15 J-School Students Win Awards from the SPJ

A week ago, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) released its Mark of Excellence awards, and 15 UM journalism students were announced as category winners in Region 10, encompassing Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Yet even more J-school students received acknowledgment for their work, recognized as finalists in those same categories.

SPJ logo

“The wide range of projects that we’re being noticed for includes the entire spectrum of journalism, covered in these awards, and that’s pretty cool,” Ray Ekness said, professor and director of student success.

Professor and director of faculty affairs, Dennis Swibold agreed. “It just seems like the whole gamut of what we teach is getting national honors,” he said. “If we’re not just good, but good at lots of things, that proves we have a well-rounded program.”

SPJ set their standards high and stated that in their contests, if none of the entries received rose to a level of journalistic excellence, they would refrain from giving out that award. However, UM students rose to the challenge and received recognition in categories that covered photography, reporting, writing, radio, online and television pieces. Six of these students were selected for at least two different projects, and some even received awards in different mediums.

“To see it happening across the range is very rewarding. We’ve encouraged them to be more than one kind of journalist and it shows,” Swibold said. “Students are becoming ambidextrous and proving that they work well across different mediums.”

Swibold cited senior Sojin Josephson as the apex example for accomplishing exactly that. Josephson won in the sports writing category and was a finalist in the television feature and television general news reporting categories. Her winning piece, “Kicking and breathing: Daniel Sullivan’s body quit football, but Sullivan couldn’t quit the game,” which she wrote for the Montana Kaimin, will go on to compete at the national level.

The 14 other winners also compete at the national level against students from different regions and recognized in the same category.

Not only were students’ individual projects honored, but the SPJ recognized UM’s Student Documentary Unit and the UM News class for their collective work.

“In class, students aren’t just talking about doing journalism, they’re going out there and doing it—class work is extended beyond class,” Swibold said. “I’m proud to see the fruits of last year’s labor pay off. There’s a lot of excitement in the department right now. We’re small, but we know the students and we’re very accessible to them.”

The UM School of Journalism is currently ranked 8th in the nation and celebrated its centennial birthday in 2014. National winners in the SPJ 2015 Mark of Excellence Awards will be announced later this spring, and will be honored at the Excellence in Journalism convention in New Orleans, running from September 18th-20th.

The complete list of Region 10 SPJ awards results is available on their website.

ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg speaks on the importance of storytelling

For Kevin Van Valkenburg, Senior Writer at ESPN the Magazine, stories are “a time machine that can heal the world.”

Kevin Van Valkenburg speaks to a crowded theater
ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg attracted a large crowd for the J-School’s annual Pollner Lecture. Photo by Alyssa Rabil

Van Valkenburg, who graduated from the UM School of Journalism in 2000 and has come back as this semester’s T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor. He spoke to an audience that filled both the seats and the stairwells on Monday night. His speech focused on the continued value of good storytelling, in an evolving landscape for media.

“It doesn’t matter the format you tell it in, as long as you tell it true and you tell it well,” Van Valkenburg said, advising students to reject the negative outlook some are pinning to written journalism, which he called “a cynical narrative.” Van Valkenburg said changes have come not to storytelling itself but to the economic model that supports it. Despite the distractions of modern life, he said, people remain hungry for heart-felt stories.

Speaking with clear reverence for the power of good narrative writing to explain, humanize and heal the challenges of the day, he extolled students to think about why stories are told and search hard to find them. “There are no stories to be told in life’s safe harbors,” he said.

Kevin Van Valkenburg speaking from the podium
Photo by Alyssa Rabil

A native of Missoula, Van Valkenburg is the first alumnus of the school to hold a Pollner Professorship, a program which brings talented journalism professionals to the J-School for a semester. The program began in 2001, when Anthony Pollner, a graduate and former staff member on the Montana Kaimin, died in a motorcycle accident.

Van Valkenburg and Pollner were friends and co-workers at the Montana Kaimin during their shared time at the University. At several points in his speech Van Valkenburg referenced the spirit Pollner had brought to his journalism studies, and how it had inspired Van Valkenburg in his own career.

Recounting some of the more memorable stories of his career, first with the Baltimore Sun and then with ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com, Van Valkenburg spoke about learning lessons on what stories can do for their subjects, as well as their readers. He recounted an early story he wrote about a girl’s suicide, and how her mother had thanked him, saying she could now explain her daughter’s life and death to friends by sending them Van Valkenburg’s article.

It’s a two way street however, Van Valkenburg noted. In response to a question from the audience, he said that whether to use sensitive information given by a source can depend on both its content and impact. If there are larger societal questions at stake, Van Valkenburg said, “I’m going to upset the source and I’m going to reach for the truth because that’s more important.”

Van Valkenburg concluded his speech by speaking directly to Anthony Pollner’s friends and family, who sat amongst the first rows of seats. He shared stories and memories of Pollner from their university days, which he said his return to campus has helped to bring back.

“Few things in my life have ever seemed less fair,” Van Valkenburg said, speaking on the passing of his friend, “but by telling those stories I keep a piece of him alive forever.”

The full text of the speech can be found here.

By Andrew Graham