ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Joe Infantino, NewsHouse, Syracuse University

By Sara LaMachiaCMM correspondent

Last fall, students in a web journalism and innovation class at Syracuse University constructed a comprehensive multimedia reporting package detailing the legacy of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing.

As the package’s “About” page explains, “December 21, 1988 changed our world forever. For the communities at Syracuse University and the Scottish town of Lockerbie it was an especially dark day. All 259 passengers aboard Pan Am Flight 103 including 35 SU students, plus 11 villagers on the ground, perished from the actions of those determined to do evil. Now 25 years later, the many stories of what happened on that fateful flight, the many ways society has adjusted and many aspirations of converting the pain into a call for world peace persist.”

With editorial persistence and digital eloquence, the SU student team — led by professors Jon Glass and Dan Pacheco — documented the timeline of the tragedy and its aftermath, the stories behind the SU Orangemen and women who were killed, the subsequent intertwining of a New York school and a Scottish town thousands of miles away and the age of terrorism and heightened security that has emerged in the wake of the flight’s bombing.

Joe Infantino, 22, a native of Media, Pa., was a student in the web journalism and innovation class. He was charged with putting together the timeline portion of the project. As he recalls, the timeline group’s aim was to present information in a way that connected readers personally to the story — the story of both the attack itself and its footprint on the SU community a quarter century later.

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The project — headlined “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Legacy of Pan Am Flight 103” — has been named one of the winners of the 2014 ACP Multimedia Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Infantino, a May 2014 graduate of SU, discusses his work on the project and offers advice to student journalists interested in undertaking a similarly comprehensive multimedia report.

Joe Infantino, 22, a native of Media, Pa., is a recent graduate of Syracuse University. While at SU, he majored in newspaper and online journalism.

Joe Infantino, 22, a native of Media, Pa., is a 2014 graduate of Syracuse University. While at SU, he majored in newspaper and online journalism.

What compelled you tackle your portion of the project? Were you allowed to choose which part you wanted to work on or were they assigned?

We were all assigned a part of the project. Our professors initially had come up with ideas we were interested in tackling, then they let us loose to come up with the most ambitious things we could come up with. They sorted through those ideas and students with similar suggestions were paired together to work on what they had suggested.

For example, I suggested doing an interactive map of the crash site in Lockerbie. I forget what my partners did, but we all wanted to go in-depth and get a lot of background on the project.

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How did the project overall come together?

We were coming up on the anniversary of the Pan Am bombing and we wanted to do a big dedication to all the students, families and everyone in every location and country who was affected by it. That was the big picture goal. We were under a bit of a time crunch. We had a full semester to work on it, so we set up smaller goals as teams to mark our progress. We were all part of an interactive news storytelling class and the professors came up with the idea to do a dedication or anniversary story for the bombing and as an entire class it was a collective process as we just kind of sat there and tried to think of the best ways to tell the story with a new approach. The professors presented us with a skeleton of the project and we filled it in. But a lot of it was free rein. It was a very collective process.

How did your group decide what to include and leave out of the timeline? What did the group feel was most important to highlight?

As you can imagine, there was tons of stuff we could have added. … We were a little hesitant because we were the introduction to the project. We had to do something where we got all of the basics down, which is pretty difficult to do in a situation like this. But we went out and started to research what other projects had been done and surprisingly there have been other people who have done timelines of the events — even the university had a version of an interactive timeline. Wo we looked at them, but we began to notice that they were filled with huge amounts of information. We were looking for something different, with a more simplistic approach to it. We broke everything down into four parts: the attack itself, the investigation, the trial and then the implications of [everything] 25 years later.

We tried to take out the main points under each of those categories and highlight them. While this was a big project and it had gotten some wide attention, we wanted people who were familiar with the events to be able to connect with it while others who didn’t know much about it could learn about it in a way that they didn’t feel like they were missing a big part of the picture. We tried to keep it personal as well, not necessarily as something that someone could relate to but feel [some] attachment [toward]. … Even though we did the trial and the hunt for the suspects, we really tried to focus on the Syracuse students, which wasn’t hard to do when it dealt with so many Syracuse students. … We didn’t want it to be a laborious experience. We wanted people to be able to sit back and get ingrained into it. That was one thing that stood out from the university’s timeline — you really had to lean forward and dive into it. Our timeline was a little more passive, but you’re still getting the picture.

“Journalism is as great a public service as there is, but it also allows me to be a little bit selfish in the sense that I get to go out and hear so many great stories. Many times, I’m the first one to hear them. I enjoy the responsibility of recounting those stories in an appropriate way.”

What did you learn or what surprised you as you dived deeper into the project?

The biggest thing for me was how connected the two communities had become. I understand the relationship has always stayed intact since the attack. I read stories … on how so many people are connected to this event. It’s amazing how broad and deep the connections are. [It was recently] Remembrance Week at Syracuse. So it’s something that’s on every student’s mind every year, and I don’t think it’s ever any less emotional or touching to see how affected people are 25 years later. So overall I’m just thoroughly amazed at how much of a spider web this thing [has built]. It’s a tragic thing, but it can connect you with so many people you never thought you might have ever had anything in common with.

What advice would you offer student journalists interested in tackling a similarly in-depth multimedia reporting project?

I was the tech leader of my group, so if someone were to do something similar, I would say that a story hasn’t been told unless you have told it. I think some people might see doing another project like this not as a drag but as “What else can I add to this?” and “If they don’t know the full magnitude to this story, what am I really going to add to this?” There is always a different side to the story. Like I said, if you haven’t told it, there’s a story that needs to be told. So go in and be open to approaching it with an open mind. You may even begin to connect with someone you never thought you would have. Even if it’s one or a couple of people, you’re going to be able to tell a story you wouldn’t have been able to tell before.

Separately, what compelled you to study journalism in school? And do you intend to continue in the field now that you’ve graduated?

I never have a good answer for this one. When friends and family ask, I sort of joke around and say I wasn’t much good at anything else. The obvious answer is that I like to tell people’s stories. Journalism is as great a public service as there is, but it also allows me to be a little bit selfish in the sense that I get to go out and hear so many great stories. Many times, I’m the first one to hear them. I enjoy the responsibility of recounting those stories in an appropriate way.

I am currently working at a company called The Advisory Board in Washington D.C., where I’m writing about healthcare policy. The company itself is a healthcare consulting firm, but there is a news division part of it. So I like to think I’m still keeping up with it and seeing it as a way to gain expertise in a subject I don’t yet know  a lot about. A dream gig would be writing feature stories for The Wall Street Journal, mainly because I love that publication. Their feature stories … always have such an awesome tone and a great writing style. … I think it’s important as a student journalist to take the feature section more seriously. It’s not just a fluff piece of the paper. It can be a way to tell great stories.

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