One day, they live-tweeted the birth of a calf. One day, bull-riding cowboys stomped 20 feet from the newsroom. And after a few days in their makeshift newsroom, students from Ball State University got a new housekeeping schedule from their teacher and editor “because of all the manure getting tracked into the trailer,” Colleen Steffen said in an email.
Since August 1, 25 students have embedded at the Indiana State Fair. They’re live-tweeting calf births and sampling fair foods, but they’re also uncovering the stories that they’ve passed right by all their lives. Like the school’s program in Sochi, BSU Journalism at the Fair embeds students who sign up for the class to work as a team of freelance journalists at the fair.
They’re working as photographers, Web designers, writers, graphic artists, copy editors and in public relations. They work from a trailer on the fairgrounds. And like in Sochi, their work is picked up by media organizations. For the course, they work as professional journalists.
“And then the coolest thing happens — they turn into that before our very eyes,” said Steffen, who worked in Sochi as the assistant to her husband, Ryan Sparrow, a journalism instructor and the director of BSU at the Games. “It’s an amazing experience, but it’s also quite expensive because of all the plane tickets to Russia involved. So I had the idea to use the same model closer to home. BSU at the Games: Now With More Cows!”
Jordan Huffer didn’t make it to Sochi or London, where Ball State students covered the summer Olympics in 2012.
“It sounded really cool,” she said.
But then she found out how much it cost (students had to pay for the class as well as airline tickets, hotel and food.) So when she heard about the fair project, it sounded like the other two trips, “but a bit more local and a bit more affordable.”
So far, she said, it’s been an adventure, even if she’s worn out and stinks a bit. Some of her fellow student journalists did go to Sochi and she has heard that reporting there was very fast-paced. At the fair, they’re busy, but they have the time to find and develop stories.
“It’s completely different,” agreed Dakota Crawford, an incoming senior who also reported from Sochi.
Obviously Russia and Indiana are completely different, but the reporting is, too. At the fair, the students can go anywhere, talk to anyone. There’s no language barrier, no passes needed to get in.
There’s also lots of drinkable water.
In Sochi, the students had no credentials, stayed on a cruise ship and even if they found people, often couldn’t speak the language to get good stories.
“Russia was the best practice,” he said, “because you go out and the stories aren’t there. You can’t just go out and write event stories, it’s hard to find sources.”
“I think we need to reexamine the state fair as a study of people with really off-the-wall hobbies,” Huffer said.
Huffer and Crawford have both come to the fair every year since they were little. Reporting from the fair is a totally different experience, though.
“I think there’s a difference between participating and observing, and I’m getting to observe and it’s so profound because there’s so many things I would have missed as a participant.”
In the past, she and her friends come into the fair and walk right through the Pioneer Village. This year, Huffer said, she made her best images at that spot.
“It allows you to step back, slow down a little bit,” Crawford agreed.
Huffer photographed a tractor pull. She found a man who made jigsaw puzzles the size of postage stamps. She photographed a bat exhibition.
“Just seeing the wide variety of people that all come together for this one thing has been very, very interesting.”
Crawford is blogging about eating a fair food a day. He likes the deep fried Oreos. The deep-fried Samoas were weird. He also tried something called The Doughnut Burger, which, according to the video below, was “so much better than it looks.”
Steffen wants them to look past what’s obvious, Crawford said, and find the stories others are passing. And sometimes, they pass those stories themselves. Until the stories call out to them.
Crawford walked by a parking lot attendant who, after saying hello, shouted out “where are the women at?”
So Crawford turned around and the two started talking.
Turns out that man has worked at the fair for 31 years. He knows every corner. And he loves his job because when people come to the fair, he told Crawford, they’re always smiling.
“No big media group is going to talk to him,” Crawford said.
But he did for a few minutes that day in the parking lot, and then he went back and found the man again.
Steffen, who worked as a features writer for 13 years, loves covering the fair for the obvious reasons, she said — being out of the office and getting to eat all those elephant ears. (I asked. They’re like big, flat funnel cakes with cinnamon and sugar.)
“More importantly, they’re story heaven,” she said of the fair. “Weird, wonderful, touching, surprising — county and state fairs just offer a compelling cross-section of humanity and every variety of story you could want to tell if you take a minute to try to appreciate them.”