Communications students sweep top spots at writing championships

Penn State earned an unprecedented sweep of the first three spots in the individual national writing championship conducted by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program in Washington, D.C., this week.

Students advanced to the championship based on results of monthly competitions during the academic year. Through those competitions, the Penn State College of Communications had already secured a third consecutive overall national championship in the program often referred to as “the Pulitzers of college journalism.”

Students react to the news of Penn State's sweep at the awards

While first-place finisher Anna Orso, left, called second-place finisher Christina Gallagher, third-place finisher Jessica Tully reacted to Penn State's championship sweep at the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program on June 5 in Washington, D.C.

Image: John Beale

Still, Anna Orso, Christina Gallagher and Jessica Tully capped the University’s most successful year ever in the 54-year-old program by finishing first, second and third, respectively, in the on-site competition. Students were challenged to write a personality profile, a news story and an on-the-spot human-interest story.

More than 1,100 students from 105 accredited communications programs across the nation submitted entries for monthly contests in writing, photojournalism, radio, television and multimedia during the year. Just 29 students qualified for the on-site championships -- eight in writing, six in photojournalism and five each in radio, TV and multimedia.

Anna Orso celebrating the win

Anna Orso celebrated her victory and Penn State's success with a hug at the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program on June 5 in Washington, D.C.

Image: John Beale

Winners were announced late June 5 during an award ceremony and dinner at the Newseum.

“When they named all of the runners up and none of us were on the list, I knew something good was going to happen and I think they had to probably pick my jaw up off the floor,” Orso said. “Jess Tully and I were sitting at the table together. It was a great feeling.

“They told us over and over again during the week that we’re winners for just being here, and when they tell you that so much you do start to believe it. Still, it’s a competition and we all came here to win. I was telling Professor Ford Risley before the announcement that I was trying really hard not to worry about where we’d finish.”

All students in the on-site competition wrote about the same person, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), for the profile, and a news conference with Murphy provided the topic for the news story, which was Medicaid expansion. After that, they were on their own to find a human-interest story at a memorial in the nation’s capital.

At the Vietnam War Memorial, Orso found people who had family members die on a Navy ship during the war, but because the ship was not in a designated combat zone at the time it went down the names of those 74 people were never included on the memorial.

Orso was pleased with the human-interest story she wrote, and with her story about Medicaid expansion. “I thought my profile was horrible, though,” she said. “Thankfully, stories like that are subjective and the judges liked it.”

With her first-place finish, Orso earned a $5,000 scholarship. Gallagher and Tully earned $4,000 and $3,000, respectively. Orso, Gallagher and Tully earned their journalism degrees in May.

Gallagher worked all week during the competition in the nation's capital but was not able to attend the final award presentation. She scheduled a backpacking trip to Europe three months ago that was set to leave June 2. She pushed back the flight four days to compete, and found out about the Penn State sweep via text message at the airport.

“Her flight took off at 10:15 and we found out we'd won at 10:05,” Orso said. “We texted her and she texted back ‘I don’t believe it.’ So we called her and put her on speaker phone with everyone.”

In addition to leading the Penn State sweep, Orso's sports story about college football recruits who de-commit submitted as part of one of the monthly competitions was cited as Article of the Year in the overall competition. She was proud of Penn State’s performance for several reasons.

“Without Professor Risley and (senior lecturer) Russ Eshlemen, and especially without Dean Doug Anderson, none of us would be in this position,” Orso said. “Plus, I’m so happy that we were able to do this in the dean’s last year.”

Anderson has previously announced he will resign as dean of the College of Communications, effective June 30. He has guided the Penn State communications program since July 1, 1999.

Orso, who works as a general assignment reporter at, has the weekend off and returns to work Monday.

Last Updated June 10, 2014