AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2008

Whetting the Appetite for Storytelling    

A multimedia reporting boot camp flourishes in Northern Ireland.

By Arielle Emmett

I couldn't figure out whether it was Queen Macha or the Philosopher King of Bagel Bean or the Curse of the Green Lady that really got to me when I taught multimedia storytelling in Armagh, Northern Ireland, this past summer.

In less than four weeks, 20 American college students of just about every color and ethnicity tramped around the oldest city in Ireland, the tiny seat of the High Irish Kings and St. Patrick, and made it their own. Like New Age private eyes, these young and inexperienced reporters carried pens and notebooks, digital cameras and video equipment, backpacks loaded with Macintosh laptops. They pried where they shouldn't, listened where they could and wrote and produced multimedia stories of uncommon variety and beauty.

Their subjects? Check out the Web site (www.InArmagh.net) . Kyle Saadeh wrote about the discovery of Vikings in Armagh. Lauren Hicks and Janine Quarles climbed more than 410 steps to interview the 82-year-old carillonneur (bell ringer) of the Catholic St. Patrick's Cathedral. Then the two did the same thing at the Anglican (Church of Ireland) St. Patrick's. The students explored Bramley apple orchards, the Neolithic remains of Navan Fort, the town's 18th century astronomical observatory. They interviewed priests, archaeologists, barkeeps, Uilleann pipers, Gaelic football players, Sinn Fein Council women and a former Irish Republican Army rebel who once bombed the very art gallery space he now owns.

I can't pinpoint any one thing that made the experience so wonderful, exactly. But in short period we managed to do what most multimedia reporting classes of full semesters don't seem to do: create high-energy, motivated journalists who uncover rich tapestries of stories and manage to tell them (quickly and convincingly) with digital tools.

Of course, that's one of the great blessings of boot camp experiences. Nobody sleeps. A group of storytelling, video, Web and photography faculty from Loyola College in Baltimore, Temple University in Philadelphia and Gonzaga University in Spokane airlifted the students from around the country to Belfast and then Armagh, saying: "Here, you're a stranger in a strange land. You've got three weeks to familiarize yourself with the people and the turf and what's hidden here, and you'll work in teams to write, photograph, produce videos and design your own Web sites to tell a unique story."

That was it. We had morning classes in a modern technology center in town, located in a restored Georgian building housing one of Armagh's four public libraries that serve fewer than 20,000 people. Each morning we had tea and coffee and fresh bagels in the shops. Faculty and students all stayed in a modest student hostel situated right next to Jonathan Swift's house (where he wrote "Gulliver's Travels"), with great views of the Gaelic football fields and the twin cathedrals of Armagh. A short walk across Vicar's Hill, the oldest cobblestone street in Ireland, ostensibly haunted by the Green Lady (an alleged Victorian child killer named Bellina Prior) and the place where High King Brian Boru sleeps, and we converged each weekday.

Students got intensive training in writing, interviewing and reporting. They got classes in speech and diction, Irish culture and history, videography and editing on Final Cut Express, photography and Web design. Experiments in student-faculty blogging and journaling, led by Gonzaga's father-son team John and Giovanni Caputo, gave us comic relief and surprises (see (www.armaghnews.blogspot.com). "I have seen a part of the world that is perpetually changing, where the whitest clouds piled high in the sky fall into the darkest bodies of a coming storm," wrote Nora Daly, a Temple journalism student. "The smells, tastes, and the sensation of a different wind can ignite a powerful desire to explore and capture this new setting on film as well as your precious frames of memory."

Our Armagh photo teacher, Temple professor George Miller, sent the students on a scavenger hunt for rare perspectives and subject matter including photographing a local in his or her home. "It forced us to knock on doors," says Temple journalism student Chrissy Doughty. In the video portion, filmmaker Dustin Morrow spent tons of time helping students creatively rework a script or edit a soundtrack. In storytelling, our object was to get students to find a story in an hour, and then to discover a personal voice without the restrictions of inverted pyramids or strict writing formulas.

I've asked myself why our experience was so unlike conventional semester-long multimedia programs. Andy Ciofalo, my boss in Armagh and a journalism professor at Loyola, says it's the experiential learning. Like eating honey with sharp provolone (which Ciofalo does), you savor the moment and evaluate later. There are very few distractions in a small town that locks up tight at 5 p.m., a place where everyone has a big story and everyone wants to talk to you.

The goal isn't to produce cookie-cutter foreign correspondent wannabes. It's the hunger to find a great story and express it with fresh eyes that Ciofalo is looking for. "When students complain they don't have this or that resource in the program, we tell them, 'Just do your work,'" Ciofalo says. "There are no excuses here. The 'home office' needs our Webzine in four weeks. We've never missed a deadline."

And Ciofalo, who started the Institute for Education in International Media programs such as the one in Armagh seven years ago in Italy, doesn't expect miracles from the brief training adventure. "We don't produce multi-media professionals in four weeks," he says. "What we do is whet the appetite for storytelling in all forms so the students want to come back for more."

Arielle Emmett (aemmett@jmail.umd. edu), a former Temple University journalism professor, is studying for a Ph.D. at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.