Penn State students blend words, pictures and video to tell stories

Katie Jacobs Bohn
August 11, 2015

The light of the camera switched on, illuminating the face of Robert Ritzmann as he remembered the story of how he became the longest serving Nittany Lion mascot in the history of Penn State. He had auditioned right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he initially thought he had no chance of being chosen to wear the uniform.

“I was a chemical engineer. Bushy hair. Horn-rimmed glasses. Skinny as a rail. I was a geek of the worst order,” Ritzmann said, laughing.

On the other side of the camera was Lauren Lewis, a senior majoring in print journalism. She was interviewing Ritzmann for a story that would eventually be published on OurGrayMatters.Org — a website built, populated with content and publicized by her and her fellow classmates in COMM 497C: Multimedia Projects.

Lewis’ lens captured Ritzmann’s self-deprecation as he explained how he went on to serve as the Nittany Lion from 1942 to 1945 — although later, to his amusement, he found out it was because no one else had applied.

Ritzmann’s story is just one of many that now live on the Our Gray Matters website, thanks to the students in COMM 497C and its instructor, Will Yurman. Yurman said he designed the course to open his students’ eyes to the many ways of using digital tools to tell a story.

Their charge? To use a blend of language, photos and video to tell the story of a senior citizen living in Centre County.

“I chose the theme because it was broad enough for students to have many options for stories while also pushing them out of their comfort zone,” Yurman said. “I wanted them to explore a new subject as well as new possibilities for telling stories.”

Since the Internet has replaced newspapers as many people’s preferred way to get the news, the number of ways to tell a story has multiplied.

In 2012, the New York Times published “Snow Fall,” a 16,000-word feature about an avalanche in the Cascade Mountains that swept up 16 skiers and snowboarders, killing three of them. Interwoven with the text were photos, videos and animations — including a real-time simulation of the avalanche.

It was storytelling like no one had ever seen before.

The piece was a watershed moment in digital journalism, setting new expectations for online storytelling and netting the newspaper and the author of the piece, John Branch, a Pulitzer Prize. Journalists quickly realized it wasn’t enough anymore to be a good reporter. In addition to smart reporting and sharp writing, journalists now need photography, graphic design and even coding skills in their arsenal.

While the feat took the New York Times team countless man hours and several months to complete, Yurman says creating something similar now takes significantly less time.

“We have so many tools available today that incorporating multimedia into a story is so much easier,” said Yurman. “We’re in the golden age of storytelling. You can’t leave college knowing everything, but you can at least leave knowing more about the possibilities of multimedia.”

When the class began in January, Lewis was one semester away from graduating and was entering the class with some trepidation. Video wasn’t her favorite medium, and she was taking not one but two videography courses to help boost her résumé.

“It was nothing short of masochism to take the extra video course,” said Lewis. “But I wanted experience in video and also a diverse portfolio.”

Also taking the course was Leah Polakoff, a fellow final-semester print journalism major who wanted one final challenge before she graduated.

“I knew this would be one of my last in-depth stories as a Penn State student, and I wanted to make it worthwhile,” Polakoff said. “I knew I wanted to tell one more story I would be proud of.”

Yurman had some rules about how his students could find their stories. One, they had to find the story ideas themselves, and two, they couldn’t interview family or friends. Yurman did help by bringing in speakers and taking the students to a local retirement community, but ultimately, the stories were left for the students to find.

“They had to do what journalists do,” Yurman said. “Find their stories by poking around, making calls, being nosy.”

Yurman did tip Lewis off to Ritzmann’s story, but she found the subject of her second story — a 69-year-old farmer from Warrior’s Mark — on her own. Polakoff decided to do her piece on a person’s age versus how old they actually feel, and found her subjects by networking at The Village at Penn State and posting fliers at senior centers. She even crashed a meeting of the State College Bridge Club to find people to talk to.

The class met once a week, and the students had the entire semester to pursue their stories. But it wasn’t just the stories that needed to be written. There was also a website to be built and social media accounts to be managed. The students broke into groups to handle these tasks, as well — broadening their skills even further.

By the end of the semester, Yurman said he was proud of his students’ commitment to their subjects and stories and was confident they had all built upon their journalistic skills. Likewise, Polakoff said Yurman was one of her favorite teachers at Penn State, crediting him for helping his students evolve a story from good to great.

And, Polakoff said the class opened her eyes not only to the importance of storytelling, but also  to the process of telling a really great story.

“Storytelling isn’t just writing the facts. It’s truly getting to know someone — spending time with someone and asking the uncomfortable questions,” said Polakoff. “That’s what makes a good storyteller: someone who digs deep and makes someone proud to have their story told.”

As the students’ views of journalistic storytelling evolved, so did their ideas of aging.

Polakoff said the people she interviewed were far from the infirm and wheelchair-bound image some have of the elderly. Most of them still work out, participate in clubs and sports, and treat themselves to happy hour.

“People are living into their 80s, 90s and 100s. And they’re thriving!” Polakoff said. “I know I’m going to be like the 92-year-old woman still running marathons.”

Lewis agreed, saying the experience showed her just how positive aging can be, from transitioning from retirement to assisted living and from taking care of your children to watching them have children of their own. Growing older has become something she even looks forward to.

“I mean, come on,” Lewis said. “Bridge? Community gardening? Private film screenings? The best years of my life are still to come!”

To read the students’ stories or to submit stories of your own, visit

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit

  • Leah Polakoff interviewing a subject for her video

    Leah Polakoff interviews a subject for her "How Old Do You Feel?" piece for the Our Gray Matters website.

    IMAGE: Will Yurman
  • Robert Ritzmann posing with a Nittany Lion statue

    Robert Ritzmann poses with a miniature Nittany Lion statue.

    IMAGE: Lauren Lewis video screenshot
  • Tammy Miller being interviewed for a student video

    Tammy Miller being filmed for a story on Our Gray Matters.

    IMAGE: Will Yurman
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Last Updated August 17, 2015