COJO students gain real-world experience

Sammi Schrag, Reporter

A lot can change in 25 years.

Social media is shaping the way people communicate. Film for cameras is no longer needed. This couldn’t have been predicted when Frank Robertson was a college student working his way up the ladder. 

But through it all, one thing that hasn’t changed is his love of photography and photojournalism.

As a South Dakota State University student 25 years ago, Robertson’s photography class made the trek to Freeman, South Dakota to document life in a small town for one day. This month, he gave his students the same real-world experience. 

On April 16, now as a professor, Robertson and a group of his students made the same trip to Freeman for a project called “A Day in the Life of Freeman.” There they teamed up with Jeremy Waltner, publisher of the Freeman Courier newspaper, and his high school photography students to embedded themselves into the community and found the hidden treasures of a small town. 

“The idea was to bring to life some of the ordinary things that get overlooked,” said Waltner, a SDSU alumnus who participated in the project as a high school student 25 years ago. “The woman at the convenience store putting coffee on that morning or the garbage truck driver.”

The team of storytellers started at 5 a.m. and went until dark, documenting the town through photo, video, live stream and social media. 

Ten students from the advanced photography and Freeman public photography classes showcased their camera skills, and about 20 students from the advanced multiplatform storytelling class at SDSU conducted interviews and posted to social media. 

As a group, they brainstormed and came up with about 100 different ideas of subjects to photograph and people to talk to.

Their work will be published in a special section of the Freeman Courier, which students can add to their portfolios. 

“Not only will I be able to use these photos in my portfolio,” said senior agriculture communications major Alicia Mogler. “But I will also be able to use the lessons learned when developing ideas for social media platforms and a content calendar, as I have accepted a job with social media responsibilities.”

Robertson and Waltner believe in hands-on experience and give some credit to having done this project 25 years ago for helping shape their careers.

Robertson, who worked at The Collegian during his time studying at SDSU, already had an internship under his belt but compared the student newspaper to the Freeman project.  

“This was something entirely different. Spending a whole day sun up to sun down documenting a community really appealed to me,” Robertson said. 

He then went on to spend the majority of his career in community journalism before becoming a professor. 

Waltner, who had dreams of reporting in a big city like Minneapolis or Chicago said his participation in the project influenced his decision to return to his hometown of Freeman and begin his full-time career in a “big small town.”

A “big small town” is exactly what Landon Dierks, senior journalism major, quickly came to know Freeman as.

“My biggest takeaway was knowing there are stories to be told almost anywhere. Freeman only has a population of around 1,300 people, but a couple of dozen students took more than 12 hours to document the everyday experiences and stories of the community — and most of those stories were planned beforehand,” Dierks said.

It’s for these reasons that Robertson decided to bring this project back, especially once he realized it was the 25th anniversary of his own trip. 

Robertson thanked former Professor Frank Klock and former Freeman Courier publisher Tim Waltner for making this idea come to life all those years ago. It’s an experience he said he will “always be forever grateful for,” and took this chance to give back. 

“With Jeremy and I participating in this 25 years ago as students, to now heading the project up … it feels very full circle,” Robertson said.  

He has traded in the rolls of film for a smartphone, but the goal of the project remained the same. 

“I have chills just thinking about it,” he said.