Journalism students win big in Vegas

Layla Abbas
Editorial Director

Six University of La Verne students and recent alumni won a total of seven first- and second-place awards in the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence western regional contest recognizing college journalism published in 2018.

The awards were announced Saturday at the SPJ Region 11 conference in Las Vegas.

Winning entries included six Campus Times stories, with photography published in the La Verne Magazine.

Senior journalism major Christian Shepherd won the Breaking News Reporting category for his story, “La Verne earthquake rattles students’ nerves,” published in the Campus Times.

Shepherd said he was not able to attend the Vegas ceremony but was glad to see his peers attend and support his win.

“I have never met a more dedicated news staff than the people I worked with in the Campus Times newsroom,” Shepherd said. “I was able to win because of all the support from my peers and staff.”

Catalina Diaz, 2018 alumna, won the Feature Writing category for her story, “Brickford makes a leap in frog science,” published in the Campus Times.

David Gonzalez, sophomore journalism major, and Jaycie Thierry, junior broadcast journalism major, were finalists in General News Reporting for their team-reported series on the California wildfires published in the Campus Times.

Thierry said the hardest part of covering the California wildfires last fall was reaching sources and addressing constant story developments.

“Working on a story that was so timely and had updates gave us practice on how to cover hard hitting matters aside from covering campus events,” Thierry said. “It was nice being recognized as a journalist and for the work we do.”

Aryn Plax, senior journalism major, was a finalist Breaking News Reporting for “House explosion shakes Claremont”; Shepherd was a finalist in Breaking News for “Student detained after gun threats”; and Shepherd also was a finalist in General News for his series on migrant children detained in La Verne, all published in the Campus Times.

Spencer Croce, 2018 alumnus, was a finalist in the Magazine Nonfiction Article for his story, “First Line of Defense,” published in the La Verne Magazine.

Elizabeth Zwerling, professor of journalism and faculty adviser to the Campus Times, said the winning stories are examples of her students’ tenacious reporting.

“I am proud of my students for working extremely hard,” Zwerling said. “They are doing meaningful journalism and it is being recognized and rewarded.”

Winners are automatically entered in the national contest for which awards will be announced later this year.

Seven University of La Verne journalism students, including some of the awardees, attended the conference, including some of the winners.

The Society of Professional Journalists, aside from its annual contests honoring excellence in journalism, works to promote and defend freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and to support diversity, ethical behavior and high standards in professional and student journalism.

The Vegas conference titled “Not The Enemy,” featured more than 20 sessions with keynote speakers regarding topics like covering the terror and aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting, the story behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece on President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall, natural disasters, cannabis, balancing beat reporting and nonprofit newsrooms.

Las Vegas Review Journal reporter Rachel Crosby, Las Vegas based freelance photographer David Becker and KVVU TV’s Christine Maddela, shared their experience covering the Las Vegas mass shooting Oct. 1, 2017, that left more than 50 people dead.

For Becker, photographing the aftermath was an unfortunate duty he knew he had to perform as a photojournalist.

“My body took over and knew what to do, which was to take photographs,” Becker said. “As a journalist, we make photos, and that is any journalists’ first intuition.”

Becker played a compelling and heart-wrenching slideshow of his photographs from that night.

The video depicts joy at the beginning of the Route 91 Festival and painfully transitions to a horrific scene with people fleeing in desperation.

Crosby said it is important to have a plan intact when covering an event of this magnitude. When her editor reached out via group message to seek out who could be available for the story, Crosby and others dispatched to different areas at and away from the scene.

Crosby said she has experienced PTSD after covering the mass shooting and speaking with families who had lost loved ones, and urged people to step aside from the story and take care of themselves.

Second-hand trauma is real, so after the event seek help, ask for support and speak to other people, Crosby said.

Another session featured investigative editor Michael Squires and Republic border reporter Rafael Carranza shared a personal look into their Arizona Republic’s Pulitzer Prize winning investigation on President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the southern border.

The nine month project, which was the most expensive project funded by USA Today, used virtual reality and interactive maps to show where the wall would be built and compiled a series of stories including interviewing a “coyote,” or a human smuggler, who is paid to help people gain entry into the United States.

Amanda Fortini, who has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, shared tips on writing narrative nonfiction and relaying visually pleasing stories to your readers.

She says the first step in getting published is learning how to write a good story pitch.

“Narrative journalism is similar to creative writing in that there is a sense of discovery,” Fortini said. “You do not know what you are going to write until you write it.”

The next Society of Professional Journalism Conference will be hosted in Hawaii March 2020.

Layla Abbas can be reached at

Other Stories

Latest Stories

Related articles

Jashelle Ranson celebrated by ULV and friends

Jashelle Ranson, junior photography major, died unexpectedly Jan. 3. The news was released to the University of La Verne students and staff via email on Jan. 13 from Zandra Wagoner, interfaith chaplain. 

Campus Times, LeoFM among the nation’s top college media outlets

The University of La Verne’s communications department recently received top honors from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and Broadcast Education Association for the works of its students and faculty in the 2020-2021 academic year. 

Campus Times wins Gold Medal in national contest

The University of La Verne’s Campus Times was awarded the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s Gold Medal Award for overall excellence for the 2019-2020 academic year. The award marks the publication’s 17th CSPA Gold Medal in the past 20 years. 

Former ULV administrator named president of Ohlone Community College

Eric Bishop, a University of La Verne alumnus, who also held several positions at La Verne – including associate dean of academic advising, journalism professor and Campus Times adviser – was recently appointed president of Ohlone Community College in Fremont, California. He starts July 6.