J-School Alums Honored with 2020 WNAF Awards

Clockwise from left: A photo of the capitol dome at night, a photo of two people talking through a glass window, a photo of doves being released at a protest and a photo of a child at a splash pad.
The cover of the WNAF 2020 Better Newspaper Contest program.

Recently, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation Better Newspaper Contest announced its winners at a virtual award ceremony. The contest received over 2000 entries from over 100 newspapers across Wisconsin. Among the winners were many SJMC alums, whose dedication to providing reliable local news coverage has earned them recognition in a variety of categories.

Madeline Heim headshot
Madeline Heim, Health and Science Reporter, The Post-Crescent

In a difficult year for journalists everywhere, pandemic coverage took center stage at many news outlets, including The Post-Crescent. J-School alum Madeline Heim (BA’18) received first place in the Division A Coronavirus Coverage category for her work covering the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heim said she was extremely honored to win this award, especially in her first year as a reporter on the health and science beat. She credits her J-School education with making her work during the pandemic possible.

“I wanted to go past the numbers—cases, hospitalizations, and deaths—and tell the stories of the people behind them, from the nurses and doctors caring for patients to local health officers fighting disinformation to people with long-lasting symptoms,” Heim said. “Accurate, sensitive and contextual storytelling is a skill I couldn’t have learned without the J-School.”

In the Rookie Reporter of the Year category, J-School alums represented three of the four winners. First place went to Wisconsin State Journal reporter Emily Hamer (BA’18), second place to The Cap Times reporter Natalie Yahr (MA’19) and honorable mention to La Crosse Tribune reporter Olivia Herken (BA’19).

Natalie Yahr headshot
Natalie Yahr, Reporter and Podcast Producer, The cap Times

In addition to her Rookie Reporter of the Year nod, Yahr received two first place awards. Her work with Katelyn Farrell on retaliation by Epic Systems in response to employees’ COVID-19 concerns received first place in the Division A Investigative Reporting category. Additionally, her piece “Voices of protest: Activists share the goals, hopes and fears that keep them pushing for change” took first place in the Division A Feature Story (Non-Profile) category.

“It was an incredible honor to be in the running for Rookie Reporter of the Year, and especially to come in second to such a talented and hardworking reporter as fellow SJMC grad Emily Hamer,” Yahr said. “I came to grad school in 2018 to make a career change after working for nearly a decade in education, and these awards are proof that the UW-Madison program was just what I needed to make that transition. I’m so grateful for the dedicated instructors and editors in my courses and internships—including at Wisconsin Watch and the Cap Times—who prepared me to compete at this level.”

In total, Yahr and her colleagues at The Cap Times received 22 awards from WNAF. Two other J-School alums at The Cap Times were among the winners: Abigail Becker (BA’15) and Scott Girard (BA’13).

Olivia Herken Headshot
Olivia Herken, Local Government Reporter, La Crosse Tribune

Herken also brought home multiple awards, including first place in the Division B/C Investigative Reporting category, first place in the Division B/C Reporting on Local Government category, first place in the Division B/C Environmental Reporting category, third place in the Division B Enterprise/Interpretive Reporting category and honorable mention in the Division B Coronavirus Coverage category.

“Being a journalist in a year like 2020 has meant telling important stories during critical times and helping document a historical year. And it’s been such a privilege—and also a lot of work. But to have that work recognized with these awards, especially as a ‘cub’ reporter and as so many newsrooms are stretched thin, it makes all of that work that much more fulfilling, and it’s energizing me to do more,” Herken said.

“I was a first generation, low-income student at UW-Madison, and my entire time in the J-School I was also juggling being a caretaker for my ill mother, and the weight of that often made me doubt myself and my ability. But the tools and support the J-School gave me are truly immeasurable and have helped me do this work and be the storyteller I always hoped I’d be—making a difference. And being honored with these awards solidifies that feeling all the more.”

The J-School is incredibly proud of these reporters and all other alums that received awards from WNAF. Their passion for local news coverage in the state of Wisconsin is inspiring and we can’t wait to see where their careers take them from here.

You can see all the award recipients and their winning pieces on the WNA Foundation Better Newspaper Contest website.