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Ready for Virtually Everything

Coronavirus has had an impact on nearly everyone around the world, uprooting life and work. College of Media students faced a move to online classes, unexpected departures from Morgantown, interrupted sports seasons and, as journalists and communicators, a call to continue the essential work of reporting while keeping themselves and others safe. And in these struggles, we’ve seen resilience.

Many College of Media students get their first taste of a live news set with teaching professor and journalism chair Gina Martino Dahlia. As executive producer of the award-winning WVU News, Dahlia prepares young journalists to be ready for anything, which now includes a global pandemic.

Dahlia’s class produces a 30-minute newscast each week that airs statewide on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Students do everything, including in-the-field reporting, camera operation, anchoring and editing. During the spring 2020 semester, Dahlia was also piloting a new public affairs program, Morgantown Today.

When students headed home for the two-week spring break that turned into a fully remote semester, they didn’t take equipment with them. Dahlia reached out to friend Mike Castellucci, a 22-time Emmy winner who captures news segments completely from an iPhone, and he presented a workshop on shooting and editing with streamlined production from home. Dahlia also decided to combine WVU News and Morgantown Today to allow more flexibility for students.

“I threw it out to the students,” Dahlia said. “I asked them what they thought about doing a show where there are no parameters as far as time, more of a magazine type of public affairs show with longer stories. The majority of students were thrilled.”

“I always think that if you raise the bar high with students, they just seem to meet it.”
GINA MARTINO-DAHLIA, teaching professor and journalism chair

“Initially, I was just thinking ‘how in the world are we going to make this happen now that our classes are going online,’” said Gillian Wanosky, a journalism and dance double major set to graduate in May 2021. “My goal is to get as much experience as I can. I was really worried that I was going to lose this precious time in the middle of my junior year of college, so I was relieved that Professor Dahlia had a solution.”

Dahlia offered a variety of options for students to conduct interviews virtually through Zoom, FaceTime and Skype or, if they felt safe, tips on live reporting that followed social distancing guidelines. And the final guideline – the stories had to show the positive, uplifting and inspiring stories coming out of this otherwise challenging environment.

virtual-anchors
Right: During a fall 2020 taping of Morgantown Today, hosts Taylor Hall and Natalie Comer interview Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom. Photo by Gina Martino-Dahlia.

Wanosky’s story for the special edition show combined her two very hands-on fields of study that were now forced to operate without face-to-face interaction. She interviewed dance instructors in her hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who were exploring ways to deliver lessons virtually and collaborated with Morgantown Today classmates and the WVU News team to produce her story.

“It was a really supportive atmosphere,” said Wanowsky. “Everyone was so willing to help one another because we were in it together. We wanted to produce the best possible content that we could, and it was definitely something that I’ll never forget.”

The special newscast won a College Coronavirus Coverage Award, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Collegiate Press, Society for News Design, College Broadcasters, Inc., and The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“I always think that if you raise the bar high with students, they just seem to meet it,” said Dahlia.

Broadcasting students weren’t the only ones to change their reporting plans.

On the morning of March 12, Kayla Gagnon (BSJ, 2021) had just finished swimming in the first round of the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America National Invitational Championship in Cleveland, Ohio. She and the rest of the WVU Women’s Swimming and Diving team met in the lobby of their hotel to prepare for the finals later that afternoon, when they were told to go back upstairs and pack their belongings for departure.

Kayla Gagnon

“I prefer interviewing in person. There’s something different about sitting next to a person and talking to them casually versus what we’re doing right now over Zoom. But some of these performers – I would have never been able to see them or meet them or watch them perform if this didn’t happen.”
KAYLA GAGNON, journalism senior

   

KaylaGagnon's (BSJ, 2021) dragumentary, "Introduction to the Queens of Quarantine."

“That’s when things started to feel real for me,” Gagnon said. “Things were getting really serious. They cancelled the entire meet, we packed everything up, got on a bus, headed back to Morgantown and I fled.”

Six days later, the University moved all classes online, including Gagnon’s photojournalism course. Not only did this hands-on course become a virtual experience, but Gagnon’s end-of-the- year video project centered on drag queens as they prepared for the Miss Vice Versa Pageant, and that had just been cancelled.

“I was scrolling through Instagram when I was home over spring break ... and I noticed a lot of the drag queens were posting that they needed financial support,” said Gagnon. “They posted their Venmo’s and PayPal’s, saying that they needed a little help because all of their gigs had been cancelled.”

Like everything else, the drag world was going digital and Gagnon saw an opportunity to reach out to some of drag’s biggest celebrities to create a multimedia story about how the community has been coping with COVID-19 — not only to salvage her final project but also perhaps to help a lesser-known community in need.

One of those celebrities was Biqtch Puddin, the winning contestant on season two of The Boulet Brothers' DRAGULA reality competition and one of drag’s most well-known names.

“I reached out to Puddin and she got back to me within a day,” said Gagnon. “And I just kind of threw myself into a documentary project before even talking to Professor Raimondo [about the change].”

Gagnon ended up talking to drag queens and kings from cities all over the country, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, New York City and New Orleans – all from her home in Kennerdell, Pennsylvania, where cell service is non-existent and the only connection to the outside world is a small router in the corner of the kitchen.

“I prefer interviewing in person. There’s something different about sitting next to a person and talking to them casually versus what we’re doing right now over Zoom,” she said. “But some of these performers — I would have never been able to see them or meet them or watch them perform if this didn’t happen.”

The drag community, which typically relies on club shows and live events, was embarking on new territory and Gagnon was there to shine a light on it and draw more attention to these virtual events, which are the livelihood for this community for the foreseeable future.

France

Hannah Belt, second from right, started her spring 2020 semester in the Czech Republic, with other exchange students from countries includingFrance, Germany andCanada. One-by-one, they were called home when Coronavirus took hold in Europe. Photo provided by Belt.

Still Serving the State

Hannah Belt (BSJ, 2021), a public relations major from Thurmont, Maryland, was only a few weeks into her study abroad program in Prague, Czech Republic, when the United States banned travel from Europe. Italy and other European countries began shutting down borders, and Belt was watching as her friends struggled to find travel back to their home countries. When she woke up one morning to an email from WVU explaining that she was required to come home, Belt also began the process of booking an earlier-than-anticipated flight home.

“It was so heartbreaking, but I also had a sense of relief because I knew it was just going to get worse,” said Belt. “I didn’t want to be away from my family when that was happening.”

Belt returned to her hometown in Frederick County, Maryland, and began the mandatory 14 days of isolation, while continuing courses online through Metropolitan University Prague.

“It’s tough. There’s a language barrier that's easier to understand in person,” Belt said. “Through email, it’s a lot different.”

Shortly after her return to the states, Geah Pressgrove, associate professor and advertising and public relations chair, contacted Belt with an opportunity. Pressgrove, whose area of interest includes advocacy and nonprofit communications, initially hired Belt as a research apprentice during her freshman year. Through this role and a subsequent intern- ship with Your Community Foundation (YCF), Belt discovered a passion for nonprofit and corporate social responsibility work.

YCF serves North Central West Virginia by investing donated funds to increase value and distributing net earnings to deserving recipients as specified by the donors. YCF was partnering with Philanthropy West Virginia, an organization that supports nonprofits across the state, to raise funds for COVID relief during a special global “Giving Tuesday” initiative, and they reached out to Pressgrove for potential interns. Belt was first to come to mind.

“Hannah is incredibly talented and dedicated and is able to manage a project with very little direction,” Pressgrove said. “I knew it be a perfect fit – both for her and for Philanthropy WV.”

Belt created digital assets and a tool kit to benefit 53 relief funds as part of a “Take 5 to Give $5” campaign. The initiative, which was co-sponsored by Toyota, United Bank, West Virginia American Water and an anonymous donor, raised more than $500,000 for COVID-19 relief in the state.

“I’m from Maryland, but I have so much pride in this campaign and the sense of community in this state,” said Belt. “West Virginians are so passionate, and there are so many nonprofits. I am just always amazed by how kind people are and how much they give back.”

In August, Belt began working with the College’s Public Interest Communications (PIC) Research Laboratory on a grant-funded project to explore COVID-19 virus-related communication strategies to enhance community resilience. Through participatory action research, which unites researchers and communities to create positive social change together, she is working with a team of investigators led by Pressgrove and Assistant Professor Julia Fraustino to engage community members in Monongalia and Taylor counties. They will use a whole-community approach to identify co-created solutions for issues of public health, equity and disaster resilience.

Like Belt’s work, many College of Media projects on both the journalism and advertising and public relations sides are centered around West Virginia. And in a state with one of the highest median ages and poverty rates, the impact of COVID-19 can be quite threatening. When the state began to shut down in March, College of Media students and faculty worked hard to continue providing essential news and services to communities across the state and Appalachia.

BrandJRNY, the College’s community branding initiative, requires students to embed themselves in West Virginia communities, to build personal relationships with residents, develop trust and do extensive research that informs a custom branding plan.

“We really focus on the relationship building and we focus on the people and the sense of place rather than just cranking out a bunch of deliverables,” said Rita Colistra, associate professor and founder and director of BrandJRNY. “You can't brand a place if you don't spend any time there experiencing it and really getting to know the people. And, the people in the town really get to know us.”

On March 3, the BrandJRNY team of students led by Colistra and David Smith, teaching assistant professor and BrandJRNY storytelling lead, launched the brand for Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in front of a crowd of more than 170 residents. The Point Pleasant website launched that same day, and then the students met in person for the last time on March 12.

Mothman

The latter part of the spring semester is spent implementing the brand – working with local vendors to install billboards and signage, getting materials into the hands of community business owners and preparing town leadership to carry out the brand once the project is over. That work, which is typically done in person, was moved to Zoom meetings, conference calls and texting, but the transition was made smoother by the fact that the class was set up like an agency with those tools already in place.

“We went from the high of just launching the brand to no longer seeing each other in person,” Colistra said. “But I give credit to my students – they hung in there. We were on a mission to continue this for our community. It’s about more than a grade. We had just gotten the community so excited by launching this brand and we didn’t want to stop everything.”

100 Days in Appalachia Zoom call screenshot

Uppercue, top center, participates in the weekly 100 Days editorial meeting via Zoom.

On the brand storytelling side, Smith’s students had already captured a lot of the photographs and video footage for multi-platform storytelling that would accompany the brand, so the workflow didn’t experience much interruption. The students worked from their hometowns, communicating with Smith through a variety of online discussion and file sharing platforms to complete video advertisements, audio storytelling pieces and some augmented and virtual reality components for Point Pleasant.

“If everything had happened three or six weeks earlier, it would have been a lot more difficult because we would have needed to go down to Point Pleasant,” Smith said. “But for the students to be able to meet with the community, get their feedback a little bit more and say some farewells would have been really nice.”

Just as BrandJRNY persisted in its mission to revitalize West Virginia communities amid the pandemic, so too did 100 Days in Appalachia.

100 Days in Appalachia

A nonprofit news partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Daily Yonder of the Center for Rural Strategies, 100 Days was created in 2016 to combat Appalachian stereotypes and has been amplifying the region’s diverse voices ever since. The news outlet collaborates with writers, reporters and visual journalists throughout Appalachia’s 13 states to showcase the diversity of the region. During the pandemic, many of these journalists were joining the ranks of the unemployed.

“We’ve seen dozens of papers in the region and across the country furlough and lay off their journalists,” said Ashton Marra, digital managing editor of 100 Days and a teaching assistant professor in the College of Media. “As we watched that happen, we tried to respond by hiring some of those journalists and photographers. The Charleston Gazette-Mail let go of a photographer that within two weeks I had a project for. We’ve made it a goal to support the people that live in Appalachia.”

Since 100 Days has always been a digital news platform that works primarily with freelancers, production has remained consistent. The big difference is that Marra is no longer working out of the Media Innovation Center, where she held daily meetings with Kristen Uppercue, editorial assistant for 100 Days. Uppercue (BSJ, 2019) will graduate with her master’s degree in journalism in May 2021, and she’s been working for 100 Days since her junior year – fall 2018.

“I miss meeting at the Innovation Center,” Uppercue said. “If I wanted to take a break, if I needed to take a breath, I could just walk out and see a dozen different people. But working from home, with the pandemic and protests and everything going on in the news, it’s hard to take a step back and not feel like I’m falling down.”

Uppercue is typically behind the scenes – editing content, publishing stories on the website and creating posts for social media. While she conducts interviews and writes an occasional story, she is rarely out in the field. But at the onset of COVID-19 in Morgantown, Uppercue was called upon to photograph local families and volunteers with Feed Mon Kids, a program that has provided food to children who stopped receiving school breakfast and lunch when the town went on lock-down. Her work was published alongside photos by Brian Furguson in "The Front Porch Network is a Lifeline in Appalachia," written by 100 Days freelancer Alison Stine. The story was produced in partnership with Yes! Magazine and West Virginia Public Broadcasting and explores ways community members are becoming more connected because of the pandemic. Since that story ran in May, 100 Days has published more than 200 stories that shed light on how the pandemic has affected people in Appalachia.

Although the fall 2020 term also has brought curricular challenges and changes, College of Media faculty, students and staff have had time to reflect on spring to better prepare for fall—whether that work be online, in person or a combination of the two. Through it all, resiliency, patience and grace have been key.

“I am so proud of and grateful for our faculty and staff, who remain dedicated to serving our students to the best of their ability under trying professional and personal circumstances,” said Dean Diana Martinelli. “We’re in a unique position to model flexibility, resiliency, empathy and professionalism for our students during a time of international crisis, and I believe what we’re learning will ultimately make us better and more creative teachers, mentors and colleagues.”