Immersion journalism leads students into the heart of the Flint Hills

Ask anyone enrolled in the Flint Hills Media Project and they’ll tell you it’s the most engaging, exhausting and rewarding class offered by the Elliott School of Communication. The class has completed the first leg of an intensive three-week experience in total immersion journalism documenting the seventh annual Symphony in the Flint Hills concert, held this year in the Leet Pasture, a stretch of rangeland near Bushong, Kan.

After three class periods of preparation, 21 Wichita State students, two faculty and three support staff left Wichita early Friday morning for northern Lyon County. 

Students spent Friday finding stories in five nearby towns. Project faculty Amy DeVault said when she and Les Anderson developed the Flint Hills Media Project two years ago, they made a conscious decision that covering the small communities and the people of the Flint Hills would be a major component of the class. 

“Many of our students are from Wichita or other urban areas, so getting them into these small towns is worthwhile,” DeVault said. “They always come back saying how shocked they were that the people are so nice, and how fun and interesting their time in these communities was.”

The students, challenged to just show up in these little towns and find stories, said they didn’t know what to expect.

“I was kind of nervous interviewing people,” said WSU senior Ryan Harrell, “but people really enjoyed being interviewed.” 

Saturday, several students arrived at the concert site before dawn and others worked well into the night interviewing, photographing and recording the sites and sounds of the annual event that draws about 7,500 people to the Kansas Flint Hills for a day of music, education and enrichment. 

“I learned more about journalism in the last week than I have in the past two years of classes,” said Alex Poston, a WSU senior.  

Students filed stories on Saturday to “The Wichita Eagle” and “Lawrence Journal World.” 

“Students wrote and edited in a pasture, with 40-mile-per-hour winds and no Internet,” DeVault said. “That’s pretty incredible.”  

A Flint Hills Media Project 2011 alumni, Adrian Fox, drove the stories and photos to Admire, the closest Wi-Fi, sending them at 7:58 p.m. for an 8 p.m. deadline. Late Saturday night, back at the hotel, students filed two video stories with Wichita TV station KWCH. First thing Monday morning additional stories were filed with “The Ottawa Herald” and the “Council Grove Republic” and made available to any newspaper in Kansas. 

This week, back in Elliott Hall, the class is turning reams of notes, thousands of photographs and hours of video into a comprehensive account of Saturday’s events for a 100-page magazine and web content. 

New to co-teaching the class this year, Professor Kevin Hager said it’s bigger than he expected —in a good way. 

“The concentration of the class, compared to a couple-times-a-week class, is a real opportunity. It’s your life for a few weeks,” he said. “You don’t have the downtime to forget stuff.” 

Many of the students have mentioned the value of this class and the intensity of immersion journalism. 

“This class actually throws you out there into the midst of things and allows you to get your hands dirty,” said senior Jacob Riggs.

Erin Snodgrass, a communications senior, said, “I’m used to being stuck in front of the computer all the time, so it was really fun to move around and experience it—like laying down in the grass and shooting photos from interesting angles.” 

Immersion journalism was the brainchild of Anderson who died unexpectedly last November. He started this hands-on class years ago as a tour of small Kansas newspapers. In time the class developed into immersion journalism, covering big, in-depth stories including the Greensburg, Kan., tornado. Anderson was integral to getting the class involved with Symphony in the Flint Hills. 

This is the third summer that the Flint Hills Media Project has documented the all-day event and the surrounding communities. Returning for a second time to the project, WSU senior Ishi Regier said, “I asked myself, ‘What would Les do?’ and I think he’d be proud. It was good.”

To see the work of these students go to FlintHillsMediaProject.com, like the project on Facebook or follow Flint Hills Media on Twitter (@WSUfhmp).