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Journalism students overcame the challenges of a campus shutdown to produce mini-documentaries

Jun 12, 2020

Posted in: News

By Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

A Zoom session of the class of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture’s broadcast journalism documentary capstone course. (Photo courtesy of William G. Oglesby)

Virginia Commonwealth University broadcast journalism students in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture’s documentary capstone course normally work all semester to produce short documentaries, which are then broadcast on Richmond public television station VPM as part of a show called “VCU InDepth.”

This spring, of course, was anything but normal. When in-person classes were halted in March and instruction went online, students in the class had finished shooting the bulk of the footage they needed for their documentaries, but had yet to do much writing or editing.

“When all VCU courses went online, [the students] were told they did not have to edit their video into a final doc, because they did not have access to the VCU editing stations,” said course instructor William G. Oglesby, Ph.D., associate professor and undergraduate journalism sequence coordinator in the Robertson School, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“The Robertson School, though, paid for editing software for any students who did not already have it on their personal computers, which led most of the students in the class to decide to edit their docs together as best they could,” Oglesby said.

Oglesby said he had tempered his expectations for this spring’s documentaries given the challenges created by the pandemic. However, when students presented their final work at the end of the semester he was “stunned at the quality they had managed to produce under such difficult circumstances.”

“While I had told them we would probably be unable to air the ‘VCU InDepth’ programs we had planned, I knew once I saw the dedication they put into their docs that I had to try and make it happen,” he said. “I was able to work out the timing for four complete 30-minute programs using five documentaries from the capstone class, along with two mini-documentaries that were produced by students in the Robertson School's Multimedia Journalism master's program.”

The first two documentaries — one on the history of the slave trade in Richmond and the other on food access in Virginia — will premiere on “VCU InDepth” today, June 12, at 7 p.m., and will be rebroadcast on June 15 at 7 p.m. “VCU InDepth” can be viewed on WCVW-TV VPM Plus/Richmond PBS, on Channel 24 (797 or 1057 HD) on Comcast and Verizon Fios; Channel 57 on DirecTV; and over the air on digital 44.1.

The first of Friday’s documentaries, “The Price of a Life: The Richmond Slave Trade,” was produced by Robertson School students Benjamin Mendez, Jackson Myers and Cameron Palazzo. It features interviews with a number of experts, including Janine Bell, president and artistic director of Elegba Folklore Society; Bill Martin, director of The Valentine; and Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

Mendez said he, Myers and Palazzo overcame significant challenges in finalizing their documentary.

“When the pandemic started things dramatically changed,” he said. “We no longer had a common editing space to meet up at, so it moved into group video calls with Cameron doing the majority of the editing on his computer. Jackson would also be present then, usually commenting to Cameron what could be fixed up more.”

Mendez’s job in Richmond shut down, and he ended up moving to Philadelphia to quarantine with extended family. He also had to pick up three different jobs to generate income for rent and tuition.

“Jackson and Cameron during this time period truly stepped up as both professional group members and good friends as they knew what I was dealing with,” he said. “They picked up the majority of the editing process and thanks to them we saw our project go from almost being canceled to being something that I would have never imagined be so powerful to watch. I am really thankful to have met them. Much of what we faced, everyone else in our class also faced the same challenges, from becoming adjusted to group video calls, to finding a balance between working during a pandemic and finding time to edit. We all strived to make sure our stories would not go unfinished.”

The second documentary, “Food Access for All,” was produced by Cecilia Kim, a graduate student in the Robertson School’s Multimedia Journalism master’s degree program. The documentary features interviews with leaders of Central Virginia hunger-relief organization Feed More; Christine Wansleben, owner and culinary director of Mise En Place; and several Virginia food producers.

Future mini-documentaries produced by the class will air on “VCU InDepth” on June 26, July 3 and July 10, with each one rebroadcast the following Monday at the same time.

“It was obvious to me in viewing these docs that they had become a labor of love for the students, and to say I was impressed that they challenged themselves to create a final product with all the challenges they faced would be an understatement,” Oglesby said. “Not only were they not on location at the campus, they were individually quarantined in different places; often different cities.”

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