Commencement 2016: Mountaineer tackles new journalism one step at a time

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URI senior took first steps to career goals in school newspaper office

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 11, 2016 — University of Rhode Island senior and mountain climber Ryan Wichelns plans to change the way longform journalism is delivered to the masses, an ambition matched in scale only by the mountains he’s summited.


However, like the first peaks he reached early in his mountaineering career, Wichelns’ journalism career goals weren’t always as lofty as they are now, as he’s set to receive his Bachelor’s degree in journalism at Commencement on May 22.


Wichelns always knew he wanted to get into journalism, but it was his life-changing decision to join the staff of the University’s student newspaper, The Good 5-Cent Cigar, that helped formulate his desire to not just join the industry, but to redefine it. At the end of his sophomore year, his friend and editor-in-chief of The Cigar, Alli Farrelly, encouraged him to join the staff, and he knew immediately what he wanted to accomplish at the newspaper.


His first mission was to redesign The Cigar’s website, which hadn’t changed much from its initial launch in 2001.


“I made that my summer project so that it would be ready by September,” Wichelns said. “We had no control of the website, it was constantly down, it was impossible to find anything and links were a total mess.


“I think we rejuvenated the paper and increased the reach on campus. Even though we weren’t printing as many copies of the print edition, readership and participation from the student body went up.”


Of course, redesigning the website and working with the staff of The Cigar only whetted Wichelns’ appetite to take on his own projects. Though he’s written freelance pieces for Outside Magazine, Backpacker Magazine and various other blogs and websites, Wichelns, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., sees an opportunity to innovate and transform the delivery of compelling stories.


“It’s more difficult today to have as much success doing the same old traditional journalism,” he said. “Writing is my favorite part of journalism, but combining the writing with multimedia on the web is such a cool way to tell stories, and it’s not really being done on a wide scale yet. That’s the direction I’d like to take my career.”


Of course, to tell a compelling story in journalism, one must first find it or experience it. Wichelns opted for the latter when he and a couple of friends decided to become the first climbers to make the Brooks-Silverthrone Traverse, a journey across five peaks higher than 11,000 feet in Denali National Park, Alaska. Wichelns recruited middle school buddies and fellow climbers Gabe Messercola and Geoff Lyman, along with Greg Zegas (a college friend of Messercola’s), to form a climbing team. Wichelns and Messercolas — who have both hiked all 46 peaks higher than 4,000 feet in the Adirondacks — led the Alaskan expedition, with Lyman running base camp and Zegas serving as medical officer.


The group spent three weeks hiking the north ridge of Mount Silverthrone north over the Tripyramids to Mount Brooks; An excruciating, exhilarating and exhausting journey of endurance, fortitude and soul searching.


Wichelns knew this trek was about more than pushing his own limits as a climber or experiencing the majesty of Alaska’s glaciers. He turned it into a senior project with the intention of documenting the journey through a field journal, photography, video, maps, graphs and animation, which he later culled into a spectacular longform multimedia piece for his website, AdirondackSherpa.net.


The piece now serves as the foundation for his future ambitions.


“I tried to make it so that someone like my parents, with no climbing experience, can read it and enjoy it, while creating a resource for other climbers looking for information about what it was really like up there in this climbing hotspot for which there is very little documentation,” he said. “Obviously, the writing is a big part of the project, and I learned a lot about it here in the URI Journalism Department. I had gotten a lot of training and experience in journalism, and I had taken some video and editing courses that played a big part in the project as well.”


From there, Wichelns was on his own, learning website design and how to organize and weave together the massive quantity of information into a cohesive digital multimedia presentation.


“This was, first and foremost, an honors program senior project, so I knew I had to produce something incredible,” he said. “We got back from Alaska in July and I immediately began writing and going through all of my multimedia. The bulk of my time was spent writing and sketching out how to lay all this out on the web. It took me more than four months. There was a lot of research and trial and error.”


Wichelns hopes to build on that experience to make similar projects more viable for mass media consumption. He acknowledged the influence of a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece in The New York Times titled “Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” which set the standard for longform multimedia journalism on the Web in 2012, but noted how difficult it is for any media organization to take on such projects with any sort of regularity.


“‘Snowfall’ took months and months and a massive in-house team from the Times staff, including the reporter, web people and graphic designers, to create it,” he said. “The software I’ve been using has been revolutionary, and made it much simpler to put a piece like this together. I’d like to find a way to translate those skills to put projects like this in the freelance realm, so that media outlets don’t have to devote so much manpower and so many resources to developing them.”


As an accomplished mountaineer, Wichelns knows every journey begins with the first step and, looking back, he’s happy he stepped into the offices of The Good 5-Cent Cigar to begin his journalism career.


“I regret not getting involved in The Cigar earlier,” he said. “Professor John Pantalone used to always try to get people involved and he said it’s the best thing you can do in URI journalism. He was 100 percent correct that it’s the best thing you can do for your journalism career, regardless of the type of journalism you plan to go into. My goals and aspirations may not be for print, but my experience there was unbelievably helpful.”


Pictured above

University of Rhode Island senior Ryan Wichelns traverses a ridge at the summit of Mount Silverthrone – more than 13,000 feet above sea level – during his 2015 expedition to Denali National Park in Alaska. Wichelns turned his journey across five peaks higher than 11,000 feet into a piece of longform, multimedia Web journalism for an Honors Program senior project.

Photo courtesy of Gabe Messercola