The spring 2004 staff of The Bison, Oklahoma Baptist University's student newspaper, earned a top-level Gold Medalist ranking from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, officials announced recently.
Under the association's semiannual College Newspaper Critique program, member newspapers submit a series of issues for review by industry professionals, who apparently liked what they saw in last spring's Bison.
"I can see a steady improvement in your newspaper this semester," one judge wrote. "The overall concept improves throughout the semester. The results are laudable."
"A lot of things really clicked into place last spring," said Philip A. Todd, faculty adviser to The Bison. "The main force was certainly the willingness with which the entire staff undertook the very difficult tasks necessary to even attempt to produce a serious community newspaper on a regular basis.
"However, the direction that really channeled and focused all that hard work into tangible improvement came from the senior leadership of David Owens, assistant news editor; Liz Anderson, managing editor; and especially Brandy Grady, editor in chief.
"By the end of the year, these seniors - and several similarly dedicated juniors and sophomores - really raised the bar a notch or two," Todd said. "I am very proud of them and what they were able to accomplish. This semester's staff has their work cut out for them if they want to keep serving at that level."
In terms of production alone, the 2003-04 Bison staff published more total pages than any other in the publication's 85-year history. Highlights included the school's first-ever 24-page issue (Homecoming 2003) and only its second 20-page edition (Graduation 2004). This output placed The Bison among the five largest university newspapers in the state, in terms of page count, for most of the year.
But the staff did not value quantity above quality, Todd said, pointing to several weeks in which Grady deliberately limited page counts in order to target specific problem areas.
This hard work did not go unnoticed.
"The number of letters to the editor is evidence of the newspaper's success in appealing to its readership," the CSPA judges wrote.
The judges particularly liked the brand-new religion section introduced by then-sophomore Allison Badgett.
"The Bison Faith section is a brave effort to tackle some sensitive issues, especially in a faith-based university such as yours," they wrote. "Congratulations on your willingness to let the chips fall where they may in your efforts to bring these topics to a public forum."
Based again on letters to the editor, the judges added, it "sounds as though your faculty applauded this innovation."
The judges also complimented the work in the other sections of The Bison.
The news section, edited by then-sophomore Brad Newman, did a "good job of follow-up on stories, such as the GC remodeling," as well as "a very good job on topics of interest to campus readers."
"You have covered the arts very well," wrote the judges of then-junior John Mark Dadulo's section. "Layouts are excellent. Good job of spotlighting upcoming events."
The features section, edited by then-junior Brian Koonce, "uses consistently good design and focuses on appropriate topics."
"The occasional sports feature shows that you are ready to deviate from the norm," the judges included in review of then-sophomore David Noblett's section. "Sports coverage of games is good. Good action photography - the ball is always in the photo!"
In the CSPA critique, judges also analyze elements of each newspaper's level of university support, type of school, newspaper budget size and allocation, faculty adviser credentials, staff size and allocation, frequency of publication and other aspects of production.
"Any evaluation of a college newspaper must be based upon its total operation," said CSPA critique analyst Nancy L. Green. "Content requires planning, good ideas, writing, reporting, editing, good selection of art work and photography."
Remarkably, the critique score of 925 out of 1000 possible points represented The Bison's first participation in the CSPA program in at least 20 years.
The judges offered several suggestions and complaints about The Bison, too; and those were passed along to this semester's staff to discuss and understand, Todd said.
"Last year's staff made its share of fumbles as well as touchdowns," said Todd. "Now it's time to see what this year's staff can do to build on those successes and learn from the not-quite-so-successes."
In May, the Society of Professional Journalists honored The Bison's first-ever entry in the SPJ Mark of Excellence competition with a second-place award in the non-daily collegiate newspaper category for Region 8, comprising Oklahoma and Texas.
In April, The Bison also earned a number of individual staff and overall awards in the annual Oklahoma Collegiate Press Association competition.
This year, Todd and Koonce serve respectively as faculty and student members of the OCPA board.
The OBU Department of Journalism and Public Relations offers majors and minors in both disciplines, as well as service learning opportunities through The Bison, the student newspaper; and The Yahnseh, the national-award-winning student yearbook.