Spring Semester Prep 2012 at the Columbia Graduate School

New York Times staffers present "A Year at War"

I enjoyed the great fortune of attending Spring Semester Prep Day 2012 today at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism as a guest of Prof. Sree Sreenivasan, Dean of Student Affairs. This annual mini-conference of academic, career, writing and reporting tips and advice is one of “Dean Sree’s” innovations and welcomes students back from the holiday break before the semester formally begins.

Concurrent events and aggressive students networkers kept me from attending every event, and after the first panel I noted that the busy social media backchannel had already burned halfway through my iPhone battery.

The program opened with a panel featuring the New York Times staffers who produced “A Year at War,” a dynamic interactive story about the ongoing deployment of troops to Afghanistan — and winner of the 2012 duPont-Columbia Award for Digital Reporting.

After lunch, “Rock Center” executive producer Rome Hartman talked about what it’s like to launch a new primetime newscast.

Students in my Peace and Conflict Journalism course at Swarthmore — and journalism students everywhere — are now preparing pitches for stories to cover this semester and Hartman was full of actionable advice.

Hartman says 100 stories or more are pitched for each one that you see on “Rock Center” and that there “are a million reasons to say no.” He looks for “brevity and clarity” in a pitch “in two paragraphs that get me interested.” He also looks for passion and says it should “come through that you’re jazzed.”

Hartman avoids the familiar and likes stories “that take people places they wouldn’t otherwise go” or stories that deliver a “snapshot that illuminates a larger truth.”

I also dropped in on an expert panel called ‘Everything you need to know about business reporting if you aren’t taking a Spring business reporting course” and “Writing – and Publishing – Your First Book” with Prof. Sam Freedman, who runs Columbia’s legendary Book Writing Seminar.

I am rushing back to Philly for our 10th annual Philadelphia Conference “Year in Pictures” event but NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel was scheduled to speak at Columbia this evening and students are planning gather again for a conversation with Lara Logan of CBS news on Friday night.

Above all, it’s hard to ignore the energy, optimism and enthusiasm among the students at Columbia, absolutely undeterred but the economic impediments confronting most traditional media companies. The place just rocks.

If you would like to get a glance at this vibrant community, it’s still not too late to register for the Columbia School of Journalism’s Social Media Weekend on January 27th through 29th: http://bit.ly/smwknd