Wilson Times wins 20 awards in journalism contest | The Wilson Times
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Wilson Times wins 20 awards in journalism contest

Posted on March 1, 2021

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Wilson Times award-winners include Drew C. Wilson, top left, Olivia Neeley, top right, Brie Handgraaf, bottom left, and Paul Durham, bottom right.

Times photo illustration

Wilson Times award-winners include Drew C. Wilson, top left, Olivia Neeley, top right, Brie Handgraaf, bottom left, and Paul Durham, bottom right.

Celebrating its 125th year, The Wilson Times remains one of North Carolina’s top newspapers of its size as judged by its peers in an annual statewide competition. 

The Times won 20 awards in the North Carolina Press Association’s 2020 News, Editorial and Photojournalism Contest, including a third-place honor for general excellence, and reporter Olivia Neeley earned the North Carolina Bar Association’s Media and the Law Award of Excellence for best daily newspaper article. 

Awards were announced Friday in a virtual presentation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and state restrictions on mass gatherings. The association customarily holds an awards banquet. 

“We’re honored that judges considered our work worthy of recognition, and we’re proud to continue The Wilson Times’ 125-year tradition of publishing stories that make a meaningful difference in our community,” said President and Publisher Keven Zepezauer. “Our journalists tell stories about the people whose contributions make Wilson County a better place, and we strive to give our readers the information they need to be active participants in civic life.”  

The Times competes in NCPA Division D, consisting of daily newspapers with circulation under 12,500. 

Journalists from West Virginia Press Association member publications judged the 2020 contest. To ensure impartiality, their identities are not revealed to participants.


Reporter Drew C. Wilson earned seven individual awards, including first place in news enterprise reporting for The Black Experience, a six-story series in which African American residents discussed race relations in Wilson amid the national conversation about racial equality that followed George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis police custody. 

Wilson won first place in city and county government reporting for his coverage of allegations against Lucama Commissioner David Johnson. 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a right-to-sue letter after investigating complaints that allege Johnson used racial slurs including the N-word when referring to town employees and a fellow commissioner who has since resigned. Johnson has denied the claims. A federal employment discrimination lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. 

An image of a woman collapsing against a car following a 5-year-old boy’s accidental shooting on Jan. 24, 2020, earned Wilson a first-place award for spot news photography.

“Stunning,” the contest judge wrote. “Everything in this photo captures the first emotion that comes when reading about an accidental shooting — grief.” 

Wilson won first place in the multimedia project category for “A dream come true,” which consisted of photos, a video and a story about Seeds of Hope Wilson’s community garden. He also took second place in multimedia projects for coverage of a July 22 fire that destroyed the Custom Quality Packers meatpacking plant near Bailey. 

“I can only imagine how difficult it was to stay with this story,” the judge wrote. “Good job.” 

“One last jam at the Boys & Girls Club,” a stand-alone photo taken on the Wilson club’s final day of operation, earned Wilson a second-place award for sports feature photography. He received third place in the same category for another stand-alone photo, headlined “The last angler.” 


Neeley’s coverage of a federal lawsuit alleging the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office framed Ray Finch in the 1976 killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman received the Media and the Law Award, a special honor sponsored and judged by the North Carolina Bar Association. 

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Finch innocent in Holloman’s murder, and a federal district judge vacated his conviction. He was released in May 2019 after spending more than 43 years in prison. 

Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t rendered a decision on Finch’s request for a pardon of innocence after 19 months, the Times reported in a follow-up story last month. U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, state Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs and the Times’ editorial page have urged Cooper to pardon Finch, which would allow him to seek state compensation for his wrongful conviction. 

A story on Finch’s lawsuit also earned Neeley a third-place award for beat news reporting. 

Neeley won first place in news feature writing for “New start for a new year,” which described Shalon McMullen’s experience with homelessness and the help she received from the Hope Station’s Westview House family shelter. 


Reporter Brie Handgraaf won the second-place arts and entertainment reporting award for a story on street artist Shane Tierce’s memorial mural showing 5-year-old Cannon Hinnant’s face and a bicycle contained within the word “Innocent.” 

Cannon was riding his bike outside his father’s Wilson home when he was shot and killed on Aug. 9. Tierce told the Times he opposes art censorship and didn’t seek city officials’ permission before painting the mural.

“Wasn’t expecting to go down the permitting rabbit hole,” the contest judge wrote. “Nice reporting.” 

Handgraaf received second-place honors in the profile feature category for a story on Tar River Flea Market vendor Alma Smolen’s remarkable life, which included work in London bomb shelters during World War II. 

“This story makes the reader feel like they know Alma Smolen and makes you want to meet this amazing lady with such an amazing story to tell,” the judge wrote. 

Coverage of Wilson’s downtown redevelopment efforts earned Handgraaf a second-place award for city and county government reporting. 

Valerie Register, a former graphic designer at the Times, received third place for a portfolio of three news graphics. 


Sports Editor Paul Durham won first-place awards for sports enterprise reporting and sports feature writing and garnered a second-place honor for sports columns. 

The winning sports enterprise story, “The cost of not playing,” explored the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact on Wilson County high schools due to athletic season postponements and mass gathering limits that eliminated ticket revenue.

Durham earned praise for a selection of three columns that included first-person reflections and input on a discussion about Wilson County high school track needs. 

“Solid variety of column subjects including a vivid childhood football team, an outdoors topic on fishing, and discussing the benefits of building an athletic facility,” the judge wrote. 

The sports feature writing award honored Durham for “Take me out to the ball game,” which described Wilson’s minor-league baseball atmosphere in the 1950s through diehard fans’ eyes.


Editor Corey Friedman won first place for editorial writing, and the Times staff received Division D’s first-place editorial page award.

Two of the winning editorials focused on Wilson residents struggling to pay their utility bills during the pandemic. The Times’ opinion page called on city council members to institute a moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment. While the council ultimately took that step, Mayor Pro-tem James Johnson and City Manager Grant Goings criticized the newspaper’s advocacy during the meeting when the moratorium was approved. 

“It’s easy for public officials to ignore one person’s plight, and this is community journalism at its finest,” the judge wrote. “It’s giving a voice to the voiceless and amplifying that voice to make a bigger echo for a broader systemic issue. ‘What is the problem with the system that caused this person harm?’ That is answered here.” 

The judge for editorial pages praised Dave DiFilippo’s cartoons and columnist Hal Tarleton’s work in addition to editorials on city government. 

“Local cartoons a nice touch, and not easy to pull off on a continuing basis,” the judge’s statement reads. “Liked lots of space for letters to ed. Enjoyed Hal Tarleton’s column, which no doubt had many readers nodding heads in agreement.” 


Over the past decade, The Wilson Times has earned a combined total of 265 awards in the NCPA’s annual competition. News contest performance saw a dramatic increase after Jon Jimison started work as the Times’ editor in February 2010. 

Jimison had worked at the Times as education reporter in 1990 and returned to lead the newsroom two decades later after serving as editor of The Star in Shelby. 

After receiving six honors in the press association’s 2010 contest, the Times doubled its total and collected a dozen awards for work produced in 2011. 

Following 31 awards for its 2012 work, the Times hauled in a record 40 awards in the 2013 contest. The NCPA honored Times journalists with 26 awards for 2014; 30 for 2015; and 25 for 2016. 

Friedman, who cites Jimison as a mentor and credits his leadership with building the Times’ winning tradition, succeeded him as editor in May 2016. The Times went on to win 29 awards in the 2017 contest and 23 each for work produced in 2018 and 2019. Last year’s efforts resulted in the 20 awards announced Friday. 


The Times serves as the flagship of Restoration NewsMedia, a Wilson-based community newspaper company that owns five papers and provides design, consulting and management services to nearly a dozen others. Collectively, Restoration’s properties combined for 46 press association awards in the 2020 contest.

The Wake Weekly of Wake Forest earned seven awards and the Butner-Creedmoor News in Creedmoor brought home eight. Both papers compete in Division B, nondaily newspapers with circulation between 3,500 and 10,000. 

The Enterprise of Spring Hope won five awards, including second place in general excellence for Division A, nondaily newspapers with circulation under 3,500. The Johnstonian News of Smithfield, also in Division A, received six awards. 

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