Writing help and story suggestions: Looking at the ACP Pacemaker finalists for inspiration

The Associated Collegiate Press posted its list of Pacemaker finalists late last week, which includes both overall awards for news organizations as well as individual stories, images and advertisements. ACP bills the Pacemakers as the preeminent awards in college journalism and these things are damned hard to win. The sheer volume of high-quality entries means that a tweak here or an error there can allow judges to bounce a piece from consideration so they can pare down the list to just a few finalists.

For the longest time, I have told my students that awards should not serve as a measuring stick for them. Judging, timing, competition and other factors can have one entry win and another miss the cut. You can always put yourself in a better or worse position to win an award, but that’s about it.

I’ve explained that if you win an award, you should be grateful and happy, but you shouldn’t get too cocky about it. If you don’t win one, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong or that you were horrible, so don’t beat yourself up about it.

The reason I’m looking at the individual awards here and today is to showcase the types of stories you can cover and the ways in which the journalists wrote them. These kinds of pieces should provide you with some neat story ideas you can examine on your own campus, as well as some ways to weave sources, description and structure into these pieces.

For example, in this story about the opioid crisis around the San Luis Obispo area, the writer for the Mustang News starts with a narrative opening that really grabs the reader:

Grover Beach resident Ryan Thole was 6 years old when he walked in on his father injecting heroin in the bathroom. Thirteen years later, Thole shot up for the first time. By the time he was 26 years old, Thole was dependent on the drug, roaming the streets and searching for his next high.

“It was like everything that was wrong about my life, heroin seemed to fix,” Thole said.

The piece weaves personal experiences, data and information about recovery into a gripping story of a campus and city dealing with its share of a national epidemic.

A profile piece from the Indiana Daily Student, titled “The Man in Black,” uses a similar narrative walk-in to help attach the source to the situation:

INDIANAPOLIS — The undertaker would not watch the local news anymore. He hated how the broadcasters talked of nothing but death.
He hated each mention of the city’s rising homicide toll and how the anchors seemed excited about the city setting a new record in blood. He hated how a news item could reduce a victim to a cause of death: the number of bullets torn into them, the place their body fell.
Most of the victims were men, like the undertaker, and young and black, like the undertaker. Some of them were friends, people he’d grown up with. He knew they had emotions, motivations, lives too complex to fit in a news brief.
Often he looked down at a victim, laid out in a casket, wounds concealed by make-up or strategically arranged clothing, and had the same thought.
That could be me.
These narrative summations work well because they represent the underlying aspects of the story that the sources will continue to reveal: pain, discomfort and struggle. The writers found a way to capture these concepts and boil them down to an opening stanza that told the story in a tight, strong opening.
Other writers used observation to walk readers into their pieces and help the audience see the scene and the source via “word pictures.” Consider this level of description in a feature piece from El Camino College about a college student who bonded with a 95-year-old woman:

Eagerly yet reluctantly, a young, blonde-haired man steps through the gate of the Palos Verdes estate. He surveys the house in front of him and eyes the glass door that sits partially open. He doesn’t think twice and walks straight to it.

The glass door was the entrance to the estate’s kitchen. His shoes make contact with the hard, cold kitchen floor. He notices a walker propped up next to the counter. Inside the walker sits a small woman whose hair was colored a light brown, yet her skin was decorated with age. She faces the counter with a bowl of steaming oatmeal before her and her arm lifts with a spoonful for a bite.

A rush of anticipation runs over Hunter as he abruptly picks up pace and makes his way next to the woman. He extends his hand out to introduce himself. Startled, she looks up at him taking in his 6-foot frame and deep blue eyes. At this point, the warm mushy texture of oatmeal goes down the wrong way and Helene Denton begins to choke.

The 18-year-old Virginian, who had left everything he had ever known on the other side of the country to find himself standing standing next to the woman who has opened her home to him, freaks out.

“Oh my God, she’s dying,” Hunter thinks as he pats her on the back to bring her relief.

In that case, the author is having the source recall the situation. In this step-by-step narrative opening from the Daily Kansan, the author follows the source on her daily routine and helps put the readers right next to the source each step of the way.

It’s a Monday afternoon, and Anyae McCloud, a 23-year-old junior from Kansas City, Kansas, is picking up her daughter from preschool.

It can be a rush to get to the pickup lane, but today she’s early, so she sits in her silver Kia, parked on the curb near the playground fence. She sneaks some mini Oreos out of the blue plastic cup she picked up for 5-year-old, Harmoni, on the way here. They’re Harmoni’s favorite, she says.

McCloud has just come from the University of Kansas campus, where she worked a morning shift at her desk job in the The Dole Center for Human Development and attended her afternoon classes. In the car, she talks about graduation plans — she’ll have to take classes over the summer and winter breaks to graduate with a degree in behavioral science next May like she plans.

If you looked at her now, with her job, class schedule, and pink car seat in the back, you wouldn’t know how rough she had had it. Five years ago, she was a freshman with a newborn baby, living in an apartment she had begged her landlord for, fighting with her daughter’s father and struggling to hold down a job at the Dollar Tree.

Five years ago, she had just aged out of the foster care system.

“We walk down campus and we look like a normal face,” she says. “But you never know the background people have and what they’ve been through.”

Notice the descriptors: The silver Kia near the playground fence. The mini-Oreos in the blue plastic cup. The pink car seat. Each element adds a brushstroke of detail to the piece and helps you better see the person. (My only minor gripe was the use of a generic second-person approach in the fourth paragraph for no real reason. Still, this open works.)

The same thing can be said of another minor “rule break” in this opening. I’m not a huge fan of quote leads, as they often leave your readers lost and confused. It’s usually unclear who is saying the quote or what value that person has as a source. However, in this story about the SGA president at Western Kentucky, who was a target of threats and abuse, a three-word quote lead does the job perfectly:

“Go fuck yourself.”

The three words were scrawled in blue ink on the back of a Chick-fil-A receipt and placed behind the windshield wiper of Andi Dahmer’s car.

An anonymous note like this would likely give anyone pause for concern, and it did her as well. Dahmer called the WKU Police to Minton Lot, where her car was parked, Friday, Feb. 9, at 7:29 p.m., according to a police report.

This incident was not the first time the Student Government Association president and student regent said she faced harassing behavior or had profane language thrown her way.

Over the course of the fall 2017 semester and this spring, Dahmer contended that several members of SGA had cursed at her in her office, called her derogatory names and had anonymously exchanged group messages with each other wishing her physical harm. All this resulted in her feeling unsafe on campus. The note, she said, was the point where months of ongoing insults suddenly made her fear for her safety.

“They knew what dorm that I stayed in,” Dahmer said. “They knew where I parked my car and they had identified my car and so they could find me. I think that was the scariest part. That’s when I really started fearing for my life on this campus.”

The problems usually associated with quote leads (you don’t know the source of the quote, the information comes out of left field, the quote lacks context) all either don’t apply here or actually work as a strength for the piece. The hatred, the anonymity and the sense of “what the heck is this?” all emphasize the feelings Andi Dahmer at that moment.

Beyond the writing aspects of these and other pieces, the subject matter can help you consider some potential story ideas on your own campus.

For example, this story by the Daily Orange at Syracuse looked back at a crucial event in the history of the university: The death of 35 exchange students in the 1988 Pan AM Flight 103 explosion. The author not only looked back, but did so through the eyes of a woman whose face was captured in an iconic image that came to symbolize the sense of tragedy from that time.

A similar “look back” approach used a shorter time frame to examine the continued impact of a loss: The Spectrum at the University of Buffalo did an in-depth examination of how a football player’s death continues to affect the people who knew him and the school as a whole.

STORY IDEAS: What happened 20, 30, 50 or more years ago on your campus? Is there a need to look back and reflect, catch up with people or reexamine the topic in a new light?

In approaching this story from New York City, you might not want to do read it before lunch. The authors look at the conditions of public school cafeterias, relying on health department data, their own reporting and some great information layering. What they found had a lot to do with roaches, rats and other appetite-suppressing revelations.

Another food-related story from Pepperdine looks at the issue of food insecurity among students on the campus and what the school is doing to solve this problem.

STORY IDEAS: What has the health department found in your school’s eateries? What about the places you tend to frequent around campus? How is food a problem at your school or in your area, ranging from not having enough of it to how much of it people tend to throw away? Who sets the prices for your campus food and what rights do students have in terms of selecting food sources on campus? Also, are there other data sources regarding food sanitation, safety, sales and regulation that might be of interest to your readers.

These are just a few ideas from a few stories. To review the whole list of finalists and poke around in some truly great pieces, click here and enjoy.



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