on goalie Melia Moyer in the 2-1 victory over top-ranked Whitefish Bay and her near-record performance that year.

“Good reporting finds that moment that changes everything,” the judge wrote. “That’s the lede, and it’s well told.”

The Summer Fest section is an annual tradition, though it might not happen this year. Led by Emilie Heidemann, who was in her first year with UNG, it was a collaboration among the editorial, sales and layout teams as a standalone section for the first time, featuring colorful artwork throughout in both the stories and ads.

Second and third place

The Observer was second in the General Excellence category, which reflects all aspects of newspaper publication, including design, photography, sports, opinion, advertising and print quality. It puts the heaviest emphasis on writing quality, and newspapers submitted three whole issues – from Nov. 1 and Sept. 6, 2018, and March 28, 2019 – which are judged front to back.

“Good mix of stories on p1,” the judge wrote. “Lots of good school coverage. Inside layout nicely done. Strong local sports coverage and good local commentary. All local news.”

Wethal’s flooding story, “Under Pressure,” involved exhaustive research into problems residents of the village and town of Oregon and the City of Fitchburg were having with flooding around Lake Barney and the difficulty of finding solutions with seven different governmental units involved.

“I really liked how Kimberly Wethal lead with a man dealing with flooding to show residents why this is an issue and why they should be concerned,” the judge in the enterprise category wrote.

“Perhaps a cautionary tale for all of us in the days of climate change,” the judge in the environmental reporting category wrote. “Her photo of Brown sitting in his Munchkin-sized basement next to a fan spoke volumes that her story explained and amplified – to other properties, officials and regulations.”

Heidemann’s piece detailed the Hermsen family’s efforts to protect 59 acres of land for a future park across the street from the expansive Bergamot subdivision, including selling a conservation easement to the Groundswell Conservancy and planting trees over the course of several years.

“Every now and then, we hear about a family who devotes its land to some kind of nature conservancy; what we don’t often hear is the backstory, and rarely is there some detail about what went into the decision making and what is in the hearts of the donors,” the judge wrote. “Emilie develops a how-to-it-yourself story about making an effort to improve what’s natural around you – an important aspect of this category.”