Sycamore Media was honored Saturday for its investigative reporting about “misdeeds by not one, but two sheriff’s departments” at the Iowa Press Association’s 2020 Convention and Trade Show in Des Moines.

In total, Sycamore Media, the parent company of The Observer in DeWitt, won 14 awards. The company also owns the Bellevue Herald-Leader and the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press.

The Observer won second place in three categories for its ongoing coverage of how the Jackson and Clinton county sheriff’s departments gave Jackson County Assistant Attorney Amanda Lassance preferential treatment when she was found parked along the side of a highway with beer cans in her car.

The coverage also revealed multiple examples of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department providing incorrect information to the public and spurred the Iowa Office of Ombudsman to open an independent investigation, which is ongoing.

The awards were for Community Leadership, Coverage of Courts and Crime, and Continuing Coverage. 

Judges from the Virginia Press Association praised Sycamore Media’s coverage as “great investigative journalism … SO important to our democracy. Especially now!”

They went on to write that the work was an “impressive, dogged effort to shed light on misdeeds by not one but two sheriff’s departments. Great use of public records requests. Well written and good use of timelines to make sense of a complicated series of events. Excellent!”

Sycamore Media owner Trevis Mayfield credited the entire staff with the awards.

“Everyone in our organization has contributed to this ongoing effort one way or another,” Mayfield said. “Elected and appointed officials are accountable to no one but the public, and it’s a fundamental part of a newspaper’s job to do its best to keep them informed, no matter the size of the community.” 

Other Sycamore Media awards include:

Brooke Taylor earned first place Best News Feature Photo of individuals playing under a waterfall for The Observer. 

The Observer feature writer Kate Howes took home third place in Best News Feature Photo.

The Observer won first and the Sentinel-Press won third for their coverage of agriculture. Judges said The Observer’s ag coverage showed “accessible writing style, reporter clearly engaged by subjects. Stories were the right length to hold interest.” Judges described Maquoketa’s ag coverage as having a “friendly, warm writing style.”

Third place in the Best News Feature Story category went to The Observer for an article Nick Joos wrote about Rhonda’s House, a peer respite home in DeWitt that is the first of its kind in Iowa. Judges said it drew in readers and educated them.

The third-place Best News Photo went to Joos and The Observer for a photo he took during an active shooter drill at the DeWitt elementary school.

The Observer’s Ross Eberhart placed third in the Best Sports Columnist category, which the judges said were humorous stories everyone can related to.

Sycamore Media earned one advertising award this year. The Observer won third place in the Best Ad Miscellaneous category for a political ad designed by staff.