MANKATO — The Minnesota Newspaper Association honored Free Press editor Joe Spear for his service to journalism Friday.
Spear received the Distinguished Service to Journalism Award at the association’s 2024 convention in Brooklyn Park.
The award, MNA’s most prestigious, is the result of Spear’s decades of advocacy on free press issues in Minnesota, said Chad Koenen, MNA president.
“Joe has worked hard to make his community better and to make reporters better,” he said. “Joe has also been a champion of journalism throughout the state of Minnesota, advocating for cameras in the courts, serving as SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) president and his numerous fights for open access to government records.”
Spear testified in support of expanding camera access in Minnesota courtrooms ahead of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s landmark 2023 decision to modernize the state’s restrictive laws. MNA and Minnesota journalists had long fought for the initiative.
In his speech Friday, Spear said he was humbled by the honor and will continue his First Amendment work. He noted three recent examples of battles for press rights, including a Kansas police force’s raid on a news editor’s home, Texas law enforcement arresting a reporter for questions posed to a public official, and a couple of U.S. Supreme Court justices indicating support for more restraints on the First Amendment.
From his nearly 40 years in journalism, including 33 at The Free Press, 19 of them as editor, he shared some of the top lessons learned on the job.
One was not to expect a judge to be on your side just because the law is on your side, a reference to a shield law case that required a victory on appeal after an earlier judge failed to follow the law. Another lesson was not to trust authorities to give you information unless you “help them practice following the law,” a nod to how many times he’s had to cite state statutes when seeking public information.
Spear thanked Free Press publisher Steve Jameson and parent company CNHI for never saying no to a First Amendment fight, along with his wife, Gretchen, and family for putting up with a journalist’s hours.
In the award program, Jameson described Spear as “a talented columnist, exceptional editorial writer and caring, committed manager to a wonderful staff.
“Joe’s also been a champion of journalism throughout the state of Minnesota,” Jameson continued. “We are extremely blessed to have Joe as editor of The Free Press.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz congratulated Spear during their speeches at the event.
The support of organizations including MNA, SPJ and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press make First Amendment fights possible, Spear said. He concluded his list of lessons learned with “all of us are more powerful than one of us.
“And so for me the fight continues,” Spear said. “I’m just getting started. I know you’ll be with me.”
Free Press wins 21 awards
The Free Press won 21 awards, including six first places, for editorial and advertising excellence from the Minnesota Newspaper Association at its annual awards banquet Thursday.
The Free Press won first place for editorial page as a whole, editorial portfolio, social issues story, hard news reporting, editorial writing and community leadership.
The Free Press advertising department won four awards including second place for advertising excellence and third place for classified advertising section. Free Press advertising representative Jordan Greer-Friesz won third place for best institutional ad, and graphic artist Christina Sankey and Audience Development Director Justin Niles won second place for best house ad.
Editor Joe Spear won first place in the Herman Roe Editorial Writing Award and second place in the Freedom of Information category for his efforts testifying before the Minnesota Supreme Court to advocate for cameras in the court.
Reporter Tim Krohn won first place in the hard news reporting category for a story on how new charitable gambling laws might impact charitable giving efforts at local businesses.
Reporters Brian Arola and Mark Fischenich won first place in social issues category with their two-part series on affordable housing.
The Free Press took first place in the Lynn Smith Community Leadership Award with its series on the mental health system.
Freelancer Dan Greenwood took second place in the entertainment story category, reporter Edie Schmierbach took third place in the human interest category for a story on a World War II soldier and his dog, and reporter Renee Berg took third place in the business reporting category for a story on rising egg prices.
Former Free Press photographer Pat Christman won third in the feature photo category.
The Free Press won second place in use of photography as a whole and third place in typography and design, breaking news and general reporting.
Mankato Magazine took third in the best magazine category and designer Christina Sankey took second in best magazine cover.
The Free Press competes with other newspapers in Minnesota with circulation over 10,000 including the Fargo Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Rochester Post Bulletin and the Duluth News Tribune.