Two students win Best in Show at the SPJ Mark of Excellence Awards

Monday, September 25, 2017 - 1:45pm

by Molly Chapple

Two College of Journalism and Mass Communications students were recently awarded Best in Show at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence (MOEy) Awards. Marcella Mercer and Calla Kessler, senior journalism majors, received the award for their story, “A Mom for All Ages: Hours from Whiteclay Caring for Kids with Fetal Alcohol Disorders.”

The story covered a South Dakota woman, Nora Boesem, who adopted nine Native American children suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The story was part of a project called “Wounds of Whiteclay,” a depth reporting class led by professor Joe Starita.

“For professionals to select ‘A Mom for All Ages’ as the best college-produced story of the year – from more than 4,000 entries – is an amazing achievement,” Starita said. “And the judges knew what they were doing: This was an amazing story by two amazing University of Nebraska–Lincoln college journalism students – students who worked their tails off and reaped the just rewards of all their hard work to humanize a very complex story.”

Mercer, from Nebraska City, said she started researching the story about two months before the actual reporting. The two met with the family on Labor Day weekend 2016 in Sturgis, South Dakota. Mercer wrote the story, while Kessler, an Omaha native, captured all the visual pieces of the project.

The SPJ judges described the piece as a, “beautifully written narrative about a complex topic. You can tell the reporter spent time with the family to understand the ‘day in the life.’ This story kept my interest from beginning to end.”

The pair worked on the story for a year, and Kessler spent the night with the Boesem family to gain a unique perspective on their lives.

“Staying the night with the Boesem family give me an intimate look into their daily lives and allowed me to capture moments I otherwise would have missed,” Kessler said.

Each year, student journalists first compete for regional awards in print, TV, radio and online categories. Mercer and Kessler are the regional winners in Feature Writing, Large School Division.

First-place winners then advance to compete nationally and are eligible for the MOEy award. The Best in Show award was chosen from more than 4,000 entries in the Society of Professional Journalists 2016 Mark of Excellence Awards competition.

The story was also recently named as one of 100 “exceptional works of journalism” in 2016 by the Atlantic magazine. Mercer and Kessler said they were both very surprised about the recent attention the story has been getting.

“I worked for the Daily Nebraskan and I had one internship before this, and suddenly I’m being mentioned in national newspapers,” Mercer said. “It’s still so shocking."

“I am extremely grateful, and I had a ton of help from the others in the class,” she said. “I gained a lot of friends and made so many great connections working on this project.”

Read Mercer and Kessler's award-winning story at 

Mercer is a senior journalism major from Nebraska City.
Kessler is a senior journalism major from Omaha.