Croke Park coverage to give students real-world international news experience

Penn State President Eric Barron likens the pursuit of a Penn State education to driving a blue-and-white Corvette. If you're going to purchase a sportscar, don't drive it at 20 mph by doing the bare minimum, he says. Instead, put it through its paces by getting involved in one or more engaged scholarship activities.

The John Curley Center for Sports Journalism in Penn State's College of Communications is helping a group of students drive their blue-and-white Corvettes at maximum speed, as they will be taking the skills they're learning in the classroom and putting them to use in Ireland this August to cover the Croke Park Classic football game in Dublin between Penn State and the University of Central Florida. The game will be the season opener for both teams, and will be the first international contest in Penn State's 127-year gridiron history. The last American football game hosted in Croke Park was in 1996 when Notre Dame played Navy.

The students – Hannah Bressi, Bobby Chen, Melissa Conrad, C.J. Doon, Kelsie Netzer, Greg Pickel, Eric Shultz and Jake Somerville – hit the ground running just after commencement in May.

"There were two distinct goals during our post-commencement meetings," said John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center. "The first was to prepare us to be knowledgeable visitors when we get to Ireland. That meant learning a little about Ireland's rich and sometimes painful history, its culture, politics and sporting life -- politics and sports being more closely tied there than they are here. Then we game-planned the week in Ireland, sketching out what stories we wanted to do, with the recognition that we will need to be flexible to accommodate breaking news."

Affleck said the focus of coverage is the Croke Park Classic. "There will be pieces, for example, on the Gaelic Athletic Association, which is hosting the game, and on Croke Park itself, which has an incredible history. We will check in on what Penn State alumni are doing during their trip, and -- of course -- we'll write about the debut of Coach James Franklin."

Although it is fulfilling requirements for a formal course (COMM497F, Sports Journalism Projects), the students' work is much more than just a class assignment. The Curley Center has partnered with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (PNA), to deliver the students' stories,  photos and multimedia pieces to its member news organizations for publication on deadline. Some of their work also will appear on the Penn State News website, as well as in College of Communications outlets.

"The partnership with the PNA is huge. It turns this from a useful academic exercise to an international academic/professional experience, the kind of which students rarely get anywhere," Affleck said. "The students won't be training to be journalists, they'll be journalists. Editors will be depending on them to produce clean, well-reported copy and photos on deadline. Nothing beats that if you want to be the journalist of tomorrow."

In that role, the students will be tailoring their stories to the needs of the PNA, "because that's what you do as correspondents in an international bureau," Affleck said.

The students also are excited about the real-world opportunity.

"What an awesome opportunity the John Curley Center is giving journalism students at Penn State," said Bressi, a senior photojournalism major. Bressi said as soon as she heard about the opportunity she knew it was something she wanted to do. "I went home that day and immediately called my dad to tell him how awesome this experience could be for me – he completely agreed."

Bressi said she hopes the experience will make her a better photographer and writer. "I want to gain a better perspective for what it looks like to actually work for a paper, have deadlines and expectations for your work," she said. She said her classes "have been crucial for my education when it comes to photojournalism, but I really want to have on-field experience and a portfolio that shows these experiences to future employers."

Senior public relations major Melissa Conrad agrees. "I hope to gain a better understanding of what it takes to produce quality work in a short amount of time with tight, real-world deadlines. Classes can teach us what the real-world is like, but it isn't until you are in the situation yourself that you'll truly learn what it takes," she said.

Affleck is working as the bureau chief, overseeing the entire operation of the "Ireland Bureau." John Beale, senior lecturer in journalism, will be the photo editor. Beale brings his decades of professional experience, including his experience as a longtime staff photographer and chief photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, into the classroom. He also regularly takes his students outside the classroom to put their skills to work in real-world environments, which has helped to prepare them for this assignment.

"My classes stress the importance of deadlines. For one assignment, students enrolled in COMM 469 are required to illustrate four different stories in one hour," he said. "To give the students a sense of what to expect in Ireland, we covered the Blue-White game on deadline this spring."

Lori Shontz, adjunct instructor in the College of Communications, will serve as the assistant bureau chief on the team. "This class combines three of my favorite things: college football, foreign travel and working with students," she said.

Shontz, who also is senior editor for the Alumni Association's Penn Stater Magazine, has been on the Curley Center board since it formed. She also spent nearly two decades as a professional sports writer/editor, with experience coordinating coverage at large, international events.

The Croke Park Classic will give Affleck, Beale and Shontz an opportunity to totally immerse their students in the coverage of an international event, on deadline. Beale said one of his students asked how many hours a day they would be "working" in Ireland. "My response was, how many hours are in a day? It’s a bit of an exaggeration but that’s the mindset. We’ll have some fun but they’re not on vacation. These students have the ability and training to produce great journalism and we plan to give them the opportunity to shine."

Even the selection process for this opportunity was a real-world experience. Although it is a formal class, students had to interview with Affleck, Shontz and Beale for their spots in the course.

"We were trying to assemble the best team we could, and that meant filling specific positions," Affleck said. "For example, we needed a Penn State football writer. There were many fine writers among the students who interviewed, but Greg Pickel stood out because of his ideas and his professional experience."

Pickel, a senior print journalism major, is a freelance writer for The Harrisburg Patriot News/PennLive, Fight On State and Scout.com, covering high school and college football. "The opportunity to be mentored by three terrific professionals and academics … was convincing in and of itself, but the chance to put together clips for future employment during a 10-day learning experience abroad was too much to pass up," Pickel said.

He said he prepared for the interview process in part by researching Ireland, and by researching articles and information about previous international reporting trips made in the College of Communications.

Chen prepared for the interview in the same way he would approach a job interview. "As part of the application we had to compile our best journalistic work -- I applied as a photographer, so I included a portfolio of photos, too. Before I interviewed, I made sure that I would be able to explain why I picked certain pieces of writing or photography as my best work, and how the skills involved with creating them would allow me to be a good member of the Croke Park team," he said.

The course began May 13, right after spring commencement at University Park. "These students did intensive work over the course of two days in May," including a lot of research into various aspects of Ireland's history and culture, Beale said. "They mapped out all of their assignments, and now they've scattered for the summer, many of them to big internships. They've got their assignments, though, and will be working on them over the summer so they can hit the ground running when they get back in August."

The group will gather on campus on Aug. 20, and depart for Dublin on Aug. 22.  The engaged scholarship experience is a win-win proposition. The students will gain valuable experience that will help round out their journalism skills and make them more employable. The Curley Center, which is covering the students' travel, lodging and reporting expenses, is gaining visibility through the success of its students.

All of the students agree that what they've learned in their classes has prepared them for this engaged scholarship experience, and that the experience will round out their classroom knowledge.

Somerville, a senior broadcast journalism major, said the research skills he learned in his classes will help him for the feature-writing he'll be doing on the trip. "I hope this experience will help me to first and foremost improve as a journalist. I want to improve my process as far as coming up with stories, thinking a little more creatively."

For Somerville, the experience also will be one of personal growth. "I come from a diverse family. My father is African-American and my mother is half Irish and Jamaican, I grew up mostly embracing my African-American heritage but it will be really interesting tapping into another part of my tradition. Seeing the sights and experiencing the Irish people is something I'm really looking forward to," he said.

Last Updated August 19, 2014