NorCal Student Journalists Take Top Honors

Journalist of the Year Contest


Northern California student journalists took top honors in this year’s California Journalist of the Year contest, according to an announcement Saturday by state Journalism Education Association director Danielle Ryan.

Taking the top spot at the state level was Palo Alto High School’s Ashley Hitchings, who wins the $500 Arnetta Garcin Memorial Scholarship offered by the Journalism Education Association of Northern California. The second ($300) and third place ($200) winners were, respectively, Roshan Fernandez of Monta Vista High School, and Annie Mitchell of Davis Senior High School.

The winning portfolios included work from 11 areas of journalism, including news gathering, design, editing law, ethics, entrepreneurship, and leadership and team-building. Hitchings’ portfolio now advances to the Journalism Education Association’s national contest; winners will be announced April 27 in Anaheim at the JEA/NSPA Spring National High School Journalism Convention.

Hitchings is the fourth Paly student to be named California’s Journalist of the Year. The others were Viking sportsmagazine editor George Brown (2011) and Verde editors Evelyn Wang (2013) and Jack Brook (2015).

Hitchings started her journalism career at Paly in 10th grade by taking Beginning Journalism and then joining the Verde staff second semester, when she soon found herself working with two older students on a significant cover story — “Diorio’s Dilemma: Case 09-13-5901,” which told the story a pivotal principal resignation in 2013 and the start of four years of investigations by the federal Office of Civil Rights. The story won a second place national award in feature writing from the National Federation of Press Women, was recognized with a first place “general feature” award from the Journalism Education Association of Northern California, and arguably had a significant long-term impact in the Paly community.

Hitchings moved on to a summer internship at the Stanford Daily, where she wrote a feature story about summer visitors to campus and covered a research report about police stops of minority drivers.

In the fall, she returned to Verde as one of two news editors and began work co-reporting the magazine’s first cover story of the year, “Heritage of Hate,” which tells the history of racial violence in Palo Alto.
From then on, Verde adviser Paul Kandell says, it was one powerfully reported, written and designed story after another. “Her focus has been prescient,” Kandell said. “She hit the issues of the moment, from immigration to gender roles, from crisis hotlines to net neutrality.”

Kandell says he was also struck by Hitchings’ work in talking with and writing about professional journalists, including an interview she and a co-writer conducted with retired veteran Palo Alto Weekly editor Jay Thorwaldson about his memories of reporting on events detailed in the “Heritage of Hate” story. Likewise, Hitchings volunteered to cover the appearance in class of Paly alum Wes Rapaport a day after he returned from his job as a TV reporter covering (and surviving!) Hurricane Harvey.

For the past year, Hitchings has served as one of Verde’s four co-editors-in-chief, initially presiding over the magazine’s largest staff (48) and two budding side projects: a new travel magazine and a new science magazine. During her first week on the job, Verde was the subject of national media attention for a print edition (produced under her predecessors) that included a physical ⅝-inch hole — simulating a bullet hole — through the entire magazine.

Since then, her team has produced four 72-page editions and posted dozens of stories online. Verde EICs tend not to get bylines because their focus on supporting younger staffers and peers, Kandell says, but they are intensively involved in overseeing writing and production, and crafting the editorial voice of the magazine. Hitchings points out that many of the pieces in her portfolio include shared bylines, evidence of the support and collaboration among Verde students.

Ashley’s tenure as co-EIC has also been noteworthy because her team has been working on the pilot of the Paly journalism program’s new Media Leadership and Management Honors curriculum, which has required leading seniors through readings and exercises about leadership and management.

Ashley’s impact has stretched into service outside of Verde, too. She’s president of the school’s Youth Community Service Club and has put in more than 800 volunteer hours over three years for a variety of organizations, including work with the Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program.

“As a reporter and editor, Ashley has been a vigorous pursuer of truth and crafter of important stories,” Kandell wrote in his recommendation letter for her. “She has been an electric presence in my classroom, modeling journalistic vigor; positivity and purpose in motivating her staff; resilience and creativity in the face of obstacles; and commitment to a powerful editorial voice and strong ethical standards.”