The Press Club of New Orleans on Thursday honored The Lens with eight awards — including three first-place finishers — at the 63rd annual Excellence in Journalism gala, which was held virtually for the second year due to concerns about COVID-19.

Producer Carolyne Heldman won a first-place trophy in the brand-new podcast category for Behind The Lens, The Lens’ three-year-old weekly news podcast. Heldman submitted an episode from December in which she and a panel of Lens reporters discussed the results of the city’s December 5 election.

Criminal justice reporter Nicholas Chrastil took home top honors in the digital special section category for The Section G Project, a multimedia series covering the life and career of former Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Frank Shea.

Chrastil also won first place in the government/political reporting category for his coverage of the case of Fair Wayne Bryant, who was convicted of attempting to steal a pair of hedge clippers from a carport in 1997 and sentenced to life in prison under the state’s habitual offender law.

Education reporter Marta Jewson won second place in the government/political category for a June 2020 story about how a visa ban on certain foreign workers, implemented during former President Donald Trump’s administration, threatened to keep international teachers from working in language-immersion schools in Louisiana.

Jewson got another second-place award in the investigative reporting category for an October story on a critical report on special education at Bricolage Academy, commissioned by the school in response to parent complaints but never released publicly.

City Hall and cultural economy reporter Michael Isaac Stein was awarded third-place in the investigative category for his August 2020 story about The Balcony Ballroom — a Metairie wedding venue that faced complaints for holding large indoor events during the summer 2020 surge in COVID-19 cases. Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken worked for the business — which is owned by her family — and repeatedly lobbied state officials on its behalf.

Stein won a second-place award in the continuing coverage category for his reporting on a misleading (and ultimately unsuccessful) campaign — led by top city officials and political groups — pushing New Orleans voters to sign off on a series of property tax proposals that would have reduced the New Orleans Public Library’s budget by 40 percent.

And former Lens health reporter Philip Kiefer won a second-place prize in the medical/health reporting category for his June 2020 report on how COVID-related interruptions in court and legal-document services led to delays and errors in processing stay-away orders obtained by victims of domestic violence. Kiefer recently left The Lens for a reporting job at Popular Science magazine.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...