While sitting in the Rio Media Center late on the first Sunday morning of the 2016 Summer Olympics, I launched the Arizona Republic’s iPad app. I swiped through the electronic version of the newspaper until I got to the front page of the Travel & Explore section. Right there on the cover—a story by one of our Cronkite News reporters about the beaches of Rio de Janeiro placed atop a beautiful photo taken by one of our Cronkite News photographers.
It was a thrill to see the package, which was produced by two of the 25 students we had brought with us to Rio from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University as part of our immersive “Covering the Rio Olympics” study abroad program. This was not a typical study abroad experience—students spent three weeks as working journalists covering the games and the culture of the host city.
The Olympic experience is just one of the many innovative initiatives at the Cronkite School, including Cronkite News, the multi-platform news operation of Arizona PBS, the largest media organization operated by a journalism school in the world.
In addition to featuring our Olympic stories on Cronkite News, we also worked closely with leading news organizations in our market and beyond. Many of our students’ stories found their way into the pages and onto the websites and airwaves of KPNX-TV, Pac-12 Networks and the Republic, among others, thanks to partnerships we cultivated before leaving for Rio.
“When the opportunity arose to partner with the Cronkite School, we knew it could be mutually beneficial,” said Ginger Rough, news director and strategist for entertainment at the Arizona Republic.
For students, it gave them the chance of a lifetime, covering one of the world’s largest events while bolstering their resumes as they prepared to graduate and pursue jobs in journalism.
“Reporting at the Olympics has by far been my best memory and experience of my life,” said Allison Gargaro, a Cronkite School senior. “This experience will give me the chance to show my work to future employers and help me land my dream job one day.”
For partners, it enabled them to have a much larger presence in Rio without having to dedicate much of their own resources to it.
KPNX-TV, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, the No. 12 television market according to Nielsen, sent two staff members to Rio: a reporter and a photographer. But thanks to our students, they were able to air many more stories from the Olympics. Our students produced several video packages, and they were featured on-camera during KPNX-TV’s newscasts.
“Having the Cronkite students provided us with an extra resource to get places we couldn’t get to,” said Jeff Schneider, KPNX-TV’s executive sports producer. “It was in essence like having additional personnel on site working with us.”
That additional personnel was critical for KPNX-TV, which, as the Olympic station for the Phoenix market, devoted a significant amount of its news broadcasts to the Olympics, according to assistant news director Ivan Hernandez.
“NBC is out covering the big names and big events,” Hernandez said. “Our focus is to showcase the hometown heroes. These guys are not always the big stars or competing in the most popular events. They don’t have the network cameras fixed on them. The Cronkite students helped us give those Arizona athletes the exposure they deserved.”
Laura Podalak, senior assignment manager at Pac-12 Networks, said that if the network had only relied on the two journalists it had sent to Rio, the network’s website would have featured only a fraction of the stories that wound up being produced.
“Without the Cronkite students, we would have been able to cover only about a quarter of the stories we wanted to target while on the ground,” she said.
According to Candice Coots, who was one of the two journalists in Rio for the Pac-12, there were nearly 300 people connected to the conference who were competing, coaching, or otherwise involved in the games, and Cronkite enabled them to cast a wide net in covering them.
“One Pac-12 medalist told me, ‘Wow, the Pac-12 is everywhere in Rio. I love all of the support,’” Coots said.
The Arizona Republic sent five staff members to Rio, but all five were primarily assigned to write sports stories for the USA Today Network, according to Rough.
“The Cronkite partnership allowed us to have a much bigger presence on the ground in Rio, and to give our readers a much wider array of content about other topics of interest,” she said.
This was not the first time our students covered the Olympics. In 2012, we sent 19 students to cover the London Games. This time around, we handpicked 25 students from a pool of approximately 80 applicants for the experience. We selected them based on their journalism experience, the quality of their work and their ability to hit the ground running.
Once selected, we charged the reporters with finding unique, compelling stories that would be relevant to the audiences of our partners for the three weeks we would spend in Rio.
“It was a collaboration that benefitted our readers through interesting, in-depth stories we would not have otherwise published,” Rough said. “You could tell they really embraced the opportunity and worked hard to go beyond the tried, the mundane, the overdone.”
Cronkite reporters produced written, video, photo, social and 360 video content across a variety of topics, ranging from Brazil’s famous churrascaria style of cooking and Rio’s lush urban hiking trails to the members of Team USA’s “Final Five” women’s gymnastics team who became some of the brightest stars of the games.
“The breadth of the stories and sports covered really enhanced and told a more complete story than our network could tell because of limited resources,” Natalia Ciccone, Pac-12 assistant commissioner for communications, said.
Our media partners gave many of the stories prominent placement on their respective outlets, including two straight Sundays on which Cronkite written and photo work was featured on the front page of the Republic’s Travel & Explore section.
“The story ideas were creative, the narratives well-reported and interesting,” Rough said. “The content was detailed, accurate and descriptive and several of the packages were used as cover stories and centerpieces.”
Reporters spent the months leading up to the games preparing and developing story ideas in class meetings with three award-winning journalists who served as faculty editors and leaders of the study abroad experience in Rio, which included myself (a professor of practice and the director of the Phoenix Sports Bureau of Cronkite News), assistant dean Mark Lodato, and faculty associate Sarah Muench.
“Before departing, one of our Cronkite News editors told us that we aren’t students studying journalism; instead, we’re journalists,” said Logan Newman, a Cronkite senior. “The mindset gave us an air of professionalism in the field.”
It is a mindset that the reporters took into the rooms full of veteran journalists at Team USA practices and press conferences, whether it was for a one-on-one interview with Team USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski or in a packed press conference following Michael Phelps’ final Olympic competition.
“We were always the youngest reporters there by far,” Cronkite senior Jamee Lind said. “We owned it and asked questions amidst a crowd of 30 to 40 vetted reporters and made a lot of really cool connections with some of the regular broadcasters.”
Students worked every day with faculty editors through a rigorous editing process to produce about 100 stories while in Rio. They also received in-the-moment advice from some of the biggest names in journalism.
“On the day I covered Michael Phelps’ last Olympic presser, I had NBC to my right and Fox to my left,” said Kristina Vicario, a Cronkite master’s student. “Both reporters told me how amazing it was that I was able to have this opportunity in college and offered me their insight as to how to best break in the field.”
The Cronkite School has a long history of success partnering with major media outlets in covering sporting events. For six straight years, Cronkite students have covered Cactus League spring training for outlets, including MLB.com, the Denver Post and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In the months leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, students produced stories for Sports Illustrated, NFL.com, the Arizona Republic and Fox Sports Arizona. And Cronkite students in both our Phoenix and Los Angeles sports bureaus produce stories for Pac-12 Networks about ASU, University of Arizona, UCLA and USC athletics.
It is this history that gave the large media companies the confidence to partner with the school in Rio.
“We have worked with the Cronkite School before on other projects such as spring training and ASU football coverage,” Schneider said. “The students are well versed in what it takes to track down stories and have always provided us with high quality work.”
Partners also see Rio as a building block toward future work together.
“The partnership was a huge success,” Podalak said. “I’m hopeful that this is a set-up we can consider in future years when events occur that are important to our audience. It is a joy to work with the Cronkite School.”
Brett Kurland is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is the founding director of the Phoenix Sports Bureau of Cronkite News.