The Mark of Excellence awards honor the best journalism students. Awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists, students in print, radio, television and online collegiate journalism are recognized.

To be eligible for this award, students cannot have had full-time or professional journalism experience except for internships. The contest is open to all college students studying journalism either in the U.S. or internationally. Entries are judged on accuracy and completeness, originality and creativity, adherence to high journalistic standards, significance and effectiveness, clarity, insight and respect for the audience, creative use of the medium’s unique capabilities and adherence to the SPJ Code of Ethics. The entries for each category are then narrowed down to two finalists and one winner.

University of Miami students who won awards include Lyssa Goldberg, Alexander Gonzalez and Nick Swyter for Breaking News, Nick Gangemi for Photo Illustrations and Jackie Yang for General Column Writing. Lyssa Goldberg also won an award for Online News Reporting for her story on the on-campus racism that was sparked by a Black Lives Matter protest. Isabella Cueto was a finalist for In-Depth Reporting as well as Online In-Depth Reporting. Patrick Quinlan was a finalist for General Column Writing and The Hurricane staff was a finalist for Best Affiliated Website.

This year, Canes have been awarded 16 Mark of Excellence awards, nine of which went to The Hurricane.

“I’ll say all of the SPJ awards were great because we put a lot of time and effort into what we do here at the paper,” said Alexander Gonzalez, editor-in-chief of The Hurricane.

Gonzalez was part of the team that did the story on Shalala’s retirement announcement, which won for the Breaking News category.

According to Lyssa Goldberg, the story really was breaking news.

“We expected to at least get a tip from media relations or someone in time to have everything ready to go,” Goldberg said, “but Shalala kind of preemptively sent out that email, so when it went out we were like, ‘No! Now the whole university knows; now we have to do this now!’”

Nick Swyter, who works with UMTV, was ready to go once he heard the news.

“I actually got the notification that Shalala was going to step down while I was in class and from there I pulled in another person from the class and said you need to meet me at this place as soon as possible,” Swyter said.  “I usually always keep camera equipment locked up in my office and I actually had a suit ready in my office also.”

Swyter said that the camera and suit at his disposal wasn’t convenient, it was planned.

“In situations like this you always need to be prepared to be ready to break the story and you need to have your pieces ready so it’s just quick, quick, quick,” he said.

Swyter joined forces with Gonzalez and Goldberg to make it a multimedia story.  Gonzalez and Goldberg took care of the writing, while Swyter worked on the film aspect of the piece.

“Just having the one description on it, it’s pretty cookie cutter, but if you start adding more different bits of it then you start to make something that’s very multimedia and it’s a lot more exciting; it’s more compelling,” Swyter said.

The team pushed the story even further by including social media. Goldberg told of funny posts on Yik Yak about the news, which led them to doing a “Top 10 Yik Yak Reactions to Shalala Resigning” piece for Ubuzz, the paper’s online blog.

Gonzalez and Goldberg, both seniors, talked about the newspaper’s new focus online.

“This semester we shifted to a daily web operation, so we’re not only keeping up with our print publication that’s twice a week, but also with news that happens everyday,” Gonzalez said.

Goldberg also won a Mark of Excellence award for her story on the Black Lives Matter protest that occurred on campus during finals week of the fall semester. She recalled writing the piece in the car and texting Gonzalez for updates. While the event was important enough to write a story on, Goldberg said that the real motivation for the story was the racist Yik Yak posts that ensued.

“I think at first I just heard some people saying like oh people were saying terrible things on Yik Yak and it wasn’t until I actually saw screenshots of what was said that I was just truly disgusted and felt that something needed to be written about it,” Goldberg said.

She added that a lot of students were tweeting at The Hurricane saying that it’s their responsibility to cover the issue and do something about it. 

On top of all of the social media that was already driving the story, Goldberg said she included Twitter and Facebook posts because she wanted to do the story more creatively.

In her four years writing for The Hurricane, this is the first time Goldberg has won an award for a specific story she has done. While most of the awards The Hurricane wins are for the whole staff or the design staff, she says it feels nice to graduate knowing that her work has been recognized.

Goldberg noted that it was interesting that the two awards she won were for stories that were unplanned, whereas there are stories that she’s spent weeks or months on.

“These are things that I’ve just kind of had that news sense, like I needed to react to and it’s cool to have that recognized because it reinforces the fact in my own mind that news happens when you least expect it and you need to be quick at reacting to it,” she said.

The award is exciting to Swyter because he said that for him, it is a confirmation that integrating media for stories is the new thing right now and what they should continue to do.

To Gonzalez, the awards are a testament to the whole staff.

“We’re doing really well,” Gonzalez said.  “I’m glad that this year has not only been exciting in terms of the news that we’ve been able to cover, but also in seeing recognition for our work in what we’re doing here and it’s a lot of fun.”

Below is the full list of SPJ awards the school’s publications have won:

The Miami Hurricane

Winner in Photo Illustration, Richter Library Celebrates Banned Books Week, by Nick Gangemi

Winner in Breaking News Reporting, UM President Shalala Resigns, by Lyssa Goldberg, Alexander Gonzalez and Nick Swyter

Winner in General Column Writing, Jackie Yang Culture Columnist, by Jackie Yang

Winner in Online News Reporting, Black Lives Matter Protest Sparks Conversation by Lyssa Goldberg

Finalist in General News Photography, Homecoming Concert Mixes Genres, by Hallee Meltzer

Finalist in General Column Writing, Patrick Quinlan Staff Columnist, by Patrick Quinlan

Finalist in In-Depth Reporting, Surviving Sexual Assault, by Isabella Cueto

Finalist in Online In-Depth Reporting, Surviving Sexual Assault, by Isabella Cueto

Finalist in Best Affiliated Web Site,


Winner in Television Feature Reporting, Vets and Pets, by Nick Swyter

Winner in Television News and Feature Photography, Baby Swim, by Eddie Sanchez

Finalist in Television Feature Reporting, Whale, by Erika Jackson

Finalist in Television News General Reporting, Medicaid Cut-Off, by Christian Smith

Distraction Magazine:

Winner in Feature Photography, Gold Dust, by Kelly Smith and Gabrielle Mottaz

Finalist in Photo Illustration, West Coast v. East Coast, by Claudia Fernandes-Hernandez

The Miami Planet:

Finalist in Online Feature Reporting, Panama Canal, by Nick Sirio, Gabriella Canel and Mira Shah