ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Avery Maehrer, Editor-in-Chief, The Temple News, Temple University

By Karen Funaro, Garrett Miley & Leigh Anne TiffanyCMM correspondents

This past May, The Temple News unveiled a special long-form multimedia report documenting the effects of major athletics program cuts on the Temple University community.

“Chop, Boom, You’re Gone” was the culmination of five months of reporting on the Philadelphia school’s decision to eliminate seven non-revenue sports (later reduced to five). Stitched together from content previously published, posted and produced by the Temple News team, the six-part narrative guides readers through the shock of the elimination announcement to the teams completing their final seasons and the student-athletes and coaches coping with the loss of their sports and figuring out how to move on.

According to Temple News editor-in-chief Avery Maehrer, who served as the paper’s sports editor when “Chop, Boom, You’re Gone” premiered, “This project really shifted my focus in what … I believed was possible to do with the student newspaper.”

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The special report has been named the second-place winner of the 2014 ACP Multimedia News 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, Maehrer discusses the staff’s motivation for creating the report, the many all-nighters it required and the memorable interview he conducted with a Temple legend that inspired the main headline.

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Avery Maehrer, a native of Macungie, Pa., is a Temple University senior and editor-in-chief of The Temple News.

What compelled the staff to report on the story via a long-form multimedia package?

We started talking about the day of the cuts. We had spent that entire day reporting. I was the sports editor at the time. I was with my assistant sports editor and Joey Cranney, who was our editor-in-chief at the time. We knew about it before anyone else. We broke the story that day after the athletes were informed of the cuts. I was standing outside of the building as the athletes came filing out and that’s sort of when I realized how big of a story this was and how emotional it was — just seeing athlete after athlete walk out of the student pavilion in tears and yelling and cursing because this was something that affected their lives.

Many described it as [feeling] like their family was being torn apart. Many athletes transferred. Many athletes had to make life-changing decisions because of it. Even that day we had discussions about doing some sort of long-form package. We knew every year that Temple News does some sort of special project at the end of the year. In the past, we’ve done documentaries and we usually just hire someone to do some of the work for that, but this year we really wanted to push ourselves and make this a staff project.

How big of an undertaking was this from a production perspective?

It was pretty much everyone on staff having some level of involvement. As the sports editor, one of my main responsibilities was overseeing the production of the content. … We had to report on it throughout the entire semester. We were really compiling all of the reporting [subsequently] into this one long-form [package]. The cuts happened after the last issue of fall [2013], so over winter break I worked with my assistant and my beat writers and other members of staff who had never written about sports before and who were now writing about sports because this was such a huge story. We laid out our budget. We found different angles to go at and to write about the story. And we really just went from there.

The photographers were amazing. They assigned beats to their freelancers, which was the first time they really did anything like that. They had a different photographer covering each sport throughout the semester. The multimedia reporters did a great job producing video for us. We really, really pushed ourselves to get everyone involved. I would say a majority of the people who were involved were from my section because it was a sports-based story, but certainly there were dozens and dozens of people who had involvement in this.

How did the report’s headline — “Chop, Boom, You’re Gone” — come about?

After we broke the story [in December 2013] and did a few pieces later that day on student reactions, I still really wanted to reach out to as many of the coaches and as many of the athletes as I could. So a day or two after the cuts, I just started calling people. I spent the entire day trying to get in touch with everyone I could.

Originally, the university cut seven sports. It was later reduced to five. But two of the original sports cut were crew and rowing. And one of the people I talked to was Gavin White. He is one of the most legendary coaches at our school. He is just an amazing guy to talk to. His father was an athletic director here and he’s been with the university for more than four decades. He’s still coaching the team today. I talked to him as I saw him walk out of the building the day after the cuts. I asked him if he wanted to talk to me and he gave me his phone number and I called him.

I think the question I asked him was … “You’ve been here 40 years. You’ve found out your sport was cut from a guy who was appointed last month. Were you told before or was this very sudden for you?” And he responded, saying, “No, it was very quick. Chop, boom, you’re gone.”

I was then up all night. I pulled an all-nighter writing this story a few days after the cuts. I spent about an hour trying to think of the headline and then I saw that quote and thought, “That’s it.” It was so strong we decided to use it as the quote for the overall project because it really summed everything up pretty well.

“We broke the story that day after the athletes were informed of the cuts. I was standing outside of the building as the athletes came filing out and that’s sort of when I realized how big of a story this was and how emotional it was — just seeing athlete after athlete walk out of the student pavilion in tears and yelling and cursing because this was something that affected their lives.”

Explain the publishing and content repackaging plan.

All of it was being reported as we were getting it. We weren’t holding anything until May. We were reporting on it throughout the semester. As we were doing that, we were building this platform to present all of the content and tell the story in this special long-form type of presentation. We published dozens of stories on the athletic cuts throughout the semester, so combining those and making it flow took a very long time — many all-nighters, many late nights in our newsroom.

As you reflect on the project now, what specific memory or moment comes to mind?

What I remember most from [the day the cuts were announced] was standing outside of the student pavilion and watching the students walk out in tears and screaming and seeing them so upset. That’s when it hit me how big this project was. One of my friends and someone who worked at the Temple News, Ali Watkins, was on the rowing team. Seeing one of my colleagues and one of my friends walk out with her teammates, having been dealt this news, it almost changed me as a reporter. This project really shifted my focus in what I wanted to do as an editor with the Temple News and what I believed was possible to do with the student newspaper.

What was the staff’s reaction when you learned you were an ACP Story of the Year finalist?

We were thrilled. Any time we’re nominated for an award, it feels good. Being recognized is very rewarding in itself. We don’t write stories and we don’t report on these difficult issues to win awards. We do it to live up to our goal of being a watchdog for the Temple University community. But certainly being recognized for your hard work feels very good and we’re very honored to be named a finalist among all the other candidates.

What’s your advice for student journalists interested in tackling a comprehensive project?  

Do your best to excite writers about a topic. They need to be as invested in the project as you are. A project of this magnitude requires a huge amount of teamwork.

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