Winners: Joe Belanger, Sebastian Bron, Dale Carruthers, Jonathan Juha, Max Martin and Megan Stacey, London Free Press
You could feel the heat, smell the gas and visualize the firefighter’s bloodstained jacket on the ground. When a massive explosion rocked London’s Old East Village neighbourhood just before 11 p.m. the night of Aug. 14, off-duty reporters from the London Free Press were on it. The first social media posts were up at 11:10 p.m.; the first story, posted online an hour later, broke the news that a car going the wrong way down the street had slammed into a house and severed a gas line 30 minutes before the blast flattened one house, damaged eight others and injured seven people. Over the next 48 hours, reporters and editors collected more than a dozen eyewitness accounts, started an online photo gallery that eventually numbered 90 pictures and one reporter drove 110 kilometres to the home of the Kitchener woman who faces eight impaired driving charges.
The lightning-fast turnaround, amazing detail and comprehensive coverage of the disaster that caused an estimated $15 million in damage was all the more impressive given it was done with a newsroom of six reporters.
A column about a gentrifying, blue-collar neighbourhood pulling together to collect a little girl’s artwork scattered by the explosion was inventive and particularly poignant.
Runner-up: Steve Buist, Hamilton Spectator
It was the scoop of the year and it arrived in the journalist’s much-vaunted, brown-paper envelope delivered to reporter Steve Buist’s desk on the afternoon of Nov. 19.
The Hamilton Spectator reported on the stench of sewage in Chedoke Creek in July 2018. But after city officials could not say where it was coming from, the envelope told all. Two secret city council reports delivered anonymously to Buist revealed the city knew as early as January 2019 that a gate on an overfill tank was left a crack open for four years, spilling 24 billion liters of storm water and sewage into Chedoke Creek, which empties into an environmentally sensitive, 600-hectare wildlife sanctuary called Cootes Paradise. The documents also showed the city had kept this information under wraps for almost a year because the ministry of the environment was still investigating. Within hours, Buist read the reports and sent questions to the city, which called an emergency council meeting the next day to deal with them. The day after Buist received the brown envelope, he turned out an exquisitely crafted 1,900-word story that laid out the origin of the leak, the cover-up and the environmental fallout. It kicked off what is known in Hamilton as Sewergate, the biggest story of the year, and became the first of 30 reports on the scandal.
Runner-up: Joanna Frketich, Hamilton Spectator
Joanna Frketich was the only reporter on weekend duty when police arrested Dylon Duarte at 3 p.m. on a Saturday in the stabbing death of 23-year-old construction worker Tyquan Brown just after midnight the same day. As she reported the arrest and continually updated file, she not only tracked down the family of the victim and the suspect, she was in court Sunday morning for Duarte’s first appearance and went to a vigil Sunday afternoon for Brown.
In the span of 30 hours and working alone, Frketich produced a package of three stories that not only gave an account of the stabbing, but also revealed the motive when the suspect’s mother said he told her he was going to hurt himself or someone else. She was waiting for him outside a mental-health centre when the murder happened.
The stories are rich in detail, from the height of the victim to the suspect’s lifelong struggle to find help for his mental illness, and tell an all-too-familiar tale of a troubled young man who was unable to get the psychiatric care he needed.