Best field trip ever: The story of Ball State students headed to London to cover the Games

In about 45 days, students from the journalism and telecommunications departments at Ball State University will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cover the Olympic Games in London. The immersive-learning experience will allow those who have excelled in the classroom and in student media a chance to showcase their skills on a world stage.

Ryan Sparrow, instructor of journalism at Ball State and Best of Digital Design competition coordinator for the Society for News Design, will be leading the program, BSU at the Games.

One of the biggest reasons for developing the program, Sparrow says, was out of a need to remind students that even in a time of tumult, journalism can still be exciting.

“There has been so much doom and gloom over the last four or five years, I don’t see students as being excited to be a journalist (anymore). They needed to see being at a newspaper or working in a news environment is really cool. Journalists don’t do this for the money, they do it for the opportunity to tell cool stories, and what cooler story is there to tell than the Olympics?”

With less than 48 hours before heading to London, Sparrow was able to chat more about the ins and outs of the program he will be leading. Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

So, tell me about the students you’re taking to London.

About 40 students and two other advisers are part of the Olympics experience, and they’re broken into specialty teams. The speciality teams are features reporting, sports reporting, graphics reporting, photojournalism and public relations.

In the beginning, we didn’t know what this thing was going to become, it was just an idea, “Let’s go to England and see if we can find stories.” As the idea evolved, I remembered Ball State has an alumnus who is a sports editor at the Chicago Tribune. Early on, I called him up and it turned out he is one of the key people planning their Olympics coverage. They were cutting back on how many people they could send, so, he said we could tentatively plan on working together. When that happened it gave me a spark of what this project could be. We’re also partnering with WTHR, the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis. We’ll be doing galleries and blogging for their online presence. They’re likely to run a couple of our segments on air.

What have students done to prepare themselves for the work they’re supposed to execute once the games begin?

We started a spring semester course, which was a challenge because we had a long build up. We showed people how serious we were about this by not just talking about it and going, but really planning our coverage over the whole semester. A lot of what the Olympics is and does starts kicking off right about now, so to form a spring semester class was a definite show of good faith by the university. There weren’t a lot of athletes who had been chosen at the start, so we did a lot of preliminary research, a lot of talking about what things would be like, and then we broke off into our groups and started working. Among other things, the graphics students did one-off graphics and logos, our reporting students did stories on past Olympians and the PR students worked on building the website for us.

What are the storytelling goals for the project?

When I first started thinking about the project, I was really afraid we would be stretching ourselves to find things to report on and send back, but now I’m not worried about that at all. We got a really good head start on social media outreach, and because of that, we’ve actually gotten in touch with a lot of athletes. We also attended an Olympics media summit in Dallas in early May where we had direct contact with athletes and basically got some one-on-one time to show folks we were really serious about this. Most students should be able to get more than one really great story that they can bring home and be proud of.

Will students receive Olympic credentials?

Another key partner in this project is Vanessa Virbitsky, a former Ball State graduate student who now works in the communications office for the U.S. Olympic Committee. She said there was absolutely no way students would get credentialed to the games, but there were plenty of non-credentialed areas that will still offer access to the athletes. We will have credentials into a cultural center about British history and the Olympics.

What will your team of designers be working on?

That’s actually a pretty good story; as this thing grew bigger and bigger, I realized there was no way I was going to be able to give the graphics students the real direction they’re going to need when they arrive in London. But, since we’re already partnering with the Chicago Tribune — and there are now three Ball State graduates working in its graphics department — I called Jonathon Berlin, and made the offer to cover room and board for one of his graphics artists, if he would allow them to direct the graphics editing portion of our program and pay for that artist’s flight. He agreed and is sending Alex Bordens, who graduated in 2008. For Ball State, that’s another win because we have an alumnus giving back his time and talent to a great project that will help student work get published in the Tribune. Besides producing graphics in London, when the designers get back they will produce an iPad digital book about the Ball State Olympics experience.

As an adviser, what are you most looking forward to about the trip?

I’m most looking forward to seeing students’ work in a publication and on a news station that I’ve always looked up to. That’s going to be a pretty cool moment. And to wrap it up, one of the things I really get to do is show them that journalism can be cool. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m looking forward to seeing that on their faces. The U.S. Olympics Committee has told us they don’t know of any other university attempting something of this magnitude, and that was another pretty cool moment.

Where can we stay updated on the work your students are producing?

You can visit bsuatthegames.com, follow @bsuatthegames on Twitter or, “Like” BSU at the Games on Facebook.

(Kyle Ellis is a designer for CNN Digital in Atlanta and a graduate of the journalism graphics program at Ball State University. Follow him on Twitter @kyleellis.)