West Virginia Uncovered is a project by the P.I. Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University. The project sends journalism students to community newspapers around the state to teach multimedia storytelling.Â Project Director John Temple and Project Coordinator M.K McFarland talk about West Virginia Uncovered.
VS: How and why was West Virginia Uncovered created?
Temple: “A couple of students and I began thinking about doing a multimedia project that would include community newspapers in 2007. At first, we just wanted to produce multimedia stories in some of the more rural areas of the state, but we gradually began thinking about doing multimedia training for the community journalists as well. We were all writers, primarily, but we all (including me) wanted to learn more about multimedia and thought this would be an opportunity. We applied for and received a grant from the McCormick Foundation in Chicago to do this, and it has grown far beyond our expectations.”
VS: Talk about the program and how it functions each year.
Temple: “We launched the project in the fall semester of 2008. Back then, it was just me, six students and four newspapers. The students traveled to the various counties we were working within and did multimedia news-feature packages. We would then send the stories to the participating newspaper and post them on our website and in the Charleston Daily Mail as well. In the spring semester of 2009, we began holding training sessions for the journalists at our partner papers, which we continued in the fall of 2009. This year, after we gained more support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Ford Foundation, we hired Mary Kay to coordinate the project and course and Bill Kuykendall to coordinate the training program. Additionally, we’ve begun working with high school and middle school students in Tucker County to help them produce videos for one of our newspaper partners.”
McFarland: “Students in the School of Journalism apply to participate in the West Virginia Uncovered class, and we try to keep the number of students between eight and 12. We keep the number small, so that John and I can work with each project individually. Students are assigned to one of our participating papers, and they work with the editor to come up with a story idea. They are reimbursed for their travel and lodging expenses when they are on assignment.
Our partnering papers have different degrees of sophistication with their Web sites, so some papers put the multimedia work up immediately with no trouble. For other papers, posting a multimedia story is a whole new skill set, and we use the opportunity to help them learn some basic HTML and a little Web strategy. Brad Robertson, our Web designer has been tremendously helpful as a resource and troubleshooter for our partner newspapers. Originally, there were four weekly newspapers working with the program, in the summer of 2009, we added several more bringing our total to about a dozen. Photography, audio and video were the subjects of the original three workshops for the community papers, but this year weâ€™ve expanded that to offer three more workshops. The topics of the new workshops include: How to make money, Web design and Getting your community involved.”
Senior West Virginia University journalism students Katie Griffith and Jonathan Vickers collaborate on a multimedia story during West Virginia Uncovered’s immersion weekend in Davis, W.Va. in January. (M.K. McFarland)
VS: Talk about the importance of community journalism.
Temple: “I think working with these small newspapers has given our students a lot of respect for the work of community journalism. These folks are passionate about delivering the news and the life of their community to their readers. Furthermore, because these publications offer a product filled with unique content, they are not yet experiencing the losses in readership that larger newspapers have seen. So these small community publications may be the future of the industry.”
McFarland: “Following our immersion weekend in January, where we worked exclusively with Chris and Kelly Stadelman of the Parsons Advocate, I was pleased to hear students express admiration for the work the couple has chosen. The Stadelmans had worked in a larger market at The Charleston Daily Mail, which serves Charleston, W.Va. the state capitol. They left there to buy The Parsons Advocate and be the news source for this much smaller community. Chris and Kelly rarely get vacation and never for a whole week at a time.”
VS: What roles do students have in the program?
Temple: “Students work in teams to produce stories about these communities with the guidance of Mary Kay and the editors at the small newspapers. As they grow more experienced, we begin pairing them with journalists from the newspapers, so that even more learning is happening.
McFarland: “In addition to story production, our students have to become familiar with the work of Web designers as they package their stories for our Web site. They have to think about titles, cutline, promos and the presentation of their work on the Web. The graduate students in our class take on the responsibility of making West Virginia Uncovered part of a larger dialogue about where journalism is heading. They do this by maintaining our blog and Twitter accounts.
I think one of the more rewarding aspects of the project for students is the feedback they get from the newspaper audiences. Comments on their stories and emails they have received that let them know their stories are appreciated, have really fueled their desire to pursue multimedia storytelling. When Sarah Moore and Jon Offredo completed â€œA Motherâ€™s Journey,â€ about 92-year-old Marjorie Lattimer. They were thrilled to find that readers wanted to nominate her for Mother of the Year, and some readers sent Lattimer money. Offredo has maintained his relationship with Lattimer and still talks to her almost weekly.”
From the story “A Mother’s Journey”: Marjorie Lattimer, 92, kisses her daughter, Shirley, 72, on the forehead. Shirley was born with PKU, a genetic birth disorder, which can cause problems with the central nervous system. (Sarah Moore)
VS: How are the story ideas generated for each newspaper?
Temple: “Students research the communities to come up with story ideas and also brainstorm with the editors. This is part of the learning process for both sides, because there are plenty of “good stories” that don’t lend themselves to multimedia. We look for strong visual stories that involve one or two main characters who preferably are facing a conflict of some sort.”
VS: Talk about the roles of faculty in the program.
Temple: “There are four faculty members involved in the program right now. I’m the director of the project, and I help with the class and generally guide the project . Mary Kay McFarland is the project coordinator and handles the day-to-day operations of the project and class. She develops the curriculum and works with the partner papers. Bill Kuykendall, a former visiting professor at WVU who teaches in the New Media Department at the University of Maine, organizes and leads the training initiative. He develops many of the workshops, with input from the rest of the faculty. Kuykendall also keeps an eye on what the partner papers are doing on their own and provides feedback to them. Dana Coester, an advertising professor, is teaching a new class in which students will be studying online revenue sources for community journalists. She is also heading up an initiative in which a WVU graduate student is creating a mobile phone application for one of our newspaper partners.”
VS: How is the program funded?
Temple: “Three private foundations are supporting us: the McCormick Foundation, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Ford Foundation.”
Visual journalism student Mallory Bracken and West Virginia Uncovered student Paige Lavender study the photos for their immersion weekend project. West Virginia University School of Journalism and WV Uncovered students spent a weekend in Davis, W.Va. in January immersing themselves in the community and local culture to cover different stories. (M.K. McFarland)
VS: What are the pros and cons to the project?
Temple: “One of the main strengths of this concept is that these newspapers are holding their own in terms of readership, but they can learn from the challenges faced by larger newspapers. One of the main difficulties is producing high quality stories that are based hours away from the students’ home base. The students have to travel hours and often stay overnight, and this makes it hard for them to really immerse themselves in the story.”
McFarland: “Another challenge we have faced has been the relative inexperience of students. From the beginning, we wanted to program to be a multimedia learning experience to motivated students whether they had previous experience or not. This has meant that we have worked with some students who have never used a video camera, or collected audio or maybe even used any camera except a point-and-shoot. In order for students to produce at least two stories each semester, they have to learn a lot of these skills in the field after only one or two lectures.”
VS: What has been the reaction of the newspapers involved with the program?
Temple: “All the newspapers are interested when we first propose to them that they participate in the project, because I think they all want to become more knowledgeable about multimedia and how to improve their websites in general. Sometimes this interest is difficult to sustain because of the day-to-day nature of the news business. Some have devoted a great deal of time and resources to the project and to improving their websites. Others I think find it more difficult to juggle the demands of the print product and the Web with a couple of staff members.”
VS: Where do you want to take the program from here?
Temple: “One thing we would like to do is work with other universities to create similar “Uncovered” projects with community publications in their regions. How exactly we do this remains to be seen and depends on funding. We are also exploring how we can expand the project work with schools and civic groups in some of the rural communities where we are already involved.”