Behind the Story: The Kristin Smart 25th Anniversary Walk

When Lauren Walike first thought of this story, she knew the 25th anniversary of Kristin Smart’s disappearance was coming up and since she had covered this beat for a while, she wanted to do a story on it. The thing about event coverage is that it can be something that is covered the day of and not really followed up on again. But, Lauren wanted to do something a little different for this event especially since it is such a landmark case in San Luis Obispo and the Cal Poly community. 

A lot of the beginning meetings they had were just brainstorming. They all knew that this was a great idea for a story, but did not know where to start since so many other publications had covered the new evidence and Mustang News had also done multiple stories on the case already. They ultimately came up with some new ideas that included a map of the anniversary walk and interviewing Chris Lambert, the creator of the “Your Own Backyard” podcast. They also wanted to tie in the idea of safety on campus, which Mustang News hasn’t really covered in the past.

The team had to wait for the walk to happen before they could really put the story all together, but they did plan out the different elements as well as conduct some pre-interviews. The walk took place on May 25, the day that Kristin Smart disappeared in 1996. Lauren Walike, Fauve Koontz and Haylee Banta all met up to cover the event. Walike took photos and videos and sent them along with captions to Lauryn Luescher, Mustang News’ social media manager to get photos and updates on social media during the event. At the event there were students and community members alike which contributed to a feeling of togetherness and allowed group members to also interview different sources including a local named Teresa Nelson.

“I have lived here my entire life, and I remember when it happened and how scary it was,” Nelson said. “I have a young daughter, and I have been following the whole story since the beginning, and I want to see closure for her family and the community. She is everyone’s daughter at this point.” 

Once the team members attended the event, the story had to be written by the next morning due to its timeliness. Koontz and Walike collaborated to create the story while Banta and Jennifer Newton focused on the interactive portion of the story. Walike also created two videos: one to go along with the story and an Instagram Reels video to be posted on social media.

“I wrote the story with help from Lauren, which provided information about the walk, Kristin, her disappearance and the current state of her case. All in all this was a great story to be a part of and an important event to cover,” Koontz said. 

Once Koontz and Walike wrote the final version of the story, the entire team joined in on an editing session. Walike wrote the headline: “25-Years Later San Luis Obispo Community Honors Kristin Smart’s Memory With A Walk.” Before Stephanie Zapelli looked over it, the team wrote additional comments in the margin for clarification and corrections. As soon as the story looked like it was ready to be published, Zapelli contacted Banta to correct the dimensions of the map so it could be presented correctly. 

With all the kinks that got worked out, they finally sent out the URL for the published story. All of the hard work that went into planning the story was now in the back of everyone’s mind because they had completed not only the last story for their senior class, but one that meant something to so many people. 

“Working on a big project like the walk for Kristin Smart was challenging and at times a lot of work but with the help of all my group members we were able to create a story that would make Kristin and her family, friends and supporters proud,” Newton said. 

The team was an all-female team which made covering the story even more empowering. All of them were able to relate to Smart and her disappearance because at one point, they were all freshman girls roaming the campus without the fear of going missing. Not only were they all living in the dorms at one point in their life, but Banta also grew up on the Central Coast which added another personal element to covering this story. 

“I was very honored to be a part of this story because not only have I grown up in the SLO community and known about this case since I can remember, but it was also a very monumental time in the case especially after new evidence has been discovered,” Banta said. “I thought that our group worked very well together and created a piece that not only contributed to Mustang News but Kristin and her family as well.”

It was bittersweet knowing that they covered such a grand story as their last assignment. It was also an overall emotional experience to know that such a horrible incident happened on Cal Poly’s campus 25 years ago and how the effects of the case continue to echo in the community. As a team they were all very proud of what they produced and hope to eventually report on the justice of it all very soon.  

“It was an amazing experience to be able to cover this story. I’ve been covering the Kristin Smart case for more than a year now and every story and person I’m able to talk to regarding the case and Justice for Kristin Smart reminds me of how rewarding it is to be a journalist,” Walike said.

Overall, each group member is very proud of this story and are excited to have their last Mustang News article be one with such a big impact on the community.