How one student found the recipe for Murrow-winning (and community-changing) stories

January 28, 2019 11:00

In the first week of my multimedia journalism master’s program at the University of Oregon, I noted my professor Wes Pope’s description of what kind of work could earn an A+ in his class: “A possible award winner.” As a total journalism newbie, it had never occurred to me that someone could submit student work for an award, much less that I could ever be that someone. 

Throughout J school, I pushed myself on every assignment, hoping to create something that I felt could possibly be publishable, and maybe even award-worthy. I frequently continued to re-edit and tweak my assignments long after they were turned in and graded.

Eventually a good story fell in my lap, as they often do, when a toxic lead contamination was reported right in my own North Portland neighborhood. Working with a team of two other graduate students, Richard Percy and David MacKay, we produced a short documentary about my personal investigation, The Kenton Lead Blob. When the doc created some waves in my neighborhood and even in Portland city hall, I felt like I finally had something worth sharing with the world.

I couldn’t believe it when I learned we had won a Student Murrow Award for Video Reporting. The list of professional news institutions that were collecting Murrow awards at the same ceremony alongside us was a veritable who’s who of journalism heavy hitters. My whole team attended the black tie awards dinner at the astonishing Gotham Hall in New York City with our families in tow and we all had a smashing good time.

That night we brushed shoulders with folks like Sarah Koenig who was collecting a Murrow award for Serial and Brian Stelter from CNN, who was a presenter that evening. I even managed to chat with Brian for a few minutes in the back of the room while he hammered at his laptop between award presentations. I really felt like I was in the thick of it!

I spent most of my next year of grad school working on my final capstone project, a multimedia story about a village of tiny houses for formerly homeless women in my neighborhood. I didn’t think I had a chance of winning again, but I decided to give it another shot. To my utter shock, I got to relive the whole experience again, this time sharing the ballroom with incredible household names like Hansi Lo Wang from NPR and David Muir of ABC.

I would encourage every multimedia journalism student to submit work they are especially proud of to the Student Murrow Awards. It’s a really exciting achievement to have on your resume and they throw one heck of a party.

I don’t have a lot of advice for applicants, but both of my winning entries used very local stories to shine a light on national issues. I think any student journalist could try that approach, and the Murrow judges seem to like it!

Zach Putnam earned a Master's degree in Multimedia Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in 2017.


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