Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

November 10, 2008

Northern Star wins Pacemaker award,
college press equivalent of Pulitzer

DeKalb — As the horrible events of Feb. 14 unfolded at Northern Illinois University, young journalists employed by the Northern Star responded with notebooks, cameras and professionalism.

“It wasn’t a matter of, ‘Let’s make sure we do really good work.’ It was a matter of, ‘Let’s make sure we do the right thing.’ It was a matter of doing the only thing we knew to do,” said John Puterbaugh, editor of the student newspaper at the time.

Eight months later, and for the first time since 1974, the Star has won the Pacemaker.

The company is good for this year’s college press parallel to the Pulitzer prize: the Daily Northwestern, the Indiana Daily Student, the Harvard Crimson, the Daily Tar Heel, the Daily Iowan, the Kentucky Kernel, the State News (Michigan State University) and the Battalion (Texas A&M).

The Northern Star also won first place in “Best of Show” for daily tabloids and second place for “National Online Story of the Year” for Feb. 14 coverage.

More information is available online at

“To put this in perspective, it’s the journalism equivalent of NIU football winning a BCS bowl game,” said Jim Killam, Northern Star adviser. “I’m really proud of the students. Sometimes difficult circumstances push you beyond what you know you can achieve. That happened with our students, not only with the shootings but with the flood and covering everything else that happened last year.”

“The work we did all year was worthy of this,” Puterbaugh said. “This is just a testament to the people who worked at the Star.”

Killam, Puterbaugh and Caitlin Mullen, the current editor-in-chief, understand and accept that NIU’s tragedy played a role in the award. Virginia Tech’s newspaper won a Pacemaker last year.

But they’re quick to point out that the award is based on more than Feb. 14 coverage. The general excellence award is based on five issues from 2007-08, four of which come from weeks prescribed by the Associated Collegiate Press. Only one issue of the staff’s choosing is allowed.

“It’s well-deserved. There are so many talented people here,” Mullen said. “A small part of me hopes it’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ve got the pity party because of Feb. 14.’ But someone said to me that we’re always considered. We’re often one of the top newspapers up there. How we handled Feb. 14 put us over the edge.”

“You never expect a student newspaper to be tested quite like this,” Killam said. “When students respond with maturity and professionalism beyond their years, I think it’s appropriate that they get that kind of recognition. There can be a quiet pride in the journalism they did and the way they handled themselves during those days without being inappropriate.

“It’s also a little awkward,” he added. “Nobody wants to feel good about anything related to Feb. 14. For that reason, any sense of celebration here has been subdued. Yet, in a way, maybe it brings closure to this chapter for our students. This is at least one good memory they’ll have, along with so many awful ones.”

Managing Editor Katie Trusk, Campus Editor John Ranallo, City Editor Jessica Sabbah and Photo Editor Ryan Strong accompanied Killam to Kansas City for the annual convention of the Associated Collegiate Press.

They all are working to improve the newspaper this year, Mullen said, and the Pacemaker offers further inspiration.

“There’s always room for improvement,” said Mullen, a senior from Oswego who joined the Star in 2006. “This will keep us going to strive to get another one.”

At the same time, she wants the Star staff to realize that the newspaper exists to inform readers and train future employees for the print journalism industry. Awards are simply icing on the cake.

“We work for the students and for the staff and for the people in this area. We’re a source of news and entertainment,” she said. “The Star is family, and I learned that even more after Feb. 14. I’m lucky it’s my learning lab.”

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