FFHS senior named NC High School Journalist of the Year
Senior Mary Pat Thompson wins coveted scholarship
Story by Steve Hanf
Photo by Michaela Kelly/Nighthawk News Magazine

FFHS senior named NC High School Journalist of the Year

The N.C. Scholastic Media Association has named First Flight High School senior Mary Pat Thompson the 2017 Rachel Rivers-Coffey North Carolina High School Journalist of the Year.

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Thompson serves as editor-in-chief of Nighthawk News Magazine, which in the past year has been named "best in state" high school newspaper by the Southern Interscholastic Press Association and a Pacemaker Finalist as one of the nation's top high school publications by the National Scholastic Press Association. Thompson has been the lead editor for the newspaper the last two years.

Seniors from across the state applied for the title of "Journalist of the Year," which comes with a $3,000 college scholarship. Thompson assembled a portfolio of her best writing, composed essays for the Law and Ethics, News Literacy, and Leadership and Team Building segments of the portfolio, and also showed samples of her editing work that has helped bring out the best in other staff writers.

Portfolios were judged by a mix of media professionals and members of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. Alternates Luke Buxton of Raleigh's Enloe High School, Maya Gacina of Durham Riverside, and Xenna Smith of Asheville's T.C. Roberson High School earned $1,000 scholarships.

Thompson's writing samples included compelling stories about challenges facing LGBTQ+ students in the FFHS community, a teacher's ongoing battle with cancer, a feature on FFHS seniors who worked as volunteer firefighters in Southern Shores, and a sports feature on a female wrestler. Thompson also submitted a pair of breaking news stories that were written for NighthawkNews.com and seen by thousands of readers throughout the OBX – the death of Dylan Turner over Memorial Day weekend and the administrative moves that sent Arty Tillett to Central Office and moved Tim Albert from the middle school to the high school.

"Mary Pat's story about the volunteer firefighters was remarkably well-crafted, with a lead that put the reader in the firetruck and waiting breathlessly to see what was going to happen next," said Steve Hanf, the newspaper adviser at FFHS. "That story was as good as – or better than – a lot of feature stories I saw written by professionals during the 13 years I worked as a journalist in North Carolina before becoming a teacher.

"I think Mary Pat's willingness to cover challenging stories like the death of a classmate or the change in leadership also put her over the edge when compared to some of the other portfolios entered in the competition," Hanf added. "The news about Mr. Tillett and Mr. Albert broke when we were in Chapel Hill for the summer journalism camp. Mary Pat dropped everything and had the story written in a couple of hours."

Thompson learned that she was the winner when Hanf made the announcement at the start of their newspaper class. Thompson's classmates broke into applause at the news.

"I was overjoyed, I was shocked, I was excited -- all the emotions were racing through my head," Thompson said. "I put so much of myself into journalism, and for my work to be recognized this way made me feel good about the future."

Thompson plans to attend college in New York City and wants to focus on writing as some aspect of her career. In addition to her work as newspaper editor, she is an active member of the FFHS choral and theatre arts programs.

As North Carolina's Journalist of the Year, Thompson now moves on to the national competition staged by the Journalism Education Association. Winning or placing in the national competition, which is announced April 9, would net more scholarship money.

Thompson will receive the Rachel Rivers-Coffey Scholarship in a ceremony at UNC Chapel Hill on June 22 during the summer journalism camp. The North Carolina Press Foundation funds the scholarship, which is in memory of the former N.C. Press Association president. The foundation also awards $500 to the winner's journalism program to help cover the cost of printing, conference travel or equipment.