The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill won gold in the Large Group Multimedia Project in the College Photographer of the Year Competition.  The project, called Powering A Nation, is a News21 project. UNC also won silver, bronze and the award of excellence in the same category.  Ashley Zammitt and Sara Peach were both involved in the project.

VS: Talk about the process of News21 and how it works.

Zammitt:News21 is a program that joins 12 journalism schools across the country in hopes of serving as an incubator for innovation within the news media industry. Eight of the schools are designated “incubators,” meaning they host a group of students (mostly from that particular school) while 4 other schools contribute students without hosting, and each incubator participates in the program for 3 years.

View Powering A Nation here.

For 10 weeks in the summer, groups of 10-12 (mostly graduate) students work together to report stories in new and experimental ways. As the News21 site says, “students were challenged to develop methods and approaches that help readers and viewers interact with content in ways that haven’t been tried before.” Students are compensated for their work and the school is given a generous budget to hire coaches, buy equipment and pay for travel expenses.

To guide the schools in choosing their topics, the News21 deans decide on a broad, overarching theme with the hopes that projects might overlap in unexpected ways. The theme for the summer of 2009 was “American Tapestry: Demographics of a Changing Nation” and UNC chose “U.S. Demographics and Energy Use” as its focus within that theme (more on this below).

Each school has its own way of preparing for the 10-week summer program, but all schools use the spring semester to find a team and a topic for their stories. UNC’s News21 executive producers Laura Ruel and Don Wittekind accepted applications from undergraduate and graduate students in the fall and selected their team of 10 with the goal of having a well-rounded group of videographers, reporters, photographers, designers, editors and programmers. Then, the 10 of us, along with our producers and the two fellows from associate schools (Jenn from Missouri and Anna from Harvard), met once a week to brainstorm, nail down story ideas and develop a brand for our project. Our budget also allowed us to bring in experts for short discussions on our topics – and considering most of us weren’t energy experts, these discussions were truly helpful.

View the Roping the wind story here.

By the time summer rolls around, the students are ready to jump head first into their stories. UNC hired coaches for each area of expertise, mostly professors and local professionals, to guide each team of fellows on each of the stories. Most teams consisted of 2 students and 2 coaches, with each student participating in at least 2 teams. These teams spent most of their time planning, researching, and traveling – literally from the outskirts of Alaska to the coal mining towns of West Virginia – to get the best content possible. The last few weeks were spent in the newsroom as everyone stitched their content together.

Our site contains 10 full story packages, each with a combination of video, audio, photography, text, and interactive graphics. In addition to those 10 story packages, our team of designers and programmers also designed and developed the Powering A Nation site. This was a key difference between UNC’s project and those of more traditional News21 schools, who chose to use a portion of their funding to hire developers after their content had been collected.

Now that the summer project is over, we’ve been focusing on seeking out new stories and marketing our content to media outlets. We’ve also been gearing up for the 2010 project as a new team was selected in late October.”

VS: How did you come up with the idea?

Zammitt: “Our producers started tossing around the idea of energy and demographics even before the fellows were chosen, but we were all enthusiastic about the idea. Energy issues are incredibly relevant today and we knew there’d be no shortage of story ideas. In fact, the hardest part about our topic was trying to narrow down everything to 10 stories, and to find stories that weren’t already heavily covered in the media.”

VS: How have you reached out to viewers with the project?

Peach: “We had a marketing team, led by the wonderful Courtney Woo. The team used social marketing, through Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the like, to reach out to our target audience. Meanwhile, we’ve used more traditional tactics, such as making presentations about the site, to build our audience.”

VS: What change do you hope to effect with the project?  Any other uses or showcases for it planned?

Peach: “I believe the importance of energy issues in America is only going to grow. As I write this, the Senate is gearing up to debate an energy bill and the world’s diplomats are preparing to meet in Copenhagen to develop a new climate treaty. It takes energy to fuel our cars, power our laptops and grow our food – and the way we do all of those things is likely to change significantly in coming years. Americans deserve to be informed about these issues, and I hope our site can play a role in that. Students will update it with new stories during the next two and a half years, so it will continue to add richness and depth.”

View the Energy portrait “The Palacios”, here.

VS: Who were the fellows involved?

Laura Ruel and Don Wittekind were the executive producers, overseeing the work of the 12 fellows:

Sara Peach, Editor-in-Chief

Chris Carmichael

Nacho Corbella

Phil Daquila

Zach Ferriola-Bruckenstein

Jenn Hueting (Missouri)

Eileen Mignoni

Melissa Moser

Monica Ulmanu

Courtney Woo

Anna York (Harvard)

Ashley Zammitt

VS: Talk about your background and what you contributed.

Ashley Zammitt: “I’m a senior journalism major at UNC-CH specializing in visual communication and I’ll be graduating in December. My unofficial title in this project was head of the design team, meaning I coordinated efforts to design the site, to produce interactive graphics, motion graphics and style elements, and to establish Powering A Nation’s visual identity. Aside from that, I worked more specifically on the High Energy Diet story, creating graphics for Melissa’s step-by-step explaining how the food industry relies on fossil fuels and assisting with the Michael Pollan interview. I also designed the interface for our Powering Down energy usage tracker and the style elements used in our videos (poster images, lower thirds, credit frames, etc.)

My big project – and my favorite project – was the motion graphic introduction that now lives on the home page of the site. The idea behind it stemmed from Sara Peach’s brilliant interpretation of how U.S. demographics and energy use really fit together – the idea that fossil fuels allows for higher food production, which leads to a higher standard of living, which in turn leads to a larger population, ultimately leading to a higher demand for resources, resources that require more fossil fuels. Sara, Melissa and I spent a lot of time with our coach Andy Bechtel to develop the script and Melissa narrated it. With the help of my coaches, Mike Schmidt and Dan Niblock, I quickly learned After Effects and a few animation techniques and devoted a lot of time to the production of the intro, knowing it would play a big role in a user’s first impression of our site and our site’s content.”

Sara Peach: “I graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Carolina in August. Previously, I earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, also from UNC-CH. Since graduation, I’ve been pursuing my dream of working as a freelance multimedia environmental journalist. I continue to cover the issues of energy, climate and the environment.

During the project, I worked as a reporter and Editor-in-Chief. That meant I spent several weeks in the field working on two stories about coal in Ohio and West Virginia. I worked with Ashley and Melissa on the introductory motion graphic, though Ashley really carried the day on that one. Meanwhile, I coached Anna York, a newcomer to journalism, on her story about climate refugees in Alaska. I also worked on the editing team, which developed headlines, edited copy and helped reporters shape their stories. Thank goodness I had great coaches and producers and a fabulous team of journalists to help me.”