Accolade’s online website takes first place in California All-Stars journalism contest; newspaper and team of staffers take second-place honors

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Nevya Patel

This is the front cover of the Google slide awards presentation that announced The Accolade’s online news website as winning first place for the California All-Stars contest sponsored by the Southern California Journalism Education Association. The Accolade placed second in the newspaper category and tied for second with Irvine’s Northwood High School in the Student Media Contests’ sweepstakes category.

Susie Kim

After sweeping the Best of Show categories for print and online news in a regional journalism contest earlier this year, The Accolade came close to pulling off the same feat at the state level.

The Accolade’s online news website captured the first-place California All-Stars plaque in only its second year of competing in the 5-year-old contest sponsored by the Southern California Journalism Education Association [SCJEA].

“Bravo! The quality of your news website is consistently impressive,” wrote the judge who evaluated the website. “Superb journalism, attention to copyright law and multimedia components. Hard-hitting topics and localized news. All great!” 

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, SCJEA officials had canceled the on-the-spot writing contest last March, though Cal All-Stars and photo entries submitted in advance of the competition were judged.

Since COVID-19-related health and safety protocols restricted the number of people who can gather in a building, the SCJEA decided this year to hold the Student Media Contests virtually on March 13 with the results not released on the SCJEA website until a week later on March 20. (Usually, the entries are judged the same day with results announced in the late afternoon.)

It wasn’t until nearly another two more weeks after that did journalism advisers get judges’ comments back through an email from SCJEA event organizers.

And because COVID-19 conditions in Southern California prevented the SCJEA from holding an awards ceremony as in the past, the Cal All-Stars plaque and other certificates students earned will be mailed to Sunny Hills High School at a later date.

Meanwhile, The Accolade’s website — revived during the 2018-2019 school year after a two-year hiatus — beat out second-place Beverly Hills High School’s Highlights, which also came in second in last year’s contest, and third-place Portola High School’s Portola Pilot, which earned an honorable mention last year. The Accolade’s website had also placed first for Best of Show at the OCJEA writeoffs competition Feb. 20 – another first for the program.

“Because we had remarkably done so well against really top-notch online news programs from Orange County, I knew we had a chance to take the top spot or at least place in the Top 3 at the state level,” said Accolade adviser Tommy Li, who attributed the success to his top editors and staff. “None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for our student leaders, especially our web editor senior Andrew Ngo, who had a vision for where he wanted to take our website and how he can improve it to become an award-winning one.

“Ngo redesigned our website after we transitioned to a new host this school year, and he devised a way to update it regularly with fresh content.”

Although Li had posted a link later that evening of March 20 for staff to access the Google Slide awards presentation, the senior web editor said he didn’t see the results until the next day on March 21.”

“I was only looking for the print award and my sports writeoffs category, so seeing our name under Cal All-Stars for website was definitely a ‘woah’ moment,” said Ngo, who placed ninth in sports writing in the writeoffs portion of the Student Media Contests. “It was a really cool moment, but honestly I am just so proud of what everyone — from all of our staff reporters to Mr. Li — has been able to do this year in spite of every difficulty thrown our way.”

None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for our student leaders.”

— Tommy Li

One such challenge besides COVID-19-induced distance learning for a majority of the staff involved Ngo’s other web managing editor, other social media manager and the online graphics editor being among the six placed in period four with the beginning journalism class instead of period five with the rest of The Accolade staff.

“I had a group chat with web managing editors [seniors] Annie Bang and Rebecca Choi and that worked pretty well, but not having the consistent face-to-face interaction often strained our communication,” he said.

Bang was the editor whose class schedule could only fit journalism for fourth period.

“When I heard about the [SCJEA] results from the group chat with Andrew and Rebecca, I was extremely happy with the award,” she said. “Despite the occasional miscommunication, I knew we all worked hard independently to fulfill our individual roles so I had high expectations for our website.”

HOW THE ACCOLADE CAME CLOSE TO A SWEEP

According to the slide awards presentation, a total of 15 media programs from Southern California competed in the All-Stars contest, which also included newspaper/news magazine issues and broadcast and yearbook entries. In the newspaper/news magazine category, journalism programs had to submit two issues from August 2020 to early February 2021 for judging.

Last year, Van Nuys High School’s The Mirror had completed the sweep of placing first for its online website as well as its print product, but this year it didn’t make an appearance on the Top 3 for online though it did repeat as the winner for newspaper/news magazine.

The Accolade, which submitted its first issue from Oct. 30 and its second issue from Dec. 14, came in second — the first time the program had ever placed in the years since the Cal All-Stars category was created — while El Camino Real Charter High School’s The King’s Courier from Woodland Hills came in third (it had an honorable mention nod last year).

The judges (for both the Student Media Contests, California All-Stars & senior scholarships) had a difficult time selecting the top winners because many entries were rather close due to the students’ impressive work,” wrote Adriana Chavira, SCJEA president, in an email to journalism advisers.

Even though the judging PDF file states, “The sum of the rankings does not necessarily determine the winners but is merely a guideline for feedback,” Li said he can’t help but think how close those two Accolade issues came to dethroning The Mirror, which would’ve given Sunny Hills the sweep instead. 

I am just so proud of what everyone — from all of our staff reporters to Mr. Li — has been able to do this year in spite of every difficulty thrown our way.”

— Andrew Ngo

“We scored 19.5 out of 20,” he said. “That makes me feel we were a half-point shy of taking first place or tying for it. That’s how close we were this time around, and hopefully, next year we’ll get over the hump and pull out a first-place finish.

“Nevertheless, congratulations goes to The Mirror, its adviser and staff.”

 The one category that The Accolade’s two issues fell short of a perfect score on was for layout and design, though the judge offered the following feedback:

“Clean, modern newspaper design. Strong images. Writers clearly understand how good journalism reads.”

Nevertheless, Li said he was proud of his staff for even making it into the Top 3 in the Cal All-Stars for newspaper/news magazine issues.

“For Best of Show at the county level, we are only judged by one issue, and so we’ve had a five-year streak going since my return as the adviser in taking that award,” he said. “But to place this high for our two issues this year for the first time at the state level, it just means that the staff has figured out where to set the bar of excellence, which means we know where to go from here to continue to improve.

“Kudos goes to our editor-in-chief, senior Tyler Pak, and his dedication to producing L.A. Times quality work.”

Like Ngo, Pak noted the challenges the staff faced this school year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a great feeling to know that our work had been validated since this year has been very challenging because of the pandemic,” he said. “Just to know that despite those challenges, we were still able to put out good work and lay a good foundation for next year was a good feeling.”

The senior leader of the staff was referring to how last year after Sunny Hills closed down live instruction during the COVID-19 lockdown, the staff had to work with its online product only since student editors didn’t have the resources at home to produce any more print issues.

That resulted in this year’s senior editors starting off the school year with less experience in working with such apps as Adobe’s InDesign and Photoshop, Pak said. In preparing for the first newspaper issue of the school year last October, the top editors had to go through a crash course on how to make efficient use of those Adobe programs.

But to place this high for our two issues this year for the first time at the state level, it just means that the staff has figured out where to set the bar of excellence, which means we know where to go from here to continue to improve.”

— Tommy Li

“I had confidence in the work we put out, and we made really big strides in terms of our special sections, our layout design and our editorial board,” he said. “Those are all big things that I feel like we did not really have in the past, and in this year we were really able to establish those things and make The Accolade a stronger paper.”

YET MORE SECOND-PLACE FINISHES FOR THE ACCOLADE

Another first for the school’s journalism program under Li’s guidance as adviser since the 2016-2017 school year was tying for second in the Student Media Contests’ sweepstakes writing category.

A five-member team that qualified to compete at the state level based on how the staffers performed at regionals produced on-the-spot writing entries resulting in a total score that tied with a group of journalism students from Irvine’s Northwood High School, which was the reigning champions for sweepstakes competition.

Both squads fell only two points shy of tying for first place with this year’s sweepstakes champion, a team from El Camino Real.  

“Congrats to the El Camino Real adviser and for the amazing things she and her staff are doing over there. As for us, I thought we didn’t have a chance to make even Top 3 since we originally had six staffers qualified to compete, but only five were able to participate,” Li said. “And then to find out that we came oh-so-close to winning it all, I feel that’s just extra motivation for next year’s staff to see if they can match or outperform this year’s amazing team.”

The SCJEA determines the sweepstakes winner based on how contestants perform in the following writing categories: news, editorial, feature and sports. For The Accolade, only three of its five team members placed in the Top 10 for editorial and sports.

Juniors Kristima Aryal (sports editor) and Michelle Sheen (copy editor) produced written entries that placed the highest for their team – second – a key factor in catapulting the Accoladians to their second-place finish.

“I was really nervous, and my hands were sweating,” said Aryal, who competed in sports writing. “When I was writing the article, we only had 45 minutes to write it so at the very end [when] we had five minutes left, I was so over the experience. I just wanted it to be done, so I just submitted [my article] and my expectations were pretty low.”

I had confidence in the work we put out, and we made really big strides in terms of our special sections, our layout design and our editorial board. Those are all big things that I feel like we did not really have in the past, and in this year we were really able to establish those things and make The Accolade a stronger paper.”

— Tyler Pak

For the first-year sports editor and second-year staffer, who took Journalism 1 as a freshman, this was only her third time competing in the writeoffs and first at the state level.

“I think I did pretty well managing my time,” Aryal said. “I finished before the actual deadline, and I did a good job typing out all the quotes that I needed.”

The judge gave the following feedback for Aryal’s entry: 

“Well done! Great focus and well-maintained throughout the article,” he wrote. “Good sentence structure with effective transitions and good attribution. … You have a future in journalism.”

For Sheen, who placed second for editorial writing, the first-year copy editor said she did not expect much from her first experience competing in the writeoffs, especially since she was figuring out the structure of her story while writing. 

“I was really shocked and really surprised and happy,” she said. “I was just figuring everything out while I was writing it, and I felt a little rushed. I had a solid argument, so I think that went well.”

The editorial judge offered these remarks for Sheen’s entry:

“This editorial is thoughtfully presented and makes a strong case, even as it takes a middle-of-the-road argument.”

For the seniors, the writeoffs represented their final chance to represent The Accolade in competitions.

“Obviously, I wish that I could have placed higher so that we could have moved up to first place in sweepstakes,” Ngo said. “But I’m just grateful to have the opportunity to compete after the SCJEA writeoffs were canceled last year. I absolutely think The Accolade has a bright future ahead and will contend for that first place spot next year.”

ACCOLADIANS ALSO PLACED IN TOP 10 IN NON-SWEEPSTAKES CATEGORIES

First-year artist junior Jacqueline Chang received fifth place for her editorial cartoon submission, and second-year staff reporter junior Sydnee Tallant earned eighth for her critical review entry, while first-year photographers juniors Audrey Seo and Kristel Laceste placed seventh and 10th, respectively, for a photography-themed competition titled, “Life In Quarantine.”

“Honestly, I was very shocked and excited,” Tallant said. “It also motivates me to want to participate more in writeoffs to hopefully win a higher rank sometime.”

Junior Rida Zar was the lone Accolade staffer among two others who got an award in the Novice News category, getting an honorable mention nod.

“When I saw the results, I was initially really shocked, then super excited,” Zar said. “I enjoyed the [homeless] topic we were writing about, but the time limit ended up making me nervous during the competition so knowing I placed was amazing and unexpected.”

In the future, Pak said he hopes prospective staff members will continue the excellence of The Accolade.

“I hope the staff just keeps working hard and that they continue covering important topics that our community cares about,” he said. “It is more difficult covering those topics, but the results are much more rewarding.” 

Li said he also hopes such historic achievements this year would also get the attention of other students on campus who are considering joining an award-winning program.

“We really need applicants for such positions as videography and graphics/illustration,” he said. “We’re also looking for podcasters. And I hope more of this year’s freshmen will add Journalism 1 as their first-choice elective so we can continue to keep the beginning journalism class separate from the advanced one.”