GREENSBURG – On May 4, 2007, an EF-5 nearly wiped the small, western Kansas town of Greensburg off the map.
Kansas newspaper photographer Cort Anderson arrived in town the same day residents were being allowed back in. He was providing photographs of the storm’s destruction to media outlets across the state.
“They had no other way of getting them,” he said.
After spending a few days helping the local media outlets cover the aftermath of the storm, Anderson said he went back for the South Central Kansas Tornado Recovery Organization’s media day, which included a tour of the town.
That is where he met Matt Deighton, volunteer coordinator for the rebuilding effort.
In talking with Deighton, the journalist in Anderson knew there were many stories to be reported.
“I decided there was a lot going on out there that wasn’t being told,” he said.
That’s when he approached Wichita State University Professor Les Anderson, who teaches writing, reporting and editing classes at the Elliott School of Communication, about taking a class to Greensburg.
“It seemed like everyone you talked to had a story,” Cort Anderson said.
Les Anderson said he was interested in the idea from the beginning because he had worked with Cort Anderson before and knew he was serious.
“He’s very good at what he does. That’s key,” Les Anderson said.
Cort Anderson, who attended Kansas State University, said with his ties there and to the Kansas Press Association, he could have approached any university about taking a class to Greensburg, but he chose WSU.
“I went to Les Anderson first because Les has that great combination of practical and teaching skills,” Cort Anderson said. “It needed to be more than a class. I wanted good stories.”
The two developed a class worth three college credits that would spend two weeks in the town and write stories about the people and places reclaiming what they had prior to the storm. All the content, which would include print stories, audio pieces, video packages and photographs, would be hosted on a Web site ( www.greensburgrebirth.com) developed by Cort Anderson’s company, Indentis LLC, and would be available to Kansas media outlets.
“It’s a multi-month process, but we talked about it fairly soon after the tornado,” Les Anderson said.
The project was called “Greensburg Rebirth: Documenting the Rebuilding of a Community.”
In May 2008, a class of 14 students landed in Greensburg a year after the tornado and created print, audio and video stories of how the town was being reborn. Several of the pieces were used by Kansas media outlets.
“I was happy the first year,” Les Anderson said. “We had some good stories and decent accomplishments. This year, Cort and I figured we had double the number of stories.”
The project was a success, so in May 2009, “Greensburg Rebirth” rode again with 17 students, covering many stories but staying close the central idea of the project – tell stories that haven’t been told before – with the new wrinkles of emphasizing multimedia storytelling and producing a magazine at the end of the project.
Scott Elpers is a print journalism major at WSU’s Elliott School, and when he heard about the project, he said he was excited to sign up for the class.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity for someone in my field,” he said. “You don’t get an opportunity like this very often. As a student, this is a good experience for field work. You have to eat, sleep and breathe it.”
Coming from Wichita, Elpers said he wasn’t used to the small-town atmosphere of the Greensburg, but he said it taught him a lot about reporting. He said he learned to get the personal story behind the facts.
“People react to that better than if you’re just reporting the news,” he said. “Out here everybody knows everybody. I don’t even know who lives next door to me. It’s the people that keep this place together.”
Elpers said the project also taught him how to be more organized and look for ways to incorporate people more heavily into his stories.
All the positives aside, Elpers said he almost didn’t come to Greensburg. Had it not been for the convincing of Les Anderson, he said he would have stayed home, even though he knew he would have missed out on a good experience.
“Something inside of me kept telling myself, ‘You should do this. You should do this,'” he said. “I think this was a great experience.”
Like many others involved in the project, Elpers said he didn’t know what to expect with the project.
“When I got here, I didn’t even know what the town was going to look like,” he said. “I’m completely out of my element.”
Everyone in the class came together, Elpers said, and was willing to help each other make a good product.
“We approached it as a team, and I think that’s why we’ve got what we have,” he said. “We hit the ground running. Everyone was professional. It worked out well.”
Project members’ backgrounds varied greatly, but everyone brought something special to the table.
Graduate student Marathana Prothro works for Mennonite Church USA as the identity director, which means she performs public relations, brand management “and a whole slew of other communication-related things for the denomination.”
A former Newton Kansan reporter, Prothro said the project allowed her to be a reporter again, instead of hiring out the work as she does via her Mennonite Church USA job.
Prothro said she first heard of the project last fall when students spoke at an Anabaptist Communicators national conference she was attending.
“I’m particularly interested in finding ways to use communication skills and tools to help people,” she said. “It seemed like a good opportunity to tell some feel-good stories, plus get three credit hours in two weeks.”
Prothro said her experience in Greensburg also has spurred ideas of how communication can be used within her denomination.
“I think I’m going to blog more,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed that process. I’ve never done it before because I thought it was self-serving, but there’s something to be said about it being a personal reflection process.”
Prothro said she talked with her husband about what they would do in North Newton was destroyed. She wondered if they would stay and rebuild. She said they determined they would stay because they would rather “grow as a community than heal as a lone wolf.”
“One thing I’ve taken away is how important community is,” she said.
One story that made an impact on her, Prothro said, was writing about the Greensburg landfill. She said seeing the amount of trash in the dump shocked her.
“It’s amazing how much waste a small town like Greensburg makes, and it’s supposed to be a green town,” she said.
Project member Courtney Looney said she also had a positive experience while working in Greensburg, especially since she was able to take the photo for the cover of the magazine, which is being produced and will be available for purchase soon.
Coming from a high school journalism background that saw her performing a majority of her interviews via e-mail, Looney said the Greensburg project has made her grow as an interviewer.
“I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here,” she said. “It’s cooler to interview people in person.”
Looney said she was particularly impressed with how friendly the people of Greensburg were, even though she is used to small-town friendliness coming from Lindsborg.
“The interaction with people here has been amazing,” she said. “In smaller towns, people truly, genuinely care about other people.”
Embarking on this journalistic journey has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for Looney.
“Coming into it, I was pretty excited about it,” she said. “Then I got here and saw the town, and I wasn’t so excited.”
By the end, though, Looney said she was enjoying the project, especially working on a story about the Twilight Theatre.
Looney said the president of the theater’s board didn’t want to be in charge, but the people of Greensburg had faith and swayed him to take the job.
Also, Looney said she wrote a story about the local newspaper, the weekly Kiowa County Signal, and its editor, Mark Anderson.
Looney said she could hear the exhaustion and frustration in his voice since he is the only newspaperperson in town, but she said she could tell he loved what he was doing because he is persevering.
“Even though he is frustrated and exhausted, he is still doing that,” she said.
Looney’s hometown has a weekly newspaper, too, The Lindsborg News-Record.
“I think I respect it more,” she said. “I don’t want to work at The (Wichita) Eagle or some place like that because it is too big.”
Looney said after her experiences in Greensburg, she would be more open to taking a job at her hometown paper.
During summer 2009, Looney said she had an internship with The Salina Journal in Salina, and she said she thought that would be the time she would begin to decide what path her journalist career would take.
It happened sooner.
“I really didn’t think that in two weeks I would have gained so much, but I have,” she said. “It has made me realize this is what I want to do with my life because I’ve never had this much real-life experience before. Journalism is what I want to be involved in.”
If the project continues for another year, Looney said she wants to be a part of it.
“It’s a great experience and you don’t get that a lot,” she said. “You learn a lot in the process. Unless you experience it first-hand, you’re not going to know what it’s like.”
Les Anderson agreed.
“It’s a pretty intense two weeks, and I think for the most part people adapted well,” he said.
Nearly all project members agreed that the 2009 version of the project was a good one.
Les Anderson said this year’s team consisted of people with varying degrees of experience and skill levels, and those with less experience “impressed me.”
“We had some good writers and video people,” he said. “Everyone performed well.”
Cort Anderson said it provided the students a chance to learn multimedia journalism, which is growing more important daily in the journalism world, and they got a taste of what it is like to cover a disaster and emotional event.
“I think it’s very successful,” he said. “The students have gotten to do something they might never get to do even in their professional lives.”
The students have voiced their appreciation for the class.
“I’ve had informal feedback from some of them that were happy with what they learned,” Les Anderson said.
With all the positive feelings about the project floating around, Anderson said he was especially happy the project took place considering it almost didn’t happen due to budget cuts.
Anderson said he also appreciated the work of Cort Anderson and Todd Vogts during the two weeks, and the support and guidance provided by visiting professionals — KAKE’s Larry Hatteberg, KWCH’s Megan Strader, The Eagle’s Travis Heying and the ESC’s David Kamerer — who took the time to travel to Greensburg to speak to the students. All but Kamerer had covered the Greensburg tornado.
For Vogts, who graduated in the spring of 2008, it was his second trip to Greensburg. He was a member of the first class. This year, he used vacation days to help with the project.
“It was a team effort,” he said. “It’s obviously more than one person can do and do well.”
In the future, Les Anderson said he wasn’t sure if another year of Greensburg was needed and thought maybe coming back at the five-year anniversary would be most appropriate so all the stories don’t begin to sound the same due to the small population of Greensburg and inherently running into the same people for various stories.
Instead, Anderson said, he had discussed with Cort Anderson the possibility of focusing on another small town and telling its story with multimedia tools just as the project has done for Greensburg.
“I don’t think you have to have a disaster to do something like this,” he said. “I like being away from campus. You can concentrate. You don’t lose focus. You go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. And some people even dreamed about it.”
For more information and to view the work of the students from both years of the “Greensburg Rebirth” project, visit www.greensburgrebirth.com.