Missouri School of Journalism student earns top 5 finish in Hearst Audio Competition

Briana Heaney

By Austin Fitzgerald

COLUMBIA, Mo. (Feb. 21) — Senior Briana Heaney has won fifth place in the Hearst Journalism Awards Program’s Audio Competition, earning her $1,000 and an automatic berth in Hearst’s National Audio Championship in San Francisco.

“It’s fantastic to continue to see our audio journalism program represented on the national stage through excellent student work,” said David Kurpius, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism. “Briana’s stories, which are so grounded in the experiences of people in our community, reflect the School’s emphasis on reporting that informs and enriches while preparing the next generation of highly skilled journalists.”

Heaney was recognized for two stories she filed for KBIA-FM, the School of Journalism’s NPR member station. “Long COVID redefines one woman’s identity, and complicates state economy” examined the impact of chronic COVID-19 symptoms, or “long COVID,” on the labor market through the lens of one woman’s life-changing experiences with the illness. On the lighter side, “The Show-Me Swine races” chronicled the exploits of racing pigs — The Notorious P.I.G. and Lindsay LoHam, to name a few — at the annual Boone County Fair last July.

“Briana’s stories were a great mix of deep, issue-based reporting, and just plain fun feature storytelling,” said Ryan Famuliner, news director at KBIA and an associate professor at the School of Journalism. “Both are examples I plan to play for students in classes in the future.”

At 27, Heaney is a nontraditional student who came to Mizzou with a colorful range of life experiences already under her belt. An avid traveler, she drove pedicabs — pedal-operated taxis — in Texas, South Carolina, Colorado and St. Louis, and she also spent six summers as a whitewater raft guide.

I can’t imagine a better journalism education. I feel like I’m really prepared going forward. I’m nervous, but I just can’t imagine how nervous I would be if I didn’t have this experience from the School.

Briana Heaney

Journalism was not on the radar for Heaney until one fateful day in community college when, on her way to a meeting of the ultimate frisbee club, she accidentally found herself at the school’s student newspaper, where she was greeted by a handful of student journalists who assumed she was there to help out.

“I was going to just sit through the meeting and never come back — just pretend that I didn’t accidentally walk in there,” Heaney said. “But then I ended up loving it.”

She threw herself into the work and became a news editor for the paper, a path that ultimately led her to apply to Mizzou on the advice of the paper’s advisor. This confluence of events is just one of the important moments of her life that she attributes to luck, along with coming across a bigger story in a sea of data about long COVID and even her top five finish in the Hearst competition.

But behind that luck is a set of talents and interests that have propelled her to this point. A self-described “economics nerd” who is also minoring in economics at Mizzou, her sharp eye for numbers played no small role in creating what is now an award-winning story about long COVID. Her itch for travel naturally meshed with the on-the-go nature of reporting (she hopes to land a tenure at Report for America upon graduation, a role that would see her travel to one of numerous service-oriented newsrooms across the country to perform the kind of local journalism the School champions and practices). And when it comes to the Hearst Awards, one need only talk to Famuliner to realize that skill, not luck, has earned her a place in the National Audio Championship.

“It’s very exciting for Briana to have a chance to compete in San Francisco,” Famuliner said. “I’ve heard it compared to the Heisman Trophy for college journalism, and I think that’s pretty accurate.”

Heaney is not the only School of Journalism student to earn a respectable Hearst finish over the last few months. Senior Amy Schaffer won 13th place in the Multimedia One Narrative Storytelling Competition, while recent graduate Jessica Blake finished in 17th place in the Explanatory Competition. They join a number of other top finishers from the School of Journalism since the program began announcing this season’s winners late last year.

Even without an eye for patterns and trends as finely-tuned as Heaney’s, it’s hard to miss the common denominator. And while Heaney hesitates to award herself the same kind of credit that Hearst has bestowed upon her, she does note that her hands-on, Missouri Method education has shaped up as an ideal launching pad into a new career.

“I can’t imagine a better journalism education,” Heaney said. “I feel like I’m really prepared going forward. I’m nervous, but I just can’t imagine how nervous I would be if I didn’t have this experience from the School.”

Updated: February 23, 2023

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