Mercer County Community College’s Student Paper Breaks Own Record for Journalistic Excellence

A reason for celebration amidst the coronavirus outbreak

West Windsor, N.J.  – Although the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) physical campus may look like a veritable ghost town as college courses have moved online due to the COVID-19 public health crisis, student reporters at The College VOICE newspaper continue their hard work behind the scenes. That hard work has not gone unnoticed: The VOICE, which has been top ranked among two-year college newspapers for years, recently surpassed its previous record of 23 awards by earning 25 combined awards from three different collegiate journalism competitions for the 2019 - 2020 academic year. 

Indeed, the industrious reporters at The VOICE have reason to celebrate (albeit at home) as does Journalism and English Professor and VOICE co-adviser Holly Johnson. “It’s certainly an odd awards season when you find yourself opening boxes of certificates and trophies in your living room rather than watching students go up and receive them at ceremonies,” said Johnson, “but that doesn’t diminish the students’ accomplishments.”

The VOICE competed in two major national and one state level competition this academic year.

For the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Mark of Excellence awards – widely considered the Pulitzer Prizes of collegiate journalism – there are no separate categories for two- and four-year schools. The VOICE competes in Region 1, which encompasses the entire Northeast, including schools like Harvard, Vassar, Brown and Syracuse.

This year The VOICE was the only two-year college to place in any category for Region 1, with three finalists: two for the Breaking News category and one in Editorial Cartooning.

Kristina Hontz, a freshman 2-D Design major, won in the Editorial Cartooning category which means her piece will proceed from the regional to the national round of competition. Winners for that will be announced at the Society of Professional Journalists’ fall conference in Washington, DC.

Upon hearing the news Hontz said, “At first I was speechless. I never thought a silly cartoon about miscommunication would get such praise. But after I collected my thoughts I was overall really grateful for my win.”

The VOICE, which typically only publishes monthly during the school year, occasionally covers breaking news stories which only qualify for Mark of Excellence if they were posted online within 24 hours of an event.

This year’s winners included former Managing Editor Drew Mumich, who has since graduated and transferred to Montclair, and the full staff for their coverage of the fire in the Liberal Arts building bathroom in December.

Current Editor in Chief Tori Pender explained that the key to success at The VOICE is “the collaborative effort all of the staffers put in. Everyone [is] always willing to help each other out especially when the deadline [is] closing in.”

She gave the fire story as an example. “As soon as the event occurred, our senior staffer Patrick Mulligan started taking pictures of everything,” said Pender.

Pender added that two other staffers “coordinated in our group chat with everyone, [explaining] what was happening, which set a baseline of what information was needed for the story. An additional three staffers hopped on the story to ensure it would be published in under 24 hours.”

When asked about Tori’s leadership style, current Social Media Editor Donny Neuls said, “From her I’ve learned you can’t be soft, otherwise the work would never get done. She’s done a great job at making sure people are on the right track.”

The other national competition for which The VOICE earned accolades was the College Media Association’s (CMA) Apple Awards. The VOICE won Best Two-Year College Newspaper. In the individual awards categories Neuls won for Best Tweet and current Senior Reporter Ben Levitt won for best In House Ad Design.

Levitt, an Advanced Manufacturing major who said that he joined The VOICE only when a friend dragged him into it, described his win: “When I first heard that I had won an Apple Award, this immense rush, almost like I had just gone down a hill on a roller coaster, came over me. I had never really won an award before, so this was very important to me.”   

The Apple Awards ceremony was held at the CMA conference in New York City which the staff was about to head to when they were grounded by the coronavirus. Despite that fact, the staff is continuing to report and post their articles throughout the remainder of the semester.   

At the state level, The VOICE earned 19 New Jersey Press Foundation Collegiate Press Association awards including the highest honor of General Excellence for the fourth year in a row. The VOICE also won for Best Website and made a clean sweep of all three places in the Features Writing category.

In recent years The VOICE – which has long been dominant at the state level among two-year college newspapers – has begun earning more awards in online media, this year picking up first and second place for Online Video and first place for Web Project.

The VOICE also continued to excel in the traditional categories including Newswriting, Op/Eds, Reviews, Profile Writing, Design & Layout, Photography, Investigative Reporting and Sports Writing.

Two years ago, student Jackson Thompson earned five New Jersey Press Foundation awards for his sports reporting. He has since transferred to Rutgers where he will graduate in May, completed an internship at “The Boston Globe,” and is now working at “Sports Illustrated.” Other graduates have moved on to careers at “The New York Times,” “NBC News," and numerous other media outlets, though most staffers are not Communication majors and any student can join.

Asked about his experience working with the students, VOICE co-adviser and Professor of English and Journalism Matthew Kochis said, “They understand the strength of community. They work as a team with each member embracing their fellow staff members’ diverse backgrounds. In the end, they understand that both their successes and failures are shared together and overcome together.”

Current Managing Editor Mellissa Reyes, who earned three individual New Jersey Press Foundation awards and will graduate this May, described her time at The VOICE, “This whole experience, from interviewing to writing and winning awards, has taught me to be more confident and to trust that we can learn anything we want if we just connect ourselves to environments and people that will believe in us and help us grow.”

What does the future hold for the VOICE? So far, everything is full-steam-ahead. According to Johnson, “Students are covering a variety of topics right now, from reviews of at home cooking kits which are popular during social distancing, to profiles of health professionals, to the experience of ‘graduating’ from MCCC when there will be no graduation. The team is not slowing down by any means. We are continuing to meet via Zoom and collaborate using Google Drive and WhatsApp as we have always done.”

Students, alumni and community members can access the award-winning VOICE online at


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The Voice Staff 2020 jpeg 

VOICE Fall 2019 staff: BACK left to right: Ares Rodriquez, Patrick Mulligan*, Ben Levitt*, Donny Neuls*, Alessandro Rivero, Saad Ahmed, Gelareh Kolahchi, Ashley Lewallen. FRONT left to right: Melissa Reyes*, Tori Pender*, Kristen Miller*, Kristina Hontz*, Laurie Gallagher, Bianca Martinez* (*2019-2020 award winner)


 Voice 2020 winners list jpeg

Students from Mercer County Community College's The VOICE newspaper were honored with awards from the New Jersey Collegiate Press Association. This year’s individual award winners include: Tori Pender and Danny Neuls, First Place for Newswriting (Hellfire preacher); Melissa Reyes, First Place for Feature Writing (Expungement); Justin Willever, Second Place for Feature Writing  (Food insecurity); Caitlin Oliver, Third Place for Feature Writing (Broken elevators); Kristen Miller, First Place for Profile (Leon Rainbow); Tori Pender, First Place for Editorial (Call a fire a fire); Melissa Reyes First Place for Ops/Column (Married at 18); Patrick Mulligan, Second Place for Sports Writing (Vikings take Monroe); Nina Pemberton, First Place for A&E/Reviews (Let them eat cereal all day); Bianca Martinez, Third Place for A&E/Reviews (Who does feminism belong to?), Drew Munich, First Place for Investigative (Vote); Patrick Mulligan, First Place for Photography (Fire); Kristen Miller, Second Place for Photography (Lambertville Halloween) and First Place for Online Video (Leon Rainbow); Tori Pender and Donny Neuls, Second Place for Online Video (Hellfire preacher); Melissa Reyes, First Place for Web Project  (Transfer train) and Megan Dunn, First Place for Layout and Design (What are you saying to me?).


Voice Award on Table

MCCC students took home numerous individual awards for journalistic excellence. The VOICE is top-ranked among two-year college newspapers and is published monthly during each semester.