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This is the time of year when we get to toot our horn a little. The Independent made an impressive showing at last weekend's Society of Professional Journalists Best of Colorado Excellence in Journalism Awards for 1999, walking away with eight awards.

In addition, Indy columnist John Hazlehurst has won an award for his political commentary from the national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Details of that prize will be released during the organization's upcoming June convention.

In the Colorado SPJ awards, the Indy won four-first place awards in several major categories. In the general reporting for a single story category, News Editor Cara DeGette won for "Cutting the Cable," her piece detailing the city's botched effort to develop a cable franchise fee, which voters rejected last November.

In the feature writing category, Editor Kathryn Eastburn took first place for "No Way Out," her story about Kerby Guerra, an Eagleview Middle School student who committed suicide just over a year ago. "No Way Out" and Eastburn also won a national first-place award from the Education Writers Association for Best Feature in papers with a circulation under 100,000.

Arts and Entertainment Editor Owens Perkins won first prize for "Shotgun Willie," his feature profile of country singer and American icon Willie Nelson.

And Reporter Malcolm Howard took first place in the Science/Environmental/Agricultural/Medical category for his story "Seeing Red," which detailed how the war on drugs has undermined the American flower growing industry, including local grower Tim Haley's business.

The Independent competed against mid-sized (circulation 10,000 to 99,999) newspapers across Colorado, including the Boulder Daily Camera, the Greeley Tribune and the Fort Collins Coloradoan. (The Colorado Springs Gazette, which was competing in a separate division, won five awards, including two first-place honors, in the SPJ competition.)

Here's what the judges had to say about the Indy's winning entries:

"No Way Out" by Kathryn Eastburn -- "This feature tears your heart out! Kerby Guerra's story is painstakingly told... . Excellent!"

"Cutting the Cable" by Cara DeGette -- "An exhaustive, well-researched account of a controversial local cable deal. The Independent also deserves credit for devoting this amount of space to one piece."

"Seeing Red" by Malcolm Howard -- "This story shows enterprise and creativity -- not too many reporters would ever think of such an angle. Well-written, thoroughly researched and interesting until the end."

"Shotgun Willie" by Owen Perkins -- "A fascinating up-close-and-personal look at an American icon. Though lengthy, the story is well paced and written and will hold the attention of any reader (even a non-fan like me!)"

Additional awards included DeGette's second place in the general readers category for "God's Instrument," a story detailing former radio talk show host Mike McKee's efforts to boycott the Independent; Howard's third-place award in the investigative/enterprise category for "Prison State," his series on the state of Colorado's prison industry; and Perkins' third-place awards for his theater reviews and his feature "The Art of Adventure" about painters in the Grand Canyon.

Last week's announcement that the Denver Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post are seeking a Joint Operating Agreement deserves its own award for best kept secret in a business devoted to uncovering the mysteries of organizations. Though the newspaper's publishers have been doing the merger dance for months, employees at both papers report that they were taken by surprise when their bosses called them into very brief staff meetings last Thursday and informed them of the JOA.

The Post couldn't help rubbing salt into the wound of the Rocky in its Friday edition, with a headline blaring "Rocky seeks truce." In several stories that day and the next, reporters snorted about the Rocky's penny-a-day distribution tactics to increase circulation. However, Post reporters didn't mention their own paper has routinely offered the same low, low subscription prices.

Post reporters also didn't mention that the Rocky has consistently outclassed them in major editorial award competitions in the past several years. But the Rocky's owners say their paper has not exactly done so well on the business side, losing a whopping $123 million since 1990.

The JOA will allow the papers to merge their business, circulation and printing operations, but continue (they claim) a tradition of separate editorial departments and voices.

Many were crowing about the news, with Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, Gov. Bill Owens and Denver Mayor Wellington Webb weighing in with their full support. However, Bruce Brugmann, the outspoken publisher of the alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian and outspoken opponent of JOAs, warned of the dangers of conglomerate journalism. His newspaper has reported in detail the JOA between his city's two dailies, the Chronicle and the Examiner, which the Bay Guardian claims has resulted in editorial corruption and unbridled greed, allowing the giant publishing companies to do whatever they want in pursuit of obscenely high profits.

It's unclear exactly how the JOA will play out with the Denver papers, but one thing's for sure: Subscribers to both the Post and Rocky can probably expect that they won't be getting many more of those great penny-a-day rates.

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