Journalism student wins national championship

June 17, 2010

University Park, Pa. — For the second time in four years, a Penn Stater has won the writing portion of a national championship often referred to as "the Pulitzers of college journalism."

Andrew McGill earned the national championship in the William Randolph Hearst Foundation's Journalism Awards Program after completing three stories in three days during a head-to-head, on-location competition with seven other writing finalists in New York City.

"It was definitely not expected. People at my table said when it was announced I didn't react," McGill said. "I think I was sort of shocked. When I realized what had happened I was just worried about not tripping up on stage."

Neither the stage nor the assignments that preceded it stopped McGill, though.

His performance in a monthly competition for spot news during the 2009-10 academic year earned McGill a spot in the national championship for the second time in three years. He finished second in 2008 and that experience helped him know what to expect this time.

"You just have to pace yourself because you have to write three stories," McGill said. "Plus, when you get the on-the-spot assignment you have to start tracking down sources right away."

McGill was among 25 student who competed in the national championships. The students earned spots in the championships with top monthly performances during the contest year, which stretched from mid-October until mid-May.

Some 1,105 students from the country's 110 accredited programs entered the writing, photojournalism, broadcast and multimedia competitions.

The finals included eight writing students, along with six in photojournalism, five in radio, five in television and one in multimedia.

Writing competitors knew of two assignments in advance -- a profile and a spot-news feature about the same famous individual, in this case New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Students were able to conduct supporting interviews and prepare for an interview with Bloomberg before they arrived in the Big Apple.

Once on site, they they drew the bigger, on-the-spot assignment.

McGill prepared for the competition efficiently and effectively. He could not focus exclusively on the advance assignments because he graduated with a degree in journalism in mid-May and started a full-time job as a general-assignment reporter at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., on June 1. Along with the competition, he was writing about other news in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Still, he completed several interviews to prepare for the Bloomberg profile and got an idea for the spot-news assignment by reading a newspaper the morning of the group interview with the mayor.

"There was a story in The New York Times about open primaries in California," McGill said. "Somebody else asked a question about his personal wealth and that opened it up for me to ask his opinion about enacting an open primary in New York and what he thought it would've done to his campaign."

The last of the three stories, the on-the-spot assignment, was to profile an immigrant. After reaching out to several potential sources, McGill found an immigrant from El Salvador who worked for an organization that provided support services for immigrants specifically from Central America.

The man who served as the subject of McGill's story had lived 15 years in El Salvador, from age 3 to age 18, without his mother, who had immigrated illegally to the United States and was sending home money to support her family.

He finally joined his mother in Brooklyn in 1993, seven years after President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986, but she died two years later.

He worked in blue-collar jobs for years and worked for Central American Legal Assistance while completing his education. He now works full-time for the organization and helps other immigrants.

"I was pretty lucky to find the story. After my interview, I called my dad and told him about it," McGill said. "The more I talked about it, the more I knew it was going to be good. I knew I had a good main source and I had a fair amount of faith I could write it."

He wrote it well, printing out at least 10 different versions of the hard copy to hand edit the story as he progressed.

After all the stories were completed, judging was conducted by Jeff Cohen of the Houston Chronicle; Peter Bhatia of The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.; and Jennifer Sizemore of MSNBC.com and NBC News.

The results were not announced for more than 24 slow-moving hours until all the competitors met for a dinner attended by 190 representatives from universities across the country, Hearst Foundation and corporation officials, and previous Hearst award recipients on the 44th floor of the Hearst Tower in New York City.

First, the finalists (those not in the top three) were revealed and McGill's name was not among that group -- meaning he had finished at least in the top three.

"As they talked about the top three, they referred to the third place finisher's accomplishments and said 'she,' so I knew I was at least second," he said. "The same thing happened with second place, another 'she.' After that, I don't remember anything until I had to worry about getting on stage."

Doug Anderson, dean of the College of Communications at Penn State, said he was proud of McGill's first-place finish and the way he represented the College.

"Andrew is a talented, mature young man, a terrific writer, and he possesses great awareness and judgment," Anderson said.

With his victory, McGill joined Halle Stockton, a journalism graduate who captured the writing national championship in 2007, as recent winners from the University. Overall, eight Penn State students have earned spots in the national championships in the past 10 years.

McGill, from Wyncote, Pa., worked throughout his college career at The Daily Collegian. He served as an administration reporter, police and courts reporter, investigative reporter, metro editor and, most recently, managing editor. He also completed an internship with The Morning Call.

The William Randolph Hearst Foundation has conducted and funded the Journalism Awards Program for 50 years, providing more than $550,000 annually in student scholarships, stipends and matching grants. The program is conducted under the auspices of the 110 accredited schools and universities in the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.

  • Andrew McGill advanced to the national championshps for the second time in three years.

    IMAGE: John Beale

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010