Photo of two people flying a drone in the Carrier Dome

The future of news: Professionals, students come to Newhouse for innovative drone journalism training

By Wendy S. Loughlin

July 11, 2017

Drone journalism may still be in its infancy, but the use of drones for news coverage has been a focus of students at the Newhouse School for the past several years.

Dan Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair in Journalism Innovation at Newhouse, first introduced drones into the curriculum in late 2012. Since then, in courses like New Tech for New Media, Pacheco has steadily provided students with hands-on training in the emerging technologies that will likely shape and transform the media industry, including drones. He has also sponsored student participation in the DARC (Drone & Aerial Robotics Conference), and helped found a student group focusing on drone technology, which he advises. 

Dan Pacheco operates a drone in the Carrier Dome in early 2014

The Skyworks Project, which is incubated in Newhouse’s Alan Gerry Center for Media Innovation, works on building, designing and researching drone technology, as well as drone photography and videography. The interdisciplinary group was founded in 2013 and includes students from Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) and School of Information Studies, in addition to the Newhouse School.

Within the Gerry Center, the Innovation Lab is headquarters for Skyworks, housing equipment and serving as a meeting space. “Dan and the Gerry Center provided the Skyworks Project with incredible opportunities,” says CEO Kyle Foley, a former ECS student. “Since the Innovation Lab dealt with the new and emerging tech in media, we were able to combine forces and come up with some crazy drone ideas, one of which included putting 360 cameras on a drone. This taught us a ton about 360 video, considering that it was no small feat to mount [the cameras] to a drone.”

This past spring, the Newhouse School took its drone activities to the next level as one of four schools nationwide to host an innovative new program to train journalists in the use of drones. 

The program, held April 21-23 on campus, featured a series of workshops as well as hands-on introductory flight training sponsored by DJI, a leading drone technology company. Participants learned about safe drone operations, legal and ethical issues of drone journalism, community best practices and coordinated operations in a breaking news environment. They also explored ways drone photography can be used in innovative storytelling.

In addition, participants received information to help them prepare for the exam for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 Drone Pilot’s Certificate, which is required for non-recreational drone operators.

The program was developed by the Poynter Institute in partnership with Google News Lab, Drone Journalism Lab, National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and DJI.

“Every journalist now has the opportunity to cover events with flying cameras that provide a bird’s-eye view, which is extraordinary,” Pacheco said when the workshop was announced. “But it doesn't stop there. When we combine drones with 360 video cameras and virtual reality viewers like we're doing at Newhouse, we can give viewers the sensation that they’re actually in the drones as events unfold below them.”

Workshop participants flying drones in Manley Field House Tony Cenicola

Tony Cenicola, a photographer with The New York Times, enrolled in the program. He says he has always been interested in aerial photography and even took flying lessons many years ago, but never earned his pilot’s license. He’d had only limited drone photography experience before he took part in the Newhouse training session; within two weeks, he had earned his FAA license.

Cenicola has been on staff at The Times for 17 years. He says his new skills provide added job security. “It is a great addition to my arsenal. I shoot a lot of real estate and travel stories and love having the ability to get off the ground. My favorite use is [at] low altitude, pictures that are not so obviously aerial but really are only 10-20 feet off the ground. It’s great to have the ability to get that perspective without mounting a ladder to the roof of my car—which I have done.” (Some examples of Cenicola’s work for The Times can be seen here and here.)

Student Jason Mussman also participated in the workshop. A dual major in television, radio and film in the Newhouse School and information management and technology in the School of Information Studies, Mussman is a rising senior.

“I have always been fascinated by drones and emerging technology,” he says. “I believe that drones open up new possibilities for storytelling and can help push the boundary of what’s possible.”

Mussman says the workshop was valuable not just for the in-depth instruction and the expertise of the teaching team, but also for the networking opportunities. Participants came from organizations across the Northeast, including CBS News, The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN and other media outlets, as well as from several colleges and universities. Other regions were also represented, with participants from California, Texas and Canada.  

Like Cenicola, Mussman earned his FAA license after completing the training. “I plan on using my new skills to enhance storytelling by capturing content that would have been previously impossible to visualize,” he says.

Pacheco, assisted by students, was part of the teaching team. Other instructors were Foley; Lance Knowles, creative director with Drone Nerds Inc.; Edward Kostakis, a senior pilot with DJI; Mickey H. Osterreicher, NPPA legal counsel; Jon Resnick, policy lead for DJI; Sam Stewart, trainer with Society of Professional Journalists/Google News Lab Program; Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online; and Matt Waite, professor of practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab.


Banner image: Tony Cenicola