staff, July 5, 2015

Indiana senior Samantha Schmidt brought home a big victory for the Hoosiers this summer when she won the national writing championship at the 2015 Hearst Journalism Awards in June. And with five of the eight finalists in the writing category, the IU Media School had a great overall showing in the competition.

Through her work at the Indiana Daily Student, Schmidt has already built a reputation as someone who is not afraid of a difficult story. She?s also shown the best way to tell a good story is by building relationships. BTN LiveBIG recently caught up with the Plymouth, Minn., native to learn more about her experience with the contest and how she?s trying to prepare for a career in journalism.

BTN LiveBIG: Describe the Hearst contest. You went out to San Francisco and had to write three different stories over four days, is that right?

Schmidt: The first thing was writing a 1,000-word profile. We found out a week before the competition the subject was Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco. We had to do preliminary research. Most people had a solid draft written when we got out there.

Once we got there, we were assigned a press conference with Willie Brown. From that, we basically had to multitask and ask him questions for our profiles, and also ask questions that would lead into our story about the press conference.

Was it an orderly news conference or did you have to shout down your competitors to ask a question?

Everybody took turns asking questions. Usually there?s a set topic he will talk about. This year, he kind of said, ?Ask me questions.? So I asked him a question about the dwindling numbers of African-Americans in San Francisco. He talked a lot about the churches.

Then your third story was a feature and you didn?t know the topic until you arrived in San Francisco. How did you tackle that assignment?

We found out our spot news feature would be about the California drought. I was really struggling at first, because immediately I thought of farmers, but knew that was going to be a stretch because we were in the middle of a city. I wanted to get out there and find someone truly affected by it. Through the Farmer?s Market Association, I found a family-owned, four-generation cattle ranch in Marin County.

I spoke to the 75-year-old father, who had grown up on the ranch, knew everything about it, and he offered to drive me around in his pickup truck. That got me super-excited because he seemed like a character I wanted to meet. But I was worried because he was so far away and we weren?t allowed to rent cars.

How did you end up getting out there?

This is where I feel so indebted to the Hearst Foundation because they agreed to reimburse me for an Uber ride that cost me a lot of money. I got out there at 5:30 in the morning and spent the day with Al Poncia, this five-foot tall, 75-year-old guy with a grey pony tail, and his wife. They were so sweet. I had such a fun time. It didn?t even feel like I was reporting. It was just kind of getting to know the ranch and the family.

I got back around 1 and just kind of wrote it. Honestly, I was so surprised. It wasn?t a very stressful end to the competition. I?m always pushing deadlines, always writing at the last minute, stressing. This is kind of my process to get something done. This was such a stress-free, fun day. It was very easy to write.

You wrote an award-winning story for the Indiana Daily Student about a sexual assault on campus. You?ve written about suicides, allegations of racism at a high school basketball game. Are you drawn to challenging topics?

For me, it?s not even necessarily about how big a challenge it is. It?s more about what keeps me interested and what can really get people to think, and also showing sides of stories that people don?t usually consider. I spent three months investigating [the sexual assault piece], and a woman was brave enough to give me her name and story. In that situation, I had to look at the gray area ? not just believe her [story]. I had to talk to the alleged perpetrator; I had to talk to the prosecutor and get as much evidence as I could to show both sides. That?s always important in my stories, too.

You?re an incoming senior at IU. What are your plans after college?

[btn-post-package]Right now, I?m doing an internship for the Tampa Bay Times. As soon as I?m done here, I go home for a week, then go straight to Amman, Jordan, where I?m spending a semester. Mainly, I?m studying Arabic and living with a host family. I was hoping to learn a language that might help me reach a career as a foreign correspondent. Who knows? This will give me a taste of what it?s like to live in the Middle East. If I don?t end up liking that, I would be fine with going somewhere else.

Another big passion of mine is Latin America. My mom is from Costa Rica. We go to Costa Rica every year to visit our relatives. It?s made me super-curious and excited to travel. Ultimately, I just want to write and work for, hopefully, a prominent newspaper in the U.S., but anywhere I can do work I?m passionate about would be good.

By Mike McGraw