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The Press Democrat won 10 awards in the California Newspaper Publishers Association's annual Better Newspapers Contest — seven of them first-place awards, including the top overall award for general excellence.

Competing in the category of newspapers with 35,000 to 150,000 circulation, the paper won first-place awards for artistic photo; coverage of business, financial and economic news; feature photo; lifestyle coverage; news photo; and special sports section.

The newspaper placed second for arts and entertainment coverage; page layout and design; and coverage of the environment.

The general excellence award, based on two complete issues from September, was the newspaper's first since 2001, and third since 1980. In awarding the honor, judges said the paper was "beautifully designed and enterprising in its coverage."

The judges credited the paper for its attention to each section.

"The opinion pages are ambitious with excellent, firm editorials. Column choices showed attention to political diversity, each section shows an excellent variety of subject matter and good local/wire balance. Sonoma Living is beautifully organized. Layouts are attractive and the use of art, typography and overall design is sophisticated," the judges said.

Press Democrat Publisher Bruce Kyse called the general-excellence award, as well as the other awards, "a testament to the skill, dedication and hard work of our staff" at a time of great uncertainty for the newspaper.

"In 2012, we had three owners, two of whom didn't want us," Kyse said, referring to former owners the New York Times Co. and Florida-based Halifax Media Group.

"As you can expect, there was a lot of distraction and emotion around all that last year, and I think credit needs to be given to the newsroom, in fact all employees at the newspaper, for keeping the focus on the mission and not allowing everything going on to affect the quality of the paper."

The Press Democrat is now owned by Sonoma Media Investments, a group of local investors.

Three Press Democrat photographers won first-place awards.

Christopher Chung won best news photo for a picture of the San Francisco Giants' Marco Scutaro being showered with confetti during the team's World Series victory parade.

Kent Porter's photograph of a moon behind a rural barn won best artistic photo. A John Burgess photograph of young dancers steaming wrinkles out of their dresses before taking the stage at the Nutcracker Ballet won best feature photo.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay took first place for coverage of business, financial or economic news, with an article about a business incubator in Rohnert Park.

The awards for lifestyle coverage, arts and entertainment coverage and page layout and design, along with the general excellence award, were based on the submissions of whole sections of the newspaper.

A section devoted to the Petaluma National Little League team won best special sports section.

Staff Writer Brett Wilkison won second place for coverage of the environment, with an article that described a divide over how Sonoma County's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District operates.

The Press Democrat's sports staff, Pressdemocrat.com and education writer Kerry Benefield were named Blue Ribbon finalists, placing them among the top 10 percent of entrants in their categories.

The Petaluma Argus Courier, also owned by Sonoma Media Investments, won first place honors.

The Argus, competing in the category of weekly newspapers with circulation between 4,000 and 11,000, took first place for writing, sports coverage and best editorial. The paper took three second-place honors for coverage of the environment, special sports section and general excellence.

There were also several other North Coast winners.

The Healdsburg Tribune won first place for coverage of the environment and first for special section.

The Weekly Calistogan won three first place awards, including best editorial commentary; best front page for broadsheet; and best coverage of local government.

The Weekly Calistogan's awards for editorial commentary and coverage of local government were won by Press Democrat Staff Writer Sean Scully, the Calistogan's former editor.

The Calistogan also won second place for best column, best editorial cartoon and best website.

Windsor Times took second place for artistic photo and a second place for coverage of education.