Sun Journal Staff Writer Donna Perry has been named this year’s AP Sevellon Brown Journalist of the Year for New England.
The award, named in honor of Sevellon Brown, the late editor and publisher of The Providence Journal-Bulletin, was announced Wednesday during the annual New England Newspaper & Press Association fall conference. The annual award, given out by the New England Society of News Editors since 2013, recognizes an individual for producing journalism of distinction in New England.
“This is an exceptional honor given out to the best of the best journalists in New England,” according to Sun Journal Executive Editor Judith Meyer. “Donna is a supremely hard-working journalist and truly deserves this honor. She wholly embodies the Sun Journal’s stated values of compassion, fairness and community values, and I am proud to work with her.”
Perry was nominated for her exceptional work covering the September 2019 explosion at the LEAP building in Farmington, her work covering the explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay last April, and for her body of work covering municipal and county government, Franklin County courts and general assignments of all kinds.
According to Meyer, “She’s the first out the door for breaking news, she covers municipal government in four towns, she writes features and is a regular photo contributor. She also coaches other reporters in our Farmington bureau, and her work ethic is an inspiration for everyone around her.”
In the past year, Perry was the first journalist on the scene of two separate explosions: the LEAP building in Farmington and the Jay mill. In each case, she was the first to report the destruction of each explosion, and stayed ahead of other news outlets in updating details throughout the day.
At the LEAP building, firefighters were searching inside the building for the source of a propane leak when a massive explosion occurred. Perry filed a story just 32 minutes after the explosion, confirming the explosion and briefly describing the devastation. “Given that she had to drive 20 minutes to the scene and work her way through the fairgrounds to get to the explosion site, that’s incomprehensibly fast,” Meyer said.
When she got to the site, Perry never expected the level of devastation. She recalls “the debris had flown across the street to where I was. What was left of the building was just rubble.”
After 27 years of covering the people and the events in this community, Perry knew many of the emergency responders and recognized many of the people at the scene.
She was told that Capt. Michael Bell had been killed, and when it was officially announced at an afternoon press conference, Perry remembers “my eyes started to water. He is the brother of the fire chief, who was seriously injured. I knew both of them. I knew they both followed their father into the fire service. I had written a story about Fire Rescue Chief Terry Bell years ago. He told me how he used to chase the fire trucks on his bicycle as a kid. I also wrote a story when his father, Capt. Jack Bell, died. I knew the other firefighters who were injured as well, including one who had been a fire chief in my town.”
“The role of a journalist in covering tragic scenes is to compile information as quickly and accurately as possible in order to inform the public about what happened, why and how,” Meyer said. “Donna is a master.”
“Throughout that day, there were 73 revisions to the Sun Journal’s story between its initial web posting at 9 a.m. and the time it dropped on the printed page at 9:15 p.m., most of them coming from Donna, who didn’t leave the site the entire day.”
Then, on April 15, an explosion rocked the Androscoggin Mill in Jay. Donna was the first journalist there.
Just like the explosion seven months before, she quickly filed a brief and submitted a photo before any other media outlet could even get to the scene. And, just as she had in Farmington, she remained at the scene the entire day, talking with officials and getting local reaction.
“Our readers expect us to tell them what is going on in our communities as quickly as we can, and to provide context for the information that we gather, and Donna has spent her career fostering sources and developing relationships that enable her to write stories that are clear and complete,” Meyer said.
In addition to all of this, Perry is a champion of public access.
“She once challenged a superior court judge who had accepted a plea deal while in chambers rather than in open court, forcing the court to hold the plea hearing a second time in public. She routinely pushes government officials for access to documents, with polished professionalism and great success,” Meyer said.
Years ago, according to Meyer, after Perry learned the SAD 36 Board of Directors voted on a new hire during an executive session, “Donna approached the board chair with an objection, reminding him all actions are to be held in open session under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. At the next meeting, the board voted on the hire in open session and the board chair issued a public apology to Donna for the board’s illegal vote.”
Perry started writing for the Sun Journal as a freelance correspondent in 1993, covering general news in Franklin County. She has been a staff writer, working from the newspaper’s Farmington bureau, since 1999.