Columbia Journalism Students Show Their Mettle with Ambitious Election Coverage

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At roughly 12.30am today, the most relieved students who spilled out onto Columbia University’s campus and the surrounding streets of Broadway and Amsterdam were probably not the staunch supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. They were the university’s journalism students who had just completed their most ambitious project yet: extensive multimedia coverage of the U.S. presidential election.

Their coverage included setting up and running Decision NYC, a website devoted to different aspects of the election across the U.S., including the youth vote and voter opinions in swing states. Stories for the website were fine tuned by Journalism School lecturers, and were accompanied by audio and video packages as well as photographs.

But the true moment of proverbial glory was the culmination of several weeks of work: a five-hour live broadcast of TV and radio slots streamed by the J-school on Decision NYC. The broadcast began at 7pm and ended at 12pm. Packages included reports from journalism students across the country, interviews with experts and radio packages of interviews conducted by students.

Professor Ann Cooper, Broadcast Director at the School, described the coverage as a “historic effort for this school and the most collaborative multimedia project out students have ever done.”

“Each of the programs was lively and innovative,” she said in a congratulatory e-mail to the students. “The teams who produced them … did remarkable deadline work.”

The election coverage was a collaboration between 52 broadcast students, with 20 print students providing stories for the website and assistance on the evening of the broadcast. The project was overseen by around 20 faculty members.

Professor John Dinges, whose print class assisted with copy for the radio hosts as results came in, has been involved in election coverage at the school since 1996. He described the coverage as a “true multimedia project, which is appropriate because this is a truly historic moment.”

“We really rose to the occasion,” said Dinges.

Senior producer Kirk Carapezza said he thought the broadcast went well considering that students were from different classes and had to learn how to communicate under pressure. However the broadcast was far from error-free.

“It wasn’t the smoothest rundown,” said Carapezza. “Some of the transitions weren’t that good. It’s difficult to report breaking news and this was our pilot show. I don’t think many programs have their pilot show on election night,” he laughed.

Desk producer Alison Moodie, who also produced an audio package on women’s feelings about Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, said that despite the stress the broadcast students felt prepared for the night because of the training they had received so far. She is grateful that the school encouraged the students to cover the elections.

“It was such a historic election, how could we not cover it?” she said. “It gave us good practice, it was like the real deal.”

Senior producer Franz Strasser said that parts of the broadcast “didn’t go like we planned it at all.”

“But we did it!” he said, shortly after Sen. Barack Obama was announced President.

Trust was an important factor in compiling the broadcast and running the website.

“The best thing we learned,” said Strasser, “was how to prepare beforehand, how to have a Plan B, and how to have a Plan C, and if Plan C fails, how we can make a good show anyway.” Strasser said that one of the mistakes producers made was being too busy to take the time to look at other coverage of the election on the TV and online.

Despite various hitches, the coverage was considered a great success by staff and students. Dean of Academic Affairs, Bill Grueskin, said he was very proud of the students and how they held their composure throughout the night.

“They played a lot of notes on the keyboard,” he said. “We’re very proud of them.”

By JACKIE BISCHOF

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