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Oklahoma State University

Out of Tragedy, Honor

Tue, March 21, 2017
Arts & Sciences
Stavenhagen (far left) and Knoernschild (bottom right) were two of eight national qualifiers in the annual William Randolph Hearst Foundation Writing Competition. They were selected from 1,261 entrants.

“It’s a story you never want to write.”

Even if it leads to a national award? Cody Stavenhagen, a recently graduated sports media major from Oklahoma State University, still would have preferred a normal day of covering a Homecoming football game over adding a trophy to his mantle.

On Oct. 24, 2015, Stavenhagen and classmate Kaelynn Knoernschild produced memorable coverage of the car crash at the Homecoming parade that killed four people and injured more than 40. Due to their commendable reporting, the two were selected to compete at the 2016 William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards in San Francisco. The annual competition recognizes the finest student journalism in the country.

OSU student reporters Kaelynn Knoernschild and Cody Stavenhagen worked around-the- clock at the 2016 Hearst Foundation Journalism Awards to produce three challenging articles.

The fact that two OSU students were among eight finalists in the writing category to attend the competition in California speaks to their mature handling of a tragic event as well as the O’Colly’s surging presence among national heavyweights. OSU finished third in the writing category after placing 10th in 2015 (the first year OSU cracked the top 10).

Barbara Allen, director of student media at OSU, says students who have actively pursued positions in student media are proving to be successful.

“You find that students who take advantage of opportunities in student media tend to get better awards, better internships and when they graduate, there are a variety of job offers out there,” Allen says.

Stavenhagen and Knoernschild were selected from 1,261 entrants from 108 colleges and universities with accredited undergraduate journalism schools. Stavenhagen (who became the first OSU student to compete in the event in 2015) won the Sports Writing qualifier for his article, “And Then There Was a Football Game,” while Knoernschild won the Breaking News Writing qualifier for her article, “ ‘I can’t recall an incident of this magnitude’: Community mourns after homecoming parade.” In addition to the invite to San Francisco, they each received a $2,600 scholarship from the Hearst Foundation.

The week in San Francisco was not all trophies and sightseeing. The Hearst Championships deliver rigorous assignments to competitors. The eight-person writing competition charged the students with interviewing Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, then writing both a news story and personality/profile piece. In addition, they were assigned an on-the-spot article about the city’s homelessness crisis.

“It is really a test of time management, ability to follow good leads, and acclimate yourself to a beat you’re unfamiliar with,” Allen says.

In setting out to cover the homelessness crisis, Knoernschild found herself drawing on lessons learned during the Homecoming tragedy. In shock and mourning like the rest of Stillwater, Knoernschild battled to balance her reporting with her own troubled feelings.

Cody Stavenhagen won the Hearst Award qualifier in Sports Writing for his article, “And Then There Was a Football Game.”

“Interviewing people in the community but also being a human was really difficult for me,” she says. “I was constantly reminding myself itself it’s OK to be human and to have these emotions as a reporter.”

Similar emotions stirred in Knoernschild when she met a homeless woman in San Francisco whose daughter had been kidnapped. The woman lost her job when her efforts to search for her daughter overlapped with her work schedule. It was not a story Knoernschild could have anticipated.

“I did not expect to talk with someone involved in kidnapping and who was so open and honest with me about it,” she says.

Both Knoernschild and Stavenhagen look back at the Homecoming tragedy with weary sadness. Not only were they processing their own emotions, they had to cover an unimaginable subject. Knoernschild, as the O’Colly managing editor, coordinated photographers and reporters while working on the story herself. A day that began with notions of tailgating at a football game quickly turned into a marathon shift. She eventually left the O’Colly around 1 a.m. for a few hours of sleep before preparing to be interviewed during a live national news broadcast on Fox & Friends at 5 a.m. Sunday morning. By Sunday night, she had her story ready for Monday’s issue of the O’Colly.

Stavenhagen had a similar experience. He was set to cover what everyone thought would be an easy Homecoming football win over Kansas. Instead he was jarred awake by calls and texts from friends and family asking if he was all right. Once he figured out why those calls were coming in, he went straight to work.

“One of the things about being a journalist is you don’t have a lot of time to process something like that,” he says.

While Knoernschild hunted down details of what happened, Stavenhagen made his way to the intersection of Main Street and Hall of Fame Avenue. He surveyed the scene, paying close attention to each “eerie” detail that gave him chills. By the time he reached the press box inside Boone Pickens Stadium, he had a framework in mind for his story. He also knew he did not want to write it.

“I remember talking with Nathan Ruiz, the sports editor for the O’Colly, and telling him, ‘I do not care about this football game,’ ” Stavenhagen recalls.

In his story, Stavenhagen wove the details of the game with the “horrific event that had rocked the entire community.” Many people in the crowd of 40,000 at the game probably processed the day’s events in similar fashion. Allen feels Stavenhagen’s  ability to tap into that shared experience caught the attention of the Hearst judges.

“I think the reason he won such a prestigious award is that he was able to put into words what people were incapable of saying at the time,” she says.

Knoernschild produced her award-winning piece with a classic style and relentless reporting. Allen gives her the ultimate compliment by calling her an “old-school journalist.”

Thanks to the School of Media and Strategic Communications at OSU and student media outlets like the O’Colly, Stavenhagen and Knoernschild have learned “old school” ethics in the age of modern media. Allen believes quality writing bridges reporting and communication.

“We feel that having great writers in a vibrant student media program that is visible on a national level to other academics and professionals is really important,” she says.

The industry seems to be taking notice. Stavenhagen graduated in December 2015 and, after landing competitive internships with, The Oklahoman and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, began full-time work at the Tulsa World. Knoernschild graduates in May 2017 and spent the summer of 2016 in Washington, D.C., interning for the Student Press Law Center.

Both students secured scholarships before even setting foot on campus in Stillwater. Stavenhagen hails from Amarillo, Texas. He was drawn to OSU for the sports media program and received enough financial assistance to make OSU more affordable than the major in-state Texas schools.

Knoernschild calls Edmond, Okla., home, and both of her parents are OSU alumni. Though they encouraged her to apply to several different schools, they made it clear that wherever she went, she would still bleed orange. As with Stavenhagen, OSU presented her an influential level of scholarship money, and one visit to the campus sealed the deal. “I felt right at home,” she says.

This fall, she returns to Stillwater as editor of the investigative team at the O’Colly. Knoernschild heaps praise upon Allen, her SMSC professors and the student editors who preceded her for helping an inexperienced freshman blossom into an award-winning student journalist.

“As an editor in the fall, I hope I’ll be able to do some of the same and give back to the organization that helped me fall in love with journalism,” she says.

Stavenhagen is similarly fond of his time at OSU, calling the O’Colly his most rewarding student experience.

“You’re out there and doing stuff that matters and can have an impact on this campus,” he says.

Photo Courtesy / Jakub Moser and Erin Lubin

Story by Brian Petrotta

College News Network

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