By Shereen Siewert, Wausau Pilot and Review Publisher

Dear reader,

I am so proud to announce that Wausau Pilot and Review has earned a first-place national award for investigative reporting at the annual Local Independent Online Newspaper Publishers (LION) conference in Nashville.

Online newspapers from across the country are considered for the awards, which recognize excellence in journalism, business and technology. Wausau Pilot and Review was also a finalist in the Publisher of the Year category, an award that went to Richland Source, an independent online news organization that covers three counties in Ohio.

The first-place award was bestowed Oct. 25 for Toxic secrets: Pollution, evasion and fear in Wausau’s River Street Neighborhood, a deep dive into environmental issues on the city’s near west side.

We knew we were one of three finalists for the award, but never in our wildest dreams did we imagine we would win. Wausau Pilot and Review was considered as a large market publication, with categories based on overall page views. That meant we were up against legacy publications in much larger cities. But it also says something about our readers, who navigate to our site every day, and our amazing, tiny staff.

When we launched this publication in March 2017, we did it with a leap of faith, a promise of startup funding from an incredible family foundation that believed in our work, and a belief that Wausau would seek out local news coverage – all at a time when traditional news organizations were slashing staff. To some, it seemed like insanity.

You, the readers, have embraced us in a way we couldn’t have possibly predicted, and we are so incredibly grateful for your support. Last week, when Wausau Pilot and Review was announced as the winner in the investigative reporting category, I cried. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

This has been a labor of love for me and for my husband and business partner, Darren Siewert. We are eternally thankful for our outstanding editorial assistant, Amy Kimmes, who was my first editor at Wausau Daily Herald when I first joined the staff there years ago. A nod also goes to our incomparable local sports duo, Brian Kalish and Scott Williams, for their breakthrough coverage of local high school athletics. Your contributions are incredibly valuable, and we are so grateful for you.

An independent group of judges reviewed the award applicants in detail. Amara Aguilar, USC Annenberg; Christine Schmidt, Nieman Lab; Courtney Cowgill, University of Montana; Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed; Dana Coester, West Virginia University; Dawn Garcia, JSK Fellowships; Doug Mitchell, Next Generation Radio; Eve Pearlman, Spaceship Media; Jane Elizabeth, Charlotte News & Observer; Jessica Pucci, Arizona State University; Jim Rutenberg, New York Times; Julia B. Chan, Mother Jones; Ken Doctor, Newsonomics; Kristen Hare, Poynter; Laura Owen, Nieman Lab; Reuben Stern, University of Missouri served as judges for this year’s awards. We thank all of you for your thoughtful judging and your comments.

We are also eternally grateful to the members of Citizens for a Clean Wausau, particularly Tom Kilian, for their tireless digging and willingness to trust us with their data and findings. Without Tom, without CCW, this coverage would not have been possible. Not by a long shot.

The mission of LION Publishers is to foster the viability and excellence of locally focused independent online news organizations and cultivate their connections to their communities through education and action. We can only hope to live up to that mission as we look forward to 2020.

LION members support each other and share the same vision. We believe that quality news is both important to our democracy and worthy of financial support.

Notably, two other Wisconsin independent publishers also earned awards in the contest, which spanned 15 categories. Madison365 won for best breaking news coverage and for small market publisher of the year. Racine County Eye earned a nod for business development idea of the year. You, along with all the nominees, are an inspiration to us every single day.

Thank you, all of you. We exist because of you, and we look forward to another breakthrough year.