AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Rivals on the Gridiron, Allies in the Newsroom   

The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, joined by Cameron University, team up to chronicle the Afghanistan duty of an Oklahoma National Guard brigade. Weds., January 11, 2012

By Stephanie Weaver
Stephanie Weaver (sweaver@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

In Oklahoma, the rivalry between the University of Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State University Cowboys plays out every year on the football field at the annual showdown known as Bedlam. The tradition spans more than a hundred years, and the winner gains serious bragging rights.

So when journalism students in the advanced multimedia journalism class at OU's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication were pitched a joint project that would include students from Oklahoma State as well as Cameron University, they hesitated.

Katherine Borgerding, a senior at OU, wondered if the project would spark another kind of contest in which student journalists would try to one-up each other with their stories. But the three schools put rivalry aside and created the Oklahoma at War project, focusing on the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oklahoma National Guard.

The endeavor was initiated by Mike Boettcher, an OU professor and ABC News reporter. In September, he returned from a year-long embed in Afghanistan for ABC while teaching for OU overseas. He knew that the Oklahoma National Guard was taking heavy casualties, but he was ready to go home.

Then, guilt settled in.

"I started feeling guilty I wasn't there to tell the stories of my fellow Oklahomans," Boettcher says. So he decided to go back to Afghanistan if the students at OU would agree to report from the home front. He presented the idea to the students in OU's advanced multimedia journalism course six weeks into the fall 2011 semester.

Boettcher traveled from the Oklahoma campus in Norman to Stillwater to invite Oklahoma State students to work on the project. His idea was to launch the site near the date of the Bedlam football game, December 3, to show that students could overcome the rivalry and collaborate on a project for their home state.

Barbara Allen, adviser to Oklahoma State's Daily Collegian, thought it was a "neat opportunity" for students. "It was so much fun to work with another university to see what they offer," Allen says.

Cameron University, located in Lawton near the Ft. Sill Army base, also took part in the initiative. "Cameron is a regional university, so working with the OU and OSU teams was a great opportunity for us. This was a chance for the schools to look past rivalries and work together to honor the soldiers of our state and their families," says Elijah Morlett, a Cameron graduate student and a chaplain's assistant in the 45th Fires Brigade, a unit that focuses on field artillery.

"I was especially interested in working on this project because I am currently in the Oklahoma National Guard," he says. "Several of my personal friends and other soldiers from my unit were selected to deploy with the 45th Infantry Brigade on this deployment. I wanted to be involved in telling their story. This is one of the largest deployments in the Oklahoma National Guard's history. Our state needs to know the story of the outstanding service by members of this unit."

John Schmeltzer, Boettcher's co-professor for OU's advanced multimedia class, says the decision to focus on the state's soldiers represented a "180 degree turn." Originally, the class had planned to publish an online magazine throughout the semester.

According to the project's Web site, 3,400 members of the 45th have been deployed to Afghanistan. Buffeted by the recession, Oklahoma newspapers haven't spent the money to send reporters overseas. So Boettcher reported from the war front, while 29 students from the three universities under the direction of nine professors told stories from the home front»focusing on the impact on families and communities throughout the state.

Schmeltzer, who spent 35 years with the Chicago Tribune, also wanted to showcase student work for a broader audience. Professional news outlets are increasingly using J-school-produced journalism, as this recent AJR article details. "We wanted to show what student journalists at three large schools could do," he says. Promotion of student articles was a major objective for Schemeltzer. The journalism department had never tried to place students' work in Oklahoma newspapers before, but Schmeltzer decided to give it a shot. "We wanted to serve the journalism community in the state," he says. "We always wanted to provide content but didn't know how."

Newspapers throughout the state, including the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City and the Tulsa World, have picked up the students' work; in all, 218 items were republished, according to Schmeltzer. The project's site went live November 25, the day after Thanksgiving, giving students a limited break. Schmeltzer left for Liberia on November 17 to teach investigative reporting techniques through the Civil Society and Media Leadership Program, but he felt confident in his students' ability to compete the project.

And if they needed to reach him, he was available. "Thank God for the Internet," he says.

The students from the three schools never met in person, instead relying on e-mail, Facebook and phones to keep in contact. They stayed plugged into their computers over the Thanksgiving holiday.

"Even though we were on break, we were at our computers and phones," OU senior and senior editor of the project Lindsey Ruta says. She believes the approach prepared the students for what lies ahead in their careers. "News doesn't stop," she says. "News doesn't sleep."

The classroom environment was more like that of a newsroom»many late nights with constant editing and re-editing. Although some students were editors, all were responsible for providing content.

Since the launch, the site has been "visited 4,568 times by 3,376 unique visitors," according to Schmeltzer in early January. It has been accessed in the United Kingdom, Mexico, Ecuador, India, Japan and several other countries.

"This assignment meant something significant," Boettcher says. It wasn't just an assignment to turn in for class; instead it "filled a void," he says. Students reported stories that other media weren't providing: about mothers leaving their children to serve their country, about wives working in their husbands' absence, about wounded soldiers readjusting to home life.

Focusing on human interest, students wrote about the war's impact on local communities. Cameron's Morlett wrote "45th Captain's honorable job," about soldiers assigned to inform families of fallen soldiers. Describing the task as one of the "most honorable jobs in the military," Morlett's article explores the feelings soldiers confront when communicating with families of the fallen. The story was republished in the Tulsa World.

Videos, like interviews with solider and mother Jj Murphy, added a multimedia element to the project.

"I think it worked well," Boettcher says of the collaboration. Although each school wanted to have the best stories, "all of them shined brightly," he says.

The students agree. "We just wanted to put [rivalry] aside and showcase our talent," says Ana Lastra, an OU senior and managing editor of the project. Next semester, OU will continue the endeavor by focusing on the reintegration of the 45th when its members return home in February. The university plans to invite OSU and Cameron back and to ask other state schools to participate.

Although OSU beat OU 44-10 in the Bedlam battle, the students had reported on something that had brought the state together. In the words of Boettcher, "We are all Oklahomans."