Hussman experiences help students excel in Hearst Journalism Awards

By Beth Hatcher

When Brianna Atkinson ’23 decided on doing a story about A.I.’s effects on the maritime industry as her entry in the Hearst Journalism Awards audio championship competition, she knew she needed to find people fishing.

So, she Googled fishing hotspots in San Francisco, where the Hearst competitions were taking place, grabbed an Uber to Fisherman’s Wharf and then talked her way onto a commercial boat — using every bit of tenacity she’s learned as a student at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She earned a national third place finish out of hundreds of students who entered the Hearst audio category competitions over the past year.

Listen to Atkinson's winning story here.

Above, Atkinson is pictured working on her story in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Jakub Mosur.

Atkinson was one of five UNC Hussman students who parlayed their immersive learning experiences at the school into strong finishes in the Hearst individual championship competitions, which took place June 2-7, 2023, in San Francisco.

“From the time that I arrived at Hussman, I heard about the prestige of the Hearst awards. Winning is such an honor, and I am so thankful for all the faculty who have mentored me,” Atkinson said.

The school also won the 2023 overall national championship in collegiate journalism, its fifth consecutive national championship and eighth in the nine past years.

“These wins at Hearst exemplify not only the talent and drive of our students, but the depth of our faculty’s professional knowledge, superb teaching and mentorship,” said Raul Reis, dean of the school. “The time management and flexibility demanded in the individual championship competitions mirror challenges our students will face in their careers. Our faculty and staff work hard to prepare our students to meet those challenges.”



Hussman students Sophie Mallinson, Alasdair McNinch, Angelina Katsanis and J'sha Gift are pictured above at the championships.  Photos courtesy of Jakub Mosur.

For the individual championship competitions, students were given spot assignments to complete over the course of a few days and submit for judging. The audio category’s spot assignment was to produce a story exploring the impact of A.I. in the Bay Area.

Sophie Mallinson ’23, who won that audio national championship, produced a piece about the use of A.I. in analyzing littering patterns. Like Atkinson, Mallinson honed her audio reporting skills at Carolina Connection, Hussman’s student-produced radio show and podcast platform, which taught her a range of audio journalism skills. “Working with Carolina Connection has taught me to operate under tight deadlines with flexibility and precision,” she said. “And those were definitely strengths that helped me win at Hearst.”

Listen to Mallinson's story here.

Adjunct Instructor Adam Hochberg, Carolina Connection’s adviser, is a veteran radio journalist who, in addition to teaching at Hussman, works as editorial director for the American Homefront Project and previously worked 15 years with NPR.

He had high praise for both the audio winners.

“No matter what the subject, Sophie makes her stories about people. She finds compelling characters, takes time to get to know them, and introduces them to the audience. She enjoys meeting people and visiting new places, and that sense of joy comes through in her work,” Hochberg said, before adding his thoughts about Atkinson’s talents, “Brianna’s curiosity — and her willingness to do what it takes to get the story — characterized her journalistic work at UNC, and it will serve her well as a professional journalist.”

Angelina Katsanis ’23, who won Best Multimedia Story of the Year and took home second place in the multimedia category, praised another Hussman tradition for her real-world reporting chops. She called “MEJO 584: International Projects,” a course that visits and produces a multimedia project about an international destination each spring, instrumental in her development as a multimedia journalist. “MEJO 584” trips have taken students to locations such as Belize, Columbia, the Galápagos Islands and Puerto Rico.

The Hearst multimedia championship competition prompt was “What does hope look and sound like?” — Katsanis answered that question with a story about a 10-year-old who anonymously leaves rubber ducks around San Francisco to make people's day.

View the story below.



“As recent graduate going into the world, this win comes just in time to give me an extra boost of confidence that I’m on the right path,” Katsanis said. “The mother of the son that I filmed wrote to me about how much happier he has become since I was there. She said ‘It doesn’t matter if you win or lose: You changed someone’s life and made it better. You gave him a light to reach and climb for,’ and that’s everything that I hope to do as a journalist.”

Katsanis won the Best Multimedia Story of the Year award for a story selected from the work that qualified her for the individual championships — a story about a transgender woman who spent 20 years incarcerated in a men’s facility.

 Scroll on the image below to view the story.



J'sha Gift  ’23, who was a finalist in the photojournalism championship competition, produced a series of photographs about a formerly homeless woman living in temporary housing on Alameda Island, a former naval installation in the San Francisco Bay that is currently home to approximately 80,000 residents. Gift’s Hearst assignment called for up to 10 images telling a story from the island.

“Navigating a new area while trying to find a story was challenging. I had to learn how to adapt when parts of my story didn't quite work out and navigate the culture of the city while doing it,” Gift said. “Also, a lot of the challenges were related to time and pressure. Learning how to consolidate all that I learned at Hussman and use it in the field was stressful at times but, overall, a great and immersive experience.”

Gift cited “MEJO 121: Intro to Digital Storytelling” with Teaching Assistant Professor Nazanin Knudsen as instrumental in honing her craft.

“In my nonfiction storytelling classes, students must work with others in situations often out of their control. It also prepares students for the real world of documentary making and journalism,” Knudsen said. “J'sha is an exceptional storyteller who treats people's stories and life experiences with sensitivity and care. She tells stories of struggle and calls attention to injustices without portraying her story partners as victims. She captures their joy, hope and all of their humanity.”

Find a few of Gift's winning images below. Click on the images to view her full project.



Alasdair McNinch ’23 said the research and time management skills he built at Hussman helped him capture a finalist placement in the championship’s writing category. He had about three days to report and turn in a story on the future of public ferry service in the San Francisco Bay.

Read McNinch's story here.

“I couldn’t have accomplished what I did at Hearst without what I learned at UNC Hussman,” said McNinch, whose piece on the ferry service examined how its post-pandemic recovery plan increased the number of riders from lower-income communities.

McNinch cited faculty like Erin Siegal McIntyre, Kate Sheppard, Ryan Thornburg and John Robinson as mentors during his time at Hussman.

Robinson, who taught McNinch in Media Hub — a course in which students from various disciplines are selected to collaborate to find, produce and market stories with state, regional, and even national appeal — noted McNinch’s ability to dig deep in his stories.

Robinson also praised the other Hussman championship contenders for their placements at Hearst. “First, even qualifying for the national championship is a major confidence boost. For 20- and 21-year-olds who likely suffer from imposter syndrome, getting recognition from the Hearst judges pretty much says, ‘Hey, you can do this journalism stuff for a living,’” Robinson said. “The journalist who can write, take photos, build a web site and tell a good story will always be in demand. That's one of the values of UNC Hussman — here, students can learn how to do all of those things well.”