Octagon stories on Breakthrough, international students nominated for national awards
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Two stories from last year’s volume of the Octagon have been selected as finalists for the student journalism version of the Pulitzer Prize: the National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA)’s Story of the Year awards.
This is the second time the Octagon has had two stories nominated in one year. The last time was in 2014, when Connor Martin, ‘14, placed third in the feature story category for an account of trying to fraudulently obtain a prescription for medical marijuana (“Doc, I’d really like some … marijuana),” the centerpoint story of the April 29, 2014, issue) and Garrett Kaighn, ‘14, took fifth place in the news category for a story on digital entrepreneur Keaton Ochoa, ‘16, (“Sophomore strikes it rich with Bitcoin”) that published in the fifth issue of the 2013-14 Octagon.
But unlike in 2014, both of the stories up for the prize this year were written in whole or in part by senior Sonja Hansen, and both, as readers likely remember, were on polarizing issues.
Nominated for News Story of the Year is Hansen’s piece published at the tail end of the summer of 2016: “Board decision to terminate Breakthrough support ignites controversy in SCDS community,” a story that Octagon adviser Patricia Fels called “excellent” but one that Hansen said she didn’t remember even submitting to the NSPA contest.
According to NSPA associate director Gary Lundgren, the professional journalists who pick the stories have no criteria for their selection; however, “the quality of the writing and reporting (is) significant” in selecting which of the more than 200 stories per category end up in the top 10.
Six days before the story was published, Hansen – on a trip in Walla Walla, Washington, for a cousin’s wedding – received an email from former print editor-in-chief, Adam Dean, ‘17, about the Board of Trustees’ decision to cut the program as well as Fels’s subsequent reply recommending Hansen to write the story.
“I was about to go into the wedding reception,” Hansen said, “but now all throughout the wedding, I couldn’t stop thinking about (Breakthrough).
“Breakthrough being gone would affect so many people: the students, the mentors, the teachers, the Board of Trustees, the parents – all these separate groups.”
Hansen said that luckily for her, everyone, including former head of the Board of Trustees Kelley Taber and numerous Breakthrough students and volunteers, was willing to be interviewed and send in photos.
Five days (and over 20 interviews and numerous Octagon-related stress dreams later) Hansen finished a story that “represented all sides” of the complex issue – the perfect story for exemplary high school journalism, Fels said.
“Good investigation, good selection of quotations, well-balanced (reporting) – those are the things that they expect students to follow – the principles of really good journalism,” Fels said.
Although it was “all-around good journalism,” both Fels and Hansen were surprised the Breakthrough story was chosen by the NSPA judges because Breakthrough is a localized program, irrelevant to other schools.
“I couldn’t see (the story) as being something nationally important, winning a national story of the year,” Hansen said.
“But something like the international student program, where it’s something that affects students around the nation, that seems like it would be the news story of the year.”
In fact, the editorial based on Hansen’s series of stories on the program for international students, UC Educations (“The truth is out about the international students; it’s time to act”), is a finalist for the Editorial/Opinion Story of the Year.
Although Octagon editorials are published on behalf of the entire staff and are thus anonymous, Hansen and former print editor-in-chief Marigot Fackenthal, ‘17, did the bulk of the writing.
And according to Fackenthal, “the body” of the story is all Hansen’s.
Hansen said that many parts of the editorial came straight out of her junior year AP English proposal essay, whose proposition was, in essence, that more SCDS families should be aware of the problems with UC Educations and be more open to hosting international students for their comfort.
Yet Hansen also said if they were to have sent in her first draft – a collection of propositions and arguments – without going through Fackenthal first, the editorial might not have been nominated.
“If we just submitted it the way it was before I turned it in, it wouldn’t have been as powerful,” Hansen said.
“(Fackenthal) made really good edits, (making it) much more professional and much more of a tighter argument.”
According to Fackenthal, upon first seeing the “two-page emotional rant,” she knew it needed additional context.
“An editorial should be able to stand alone, (providing) just enough content so that if you read it before reading the news story it’s based on, you still have enough information to understand what it says and what it’s arguing,” Fackenthal said.
“Having read the news story (put out earlier in the issue) and being rather close to the situation, I understood the editorial, but someone who had no background would not appreciate the importance of what we were arguing.”
For both Fackenthal and Hansen, emotions were running high, with the pressing publishing deadline and the gravity of the issue always in mind.
In addition, there was a mutual responsibility between them – that of ensuring the community became well informed about this issue.
“We had an obligation: to comment on the horrible, unnecessary strife that many international students had encountered,” Hansen said.
“The international students showed immense bravery by speaking honestly with me and allowing their stories to be published, and at the time, I felt like this editorial would be the big finish to the first installments of the international student story, so the editorial really had to pack a punch.”
In order to deliver that, Fackenthal resculpted the editorial to make it more logical, even though she said she personally felt that the situation was “infuriating.”
“I toned back the writing to try to give a logical and calm argument to a completely irrational and infuriating situation that was hurting my friends,” Fackenthal said.
“Coming up with a specific argument that gave the school the benefit of the doubt was difficult, but we had to in order to prevent people from closing their ears out of spite.”
Fackenthal additionally said she was nervous about how it would be received, since “every little thing” – from sentence structure to word choice – could be inflammatory.
“This editorial was really important because we were going after the school, and a lot of people would be upset,” Fackenthal said.
“It had to be solid.”
So Fackenthal, editing and, at times, rewriting paragraphs, changed Hansen’s detailed story to a more “understandable” editorial, presenting strong details and addressing counterarguments without superfluous quotations.
With the help of Fackenthal, the editorial presented the argument that Country Day families should host more, something that Hansen “regrets not making clear enough” in the first draft of the editorial but something that she had proposed in her English essay.
Nonetheless, Fackenthal was surprised when the editorial was named a finalist as she thought it “could’ve been written better.”
“But NSPA looks for different aspects than I do, (like if it’s) a big, interesting story – and this (was) a heavy topic,” Fackenthal said.
The national winners will be announced on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the JEA/NSPA Fall National High School Journalism Convention in Dallas.
—By Chardonnay Needler