ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Julia Nagy, The State News, Michigan State

By Tina Cifferello, Emily Heitzman & Kelly PattersonCMM correspondents

This past spring, State News photo editor Julia Nagy profiled the top super-fan of the Michigan State University women’s basketball team.

Stephanie Russell, 25, lives with her parents in Grand Ledge, Mich., less than a half hour from MSU’s campus. She has Down syndrome, but is most defined by her dedication to Michigan State women’s hoops.

As Nagy, 21, a native of Rochester, Mich., writes, “There are two seasons in Russell’s world: basketball season, and waiting for basketball season. … Rain or shine. She’s there. Sleet or snow. She’s there. Stephanie Russell is there because her team needs her. She’s there because it’s not just the Michigan State women’s basketball team — it’s her team. And she’s been there for them, shouting ‘I love you’ behind the bench and waiting by the tunnel to high-five her Spartans as they take the court. She’s been there for them for 14 years, never missing a single home game.”

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According to Nagy, Russell also never misses a chance to spread her infectious sense of overall joy. “As a journalist, you kind of get the highs and lows of life and it’s really nice to get a story that’s just happy,” she says. “She [Stephanie] is just happy. She has the most genuine sense of joy I have ever seen in any person ever. It was so exciting to see her. She was always like, ‘You’re my girl. … I like you. … I love you.’ She told everyone I was doing a story on her.”

Nagy’s interactive feature story — headlined “A Part of the Family” — is a six-chapter, 2,300-word tale that also includes photos and video vignettes. These elements combine to describe the ins-and-outs of a young woman who “exemplifies everything that’s right about women’s basketball on the college level.”

The piece has been named the second-place winner of the 2014 ACP Multimedia Feature Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Nagy, a senior history major, talks about the surprises and challenges she faced in the midst of her reporting and how Russell changed her personal perspectives on the world. She also shares Russell’s reaction to the published piece and offers advice to student journalists charged with tackling a similar story.

Julia Nagy, photo editor, The State News at Michigan State University

Julia Nagy, photo editor, The State News at Michigan State University

What sparked your interest in journalism?

My high school newspaper sparked my interest in journalism. I basically did anything and everything at the high school newspaper. Our high school newspaper wasn’t like a newsletter or anything like that. It was an actual newspaper. One story I worked on my junior year was on a drug bust that happened at one of our high schools and it was kind of “that story” that really solidified, “OK, this is what I want to do.” I interviewed the father and the sister of the boy who had overdosed and it was kind of then when I realized, “Wow, good journalism can have an impact. Journalism addresses things that matter and makes sense of hard situations.”

What compelled you to tackle the story that became “A Part of the Family”?

I had met this girl, Stephanie, at Midnight Madness, which is kind of the fan opening for basketball season. I saw her and I just started talking to her family. She had her nails all Spartan green and she was really into it. Her mother was saying how she hadn’t missed a home basketball game in 14 years. When she said that I was like, “OK, this is a story.” So I got their contact info and a few months later, when basketball season slowly started up, I just hung out with her for a few days, and that’s kind of how the story got started.

How would you describe the story to an outsider, someone who has not yet read your piece?

It’s about a true Spartan fan. This girl hasn’t missed a home game, a women’s basketball home game, in the past 14 years and she lovesssss everything about Michigan State. Her room is filled with Michigan State posters and everything is green and white. Not only is she a true Spartan, but the team loves her too. The team has basically adopted her over the past 14 years.

What surprised you the most while you were reporting?

How dedicated her family is. Stephanie has Down syndrome, so she can’t communicate the same way “regular” people do. For example, she can’t be alone. She can’t go to the bathroom by herself. So I guess I was most surprised with how dedicated her father is because her father hasn’t missed a home game in the past 14 years as well. He’s taken her to every single one.

“I think sometimes people get really intimidated and think, ‘Are readers going to want me to do a story on this person with a disability?’ But if you come at it with the right approach and do not look at it with fear, people will be pretty open to discuss a lot of things with you. … Don’t be afraid to ask the questions. Don’t be afraid of the answers you might get. You never know, they might surprise you.”

How has the piece inspired you personally or changed your perspectives on the world?

As a journalist, you kind of get the highs and lows of life and it’s really nice to get a story that’s just happy. She [Stephanie] is just happy. She has the most genuine sense of joy I have ever seen in any person ever. It was so exciting to see her. She was always like, “You’re my girl. … I like you. … I love you.” She told everyone I was doing a story on her. People she didn’t even know would hear her say “newspaper, media” and I was just like, “Yeah, I’m Julia. I’m doing a story on her.” She was so fearless in approaching people and just so genuinely happy and loving and that was so nice to see and experience.

What are you happiest about with the final published story?

What I’m actually happiest with … was simply when I gave her [Stephanie] the newspaper. I went to the family’s house because I wanted to deliver the paper to her in person. I wanted to get the newspaper autographed by her because it was a big joke with everyone that she was famous now and a star. Of course, I needed to get an autograph. Her dad was actually taking pictures and I have the picture hanging in my apartment. I showed her the newspaper and her face just lights up. It was so cute. It was so wonderfully sweet and special to see that.

She was so excited and then I said, “Wait Stephanie, I haven’t even showed you the rest of it!” The paper had the front page featuring her, there were pictures of her on the inside and the back page had an entire photo spread. I told her to go to the back page and she just goes “Ahhh!” and her hands go right to her face and she just gives me the biggest hug. I immediately knew she liked it. Certainly, if Stephanie liked it, I was happy.

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What led to your decision to only interview or use quotes from those close to Stephanie and not Stephanie herself?

Stephanie herself can’t be interviewed in the way we can be interviewed because she kind of speaks in fragmented sentences, so there was no way to solely base the story just on her quotes. I also wanted the angle of the story not to be the fact that she has Down syndrome but the fact that she is a huge Spartans fan. To me, she is just like everybody else. She just happens to have this condition. I didn’t want that to be the focus. That’s why I brought in the parents and the team especially, and I dug back to find players from past seasons. Stephanie’s been a fan for 14 years. To not interview someone who was on the team 14 years ago would be to kind of overlook the story. So I tracked down these other older women’s basketball players and their old head coach.

What do you think attracts Stephanie to women’s basketball at Michigan State?

It’s funny because she never wanted to go to the games in the first place. For the first game, her father had to drag her out to it, but I think she just liked the energy of it. I think as any sort of fan, as you’re watching a game, you feel a part of something. You feel like you belong and you’re part of the group. Maybe that was part of the draw for her. It’s the moment to simply let go and have fun and not really worry about anybody else or anything else in the world. Not to say she worries about that stuff now, but it’s kind of like a social situation where she can be herself and not get weird looks or weird laughs from people. Even her parents can avoid getting questions regarding the way she’s behaving or the way she is.

We noticed in a front-page photo accompanying the story Stephanie is holding a piece of the basketball net. Do you know why she’s holding that?

In basketball, when [teams] win a conference championship or win a Final Four game, things like that, they cut down the net. That is just a tradition. Julie Pagel Dombroski [current director of basketball operations and technology] really got Stephanie to be part of the team. She invited Stephanie down to stretch with the players and I think that is probably a part of why Stephanie got so into it. The team itself was very open and wanted her to be around. So that was a piece of the net Julie cut down when the women claimed the Big 10 championship title. Stephanie was really excited to have that piece from her. I mean this girl collects everything, T-shirts, basketballs, signed shoes, signed posters. You go in her room and it looks like Michigan State sponsored it all. She has everything, so that’s kind of the significance of that specific photo.

What’s your advice for other student journalists tackling a similar topic or writing a similar feature profile?

Don’t be afraid of the story. I think sometimes people get really intimidated and think, “Are readers going to want me to do a story on this person with a disability?” But if you come at it with the right approach and do not look at it completely with fear, people will be pretty open to discuss a lot of things with you. That is probably the biggest thing with any of the stories that I have done. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions. Don’t be afraid of the answers you might get. You never know, they might surprise you.

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