One award-winning story announces the retirement of a soccer coach, “After 2 decades, 337 wins and 1 untouchable legacy, Mike Otto retires from Delran.” Another winning article, “Address me by my name,” focuses on Ron Harper, Jr., a star basketball player at Rutgers. A third tells the story of two opponents at the 2020 N.J. state wrestling championship, who were both so ill as babies they were not expected to live, titled “Years later, fate brings miracle babies from death’s door to state wrestling tourney.”
These are just three of the nine stories that earned top awards in the annual New Jersey Press Association Better Newspaper Contest this year. All of the winning entries were written by SC&I alumni who majored in Journalism and Media Studies at SC&I and are now sports reporters for NJ Advance Media. Brian Deakyne ’14 won first place for scholastic sports portfolio; Patrick Lanni ’13 won second place for scholastic sports portfolio and Brian Fonseca ’18 won the Robert P. Kelly Award, which is given to “a permanent staffer with less than a year of professional experience at the time of publication.”
As reporters for NJ Advance Media, their articles appear on NJ.com and in The Star-Ledger, The Times of Trenton, The Jersey Journal, South Jersey Times, Hunterdon County Democrat, and Suburban News, and other publications. Their portfolios in 2020 were honored by the NJ Press Association as entries for The Star-Ledger.
Professor of Professional Practice and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Journalism and Media Studies, Steve Miller, who taught and mentored all of them, said, “These three alums are now and have always been amazing students of the sports writing craft. They worked hard at all facets of reporting, writing, and researching and these awards are a testament to the time and effort they put in. Pat, Brian, and Brian have always told stories in their own voice and this has enabled them to achieve so much. They are three more great examples of how our students take the things they learn in our classrooms and apply them to reach their journalistic dreams.”
“It was a momentous point in my career to get an award like this. It was a great moment for sure,” Lanni said, explaining it was particularly nice to learn that both he and Deakyne had won in the scholastic sports portfolio category because, “each newspaper is only allowed two entries per category, and we got the top two spots from the same organization for scholastic sports. Obviously, it was great to win and be recognized, but to win with one of my good friends who is a great colleague and co-worker was even more special.”
In an amazing twist, Lanni said he first met his colleague and co-winner Brian Fonseca at a high school soccer game a year after he had graduated from Rutgers and was working as a sports reporter for The Star-Ledger. “Brian Fonseca was a senior in high school, and I was covering him both as an athlete (he played volleyball) and as the manager of the soccer team, which was a really good team. Brian asked me for advice. He said, “Hey I think I want to be a sportswriter, and I know you went to Rutgers.” I told him, “Rutgers is going to be a great place for you to expand your horizons – at Rutgers you can take advantage of so many opportunities, so go and chase your dream.”
All three credited the Journalism and Media Studies Program at SC&I for helping them gain the skills they needed to start out and ultimately succeed as sports reporters, and for preparing them for the rigors of such a demanding and ever-changing profession. In addition to their SC&I academic experiences, Lanni and Deakyne also said because of SC&I they landed reporting internships at local newspapers which were also invaluable experiences.
“I use the skills that I learned at SC&I every single day in the field,” Deakyne wrote in an email. “One of the biggest lessons that, I think, a lot of people in the journalism field have to learn quickly is that our job is to report the facts, which seems pretty obvious, right? Most people, myself included, want to get into sports writing to write the great story about a team winning the World Series or the kid that scores the game-winning goal to win a state championship. And those stories are great — they’re happy stories, people want to tell them.
“But we don’t get those stories all the time. More often than not, the best reporting we do is when we come across something that doesn’t feel exactly right. So we dig. And we dig some more. That means making phone calls and asking tough questions of sources, usually even sources that we like, all in the name of finding the truth and reporting it. That was a huge thing for me to learn at SC&I. In my early 20s, I was quiet, shy, and timid. Those traits don’t add up to being a good reporter, so I had to learn to grow out of them, learn to approach people when doing a Man on the Street assignment and learn how to do the job. A big part of that was being able to get some experience as a part-time reporter at The Star-Ledger while I was still at Rutgers, working nights and weekends. In this line of work, experience is everything, but it was a big help to have the backing and education from such a tremendous school, too.”
Fonseca wrote, “I learned many useful skills at SC&I: Among many other things, Steve Miller taught me how to approach strangers and talk to them for a story; Mike Pavlichko taught me how to record/edit my own video/audio; Lenn Robbins taught me how to think outside of the box, both in the type of stories I write and how I go about telling them. I got into sportswriting the same way many of my colleagues did; I grew up loving sports -- playing, watching, reading about them -- and wanted to be involved with them somehow. I realized playing professionally was out of the picture very early on, so the next best was writing about them. I signed up for The Daily Targum as a freshman at Rutgers and really enjoyed it -- it was much more fun than the business classes I was taking, at least -- so I switched my major to JMS and never looked back.”
Lanni added, “The fact that all of us won and all of us are graduates is what’s important, and that Professor Miller definitely left his fingerprint on all of us, because he has been so influential, especially in sports reporting.”
The NJ Press Association awards honor them for the following stories:
- What will it take to pull off HS sports this fall in N.J.?
- She fought for a girls golf team at her school — and won. Then the pandemic hit.
- After 2 decades, 337 wins and 1 untouchable legacy, Mike Otto retires from Delran
- ‘Address me by my name’: Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. goes one-on-one with his father’s legacy
- Why has Rutgers ignored this forgotten NCAA Tournament team?
- Early arrivals, middle fingers and sold-out jerseys: NJ football fans welcome the XFL’s Guardians
- Years later, fate brings miracle babies from death’s door to state wrestling tourney
- 126-pound final: Bergen Catholic’s Robert Howard leaves legacy for all to see
- After sudden death of his brother, Becton football coach leads team to division title