Leaven brings eight awards home from Catholic media convention
by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Like many of the most touching and compelling stories, Todd Habiger’s “In the Name of the Father” feature didn’t turn out at all as Habiger imagined when he first pitched the idea.
“I wanted to do a nice light feature on Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann being a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan,” said Habiger, production manager at The Leaven. “I figured his father Fred would figure in there somehow, so I was planning to do a small sidebar about Fred Naumann and his minor league playing career.”
But in taking a swing at the article, Habiger found a much deeper story about the bond between a father and son who had never met one another — because Fred Naumann was killed before Archbishop Naumann was born.
In telling the story, Habiger hit a home run — and the Catholic Press Association agreed.
“Such an appealing story!” a judge’s commentary reads for the 2015 CPA awards on Habiger’s second-place win for a sports feature in the Best Sports Journalism category. “Great background, detail and design. Nice lead and headline. Timely. The story makes readers feel they have gotten to know the bishop. Love the sidebars.”
The Leaven received a number of nods in the 2015 CPA awards, which were announced June 26 in Buffalo, New York, at the annual Catholic media convention.
“The awards banquet is sometimes a gratifying, but always a humbling, night,” said Anita McSorley, managing editor of The Leaven, who attended the annual event.
McSorley was particularly impressed this year with the international flavor of the convention.
Held in Buffalo, it drew more representatives from the Canadian Catholic press than usual, and McSorley was intrigued to learn the similarities and differences between the two countries — especially because nearly half the population in Canada is Catholic.
She was also happy to hear The Leaven’s name called several times during the awards banquet.
“I’m always delighted to hear them call out the name of one of our reporters or photographers,” she said.
Leaven intern Libby Hyde, a parishioner of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, received a first-place Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Award for “When Hearts Embrace,” her reporting on a visit to her parish’s sister parish in El Salvador.
“With word-pictures, Hyde brings the reader on the journey and into this missionary encounter between parishes, one in Kansas and one in El Salvador,” reads the website for the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States. “The author’s own first-person reflection adds to the piece’s winning quality.”
“For me, the most important part of traveling to El Buen Pastor was being physically, spiritually and emotionally present to the community and the experience,” said Hyde. “Though the mutual giving of our relationship is important, it would not be fruitful if parishioners of Good Shepherd did not understand what it means to be Salvadoran.”
Hyde’s reflection shared with readers the love she witnessed in the 2014 visit to El Salvador.
“I wanted readers to be able to better understand what it is like to live in a small community in El Salvador by reading my experience and those of first-time travelers to the country,” she said.
Leaven freelancer Jill Ragar Esfeld received an honorable mention for best feature writing at a diocesan paper with a circulation of 40,001 and greater for “Worth the Pain,” the story of Andy Marso, who lost his fingers and toes to meningitis.
“I’m happy to see Andy Marso’s story recognized,” said Esfeld. “I was drawn in from the moment I met him by his acceptance of the suffering he went through. This is a man who truly united himself with Christ and, through the process, learned the purpose of suffering. He allowed himself to be helped by others and saw love and compassion grow in the community around him.”
A comment accompanying the award called the piece “an extremely compelling story about the medical ordeal of one man, but also of the faith of one man.”
The faith hit home for Esfeld, who continues to be moved by Marso’s story.
“I was most struck by the fact that Andy lost his fingers on both hands during his recovery from meningitis, yet he became a reporter texting current updates from the state Capitol,” said Esfeld. “I asked him how on earth he learned to text so fast with the use of only one thumb. And he replied, ‘If you do anything for eight hours a day, you’ll get good at it.’ I’ve probably repeated that quote a dozen times. Perseverance really is the key to success.”
“Well written, the story keeps us to the end,” the commentary continues. “And it certainly is a reminder of how faith can strengthen our resolve and move us to a higher understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God.”
A story called “Sing A New Song,” written by Leaven reporter Jessica Langdon, received a second-place award for best reporting on a special age group: children and teens younger than 18. It featured students in grades five-to-eight at Holy Family School in Topeka who sing at funerals.
“Great piece!” the commentary reads. “Loved the design, including the box inviting people to listen online. Excellent quotes throughout. What a great group of kids — their impact was felt in this piece.”
“Jessica has a real knack for identifying school stories that really illustrate the spirit that infuses our Catholic schools,” said McSorley. “Sometimes she’ll propose an idea that to me sounds pretty standard, and bring back a story that touches readers across the archdiocese. This was one of those occasions.”
McSorley’s own headline “Pope-pourri” — for a story on the canonization by Pope Francis of two saints, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in attendance — won third place for best headline.
“A snappy but light headline that will draw readers into a story that often goes unread,” reads the commentary.
Photographer Lori Wood Habiger brought home a first-place award for best multiple picture package originating with a newspaper (feature package) for the baseball showdown between priests of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and those of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“Fun package of photos,” read the comments. “Nicely done and displayed. Sure the readers loved it and laughed out loud.”
“This assignment was so much fun!” said Lori Habiger. “Everyone on the field was having a great time; the crowd loved it, the light was beautiful. I try as a photographer to challenge myself to give the reader access to sights they would not have experienced without the view through my lens, and it was a real treat to be able to share with them the fun of this game.”
Photographer Susan McSpadden received an honorable mention in the same category for “Into the Wild Blue Yonder,” capturing St. Thomas Aquinas students’ surprise send-off ahead of theology teacher Leo Brown’s deployment.
“Great spontaneous photos. Good quality,” read the comments.
Todd Habiger also scored an honorable mention for best use of art or graphics (best chart or information graphic) for a Pope Francis feature. And while he is a master of design at The Leaven, it was writing the “In the Name of the Father” story that really made a lasting impact on him.
“I am thankful that the archbishop opened up to me about his father and was able to put into words his feelings toward a father he was never able to meet,” said Habiger, who also appreciated the insights of Archbishop Naumann’s mother, Louise.
“I haven’t really written much for The Leaven in the past decade because my job as production manager keeps me plenty busy,” he said. “But in writing this story, I rediscovered my love for writing and have contributed a few stories to The Leaven since then.
“Although I’ve won writing awards before, this is my favorite story I’ve written because it’s a touching story about a father and son’s love.”
And if McSorley, invigorated by the convention, has her way, there’ll be no shortage of stories for him and the rest of the staff to discover.
“I also see [at the convention] the great work other diocesan newspapers are doing and think to myself, ‘We should be doing that,’” she said. “The Leaven staff hates to see me return from those conventions because I always have a long list in hand of goals I’d like to set for the coming year.”