UNF student reporters cover RNC for national media

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Nearly every major news agency in the nation had some representatives in the stands of the Tampa Bay Times Forum covering the Republican National Convention in August.

The Washington Post sent out scores of reporters to cover the political show, but when they needed backup, they turned to a team of skilled University of North Florida students.

The students varied in terms of academic discipline — journalism, electronic media, public relations and political science were all represented — but they were all members of a dynamic UNF class led by communication professor Dr. Paula Horvath-Neimyer.

“This opportunity started in the classroom and expanded beyond that into an unparalleled hands-on learning experience,” Horvath-Neimeyer said. “These students weren’t just interns. During one of the largest political events in Florida, they were on-the-job professional reporters.”

The framework for the class was established in January 2012 when UNF hosted the CNN Republican National Debate on campus. Students from one of Neimeyer’s classes contributed tweets and live coverage of the event to the Post, thoroughly impressing the staff of the famed newspaper. Based on the quality of the work produced by the UNF communication students, the Post once again turned to one of Neimeyer’s classes with a proposition.

They would provide reporting assistance during the August Republican National Convention in Tampa, mostly from a live social media perspective. There are other universities with journalism programs located closer to Tampa, but the Washington Post specifically chose UNF for the task, which involved months of advance blogging and about a week of intense, shoe-leather reporting.

To prepare for the work ahead, Neimeyer created a summer class focused on digital and social media — necessary skills for a hard-charging political reporter in the thick of the Convention commotion. She reached out to almost a dozen students who expressed interest in the course and began immersing them in the world of new media. That included a weekly news meeting comprised of video chats with editorial producers from the Washington Post and in-person conversations with Florida Times-Union editors, who also utilized the students’ tweets in a live sidebar on Jacksonville.com’s political coverage page.

The initial work consisted primarily of blogging for the Post’s “The 12” blog, a student-driven Tumblr page that tracked voter sentiment in the 12 most crucial swing states for the upcoming election. The big draw for the students was the opportunity to report on a national political event, but it was unclear how their transportation and lodging would be funded. That’s when the Office of Undergraduate Studies stepped up and offered a Transformational Learning Opportunity (TLO) grant.

TLOs are awarded to faculty and students who present unique and engaging educational opportunities that broaden and deepen students’ intellectual and worldviews. The grant allowed the students and Neimeyer to rent a four-bedroom house in Ybor City in Tampa for more than a week.

Horvath-Neimeyer said UNF’s commitment to providing a well-rounded education to its students extends far beyond the classroom. Hands-on learning experiences aren’t just scholastically important — these opportunities truly excite students.

“We push our students to do their best work, whether they’re in the classroom or out in the professional world,” she said. “I think the focus of the University on TLO experiences is one of UNF’s most important and unique features. Take this trip, for instance. The students got to meet members of the State Department, they interacted with journalists from the country of Georgia and spoke with David Gergen from CNN. This was an experience for a team of newspeople — not just a group of students.”

They managed to cover the full scope of the Convention — from the build-up, which included raucous parades and loud protests, to Romney’s final acceptance speech.

“We wanted to be there until the last streamer fell from the ceiling,” said Paula Senn, a senior journalism major.

She called the trip a once-in-a-lifetime, hands-on learning experience.

“Unless one of us [fellow journalism students] ends up working for CNN, we probably won’t get a shot to do that again,” Senn said. “I never considered myself a political junkie, but the theater of the event is a sight to behold.”

Senn, a nontraditional student who retired from the Navy after 20 years and started taking classes at UNF, said it was a rush being in the thick of the political machine. It was even better when she saw a picture she took and posted to Twitter pop up on the Post’s website.

“I snapped a picture of this guy dressed like Wyatt Earp,” she said. “He was a delegate from Kansas. Well, that picture made its way out to thousands of people because the Post picked it up from my Twitter. They were monitoring our Twitter handles during the Convention for live coverage. That was an amazing feeling because I’ve never used Twitter until I got to this class, and now my tweets are ending up on the Post’s website.”

Henna Bakshi, a junior communication major with an electronic media concentration that made her the group’s unofficial broadcast representative, spent a lot of her time at the Convention shooting video and doing video spots from in and around the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

She said the classroom experience helped prepare her for the hectic nature of live reporting from inside a hugely crowded political event.

Before they left for Tampa, the students interacted with some professional journalists, including Natalie Jennings from the Post, and received advice on staying calm in the midst of their coverage. Those talks helped reassure Bakshi once she waded into the media fray.

“We only had two passes, so we had to take turns going into the Convention,” Bakshi said. “When it was my turn, I just had this huge smile on my face the entire time I walked in. I took a moment to take it all in, and then I started tweeting and posting updates about the delegation votes while I was right next to all these professional reporters from publications from across the country.”

Bakshi said there’s no way to replicate the on-the-job training she received while covering the Convention. It’s a résumé topper for her until she lands a professional position in front of the camera. But she said her time in the field has prepared her for the rigors of day-to-day life in the broadcast field.

“I was assigned to cover the main event — the Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney speeches,” she said. “I had to do a standup after the event, but the spot where we were located was too dark. I had to borrow a light from a national news organization and give it back to them as quickly as possible because they were packing up. With all the adrenaline flowing through me, I got that standup done in one take.”