The Argus-Courier won four first-place awards Saturday in the annual Better Newspapers Contest sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, including General Excellence, designating it as the best mid-sized weekly newspaper in the state.

The newspaper also won first-place honors for best special section, the summer 2011 issue of Petaluma magazine; coverage of the environment, Jay Gamel's Sept. 8, 2011 story about the increase in mountain lion sightings; and sports photo, Clay Begrin's September 2011 photo of a high school girls soccer game.

In awarding the General Excellence award for the fourth straight year, the judges stated, "Impressive number of sections with local content. Good story selection for front page and nice blend of news. Excellent readability and strong editorial pages. A definite winner!"

"We are especially honored to receive the general excellence award for the fourth straight year," said Chris Samson, managing editor. "The Argus-Courier always strives for comprehensive, quality coverage of the Petaluma community, and it is gratifying to be recognized for those efforts."

The annual journalism awards were given for work done from Nov. 1, 2010 to Oct. 31, 2011 by newspapers with a weekly circulation of 4,300 to 11,000.

The awards were announced Saturday in San Jose at the annual meeting of the publishers' organization.

Also in Sonoma County, the Press Democrat won seven awards, including first place awards for its team coverage of a five-week manhunt for a Fort Bragg killer, for its reporting on local government pension costs, for sports photo and for page layout and design. It received second place awards for financial coverage and feature and news photos.

Both the Argus-Courier and Press Democrat are owned by the Halifax Media Group.