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Star-Telegram Coverage of Piano Competition Takes Center Stage

Every four years, downtown Fort Worth comes alive with the sweet sounds of Steinways and the international flavor of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Named for Fort Worth’s beloved musical icon, “the Cliburn” has become the Olympics of piano competitions, attracting the world’s most gifted young pianists to compete for medals, money and worldwide recognition.

Call it classical music’s version of American Idol.

The Star-Telegram covers it like the Super Bowl, assembling a team of 20 journalists from across the newsroom to deliver wall-to-wall coverage of the three-week competition at Bass Performance Hall in late May.

It truly is a symphony of art and news, music and mayhem, and this year’s extrasensory sonata was the Star-Telegram’s sophisticated multimedia presentation. In addition to Page 1 stories and daily special sections in print, Cliburn fans could log onto to see and hear performances and interviews with the young pianists and to immerse themselves in all things Cliburn.

Multimedia producer Jen Friedberg was the architect of the Star-Telegram’s ambitious online coverage. She was determined to create a dynamic site that would reflect the beauty of the competition and, more importantly, be useful to readers.

“A lot of Web sites fall into the trap of just being window-dressing,” said Friedberg, 29, a former staff photographer. “But we wanted it to be a deep site, and very content-rich.”

This was the first year the Star-Telegram added a comprehensive online presence to its already robust Cliburn coverage, which began in January with international auditions. Working closely with features editor and lead Cliburn editor Rick Press, Friedberg tailored the Web site to complement in-paper coverage and to add exclusive content that worked better online.

“Very early on, Jen had a vision of what the site could be,” Press said. “It worked in concert with the newspaper’s Cliburn coverage, while also developing its own personality. The site had things you simply can’t do in-paper – audio, video – and it ended up being a full sensory experience for the reader.”

That included hearing every note of every performance, a vital link for Cliburn fans in different parts of the world.

The site also featured mini-bios of all the pianists and performance schedules, additional photos from the day’s competition, a short primer (“Cliburn for Dummies”) for neophytes, and audio of past Cliburn winners. Friedberg even included a link to the Steinway company’s online factory tour.

Many Cliburn fans enjoyed sending e-cards from the site, as well, and testing their knowledge in a killer trivia game.

During the competition, Friedberg became a one-woman Internet SWAT team, roaming around Bass Hall armed with a handheld digital video camera. In an exclusive online story, Friedberg interviewed competitors from Russia, Italy, and China on whether national stereotyping enters into judges’ perceptions about their playing. And for a segment titled, “On the Same Page,” Friedberg expanded on the newspaper’s coverage by filming interviews with the unsung heroes of the competition, the unflinching page-turners.

“I really wanted the possibility of creating the kind of narrative where a user can respond differently when both sound and video are added to a traditional story,” said Friedberg.

The results generated a slew of positive e-mails – many from international piano aficionados – and kudos from competition bloggers and Cliburn officials.

“What the Star-Telegram ended up producing on its Web site, in content and design was so incredible, frankly, we wanted to steal from you guys,” said Sevan Melikyan, director of marketing and public relations at the Cliburn Foundation.

Looking back, Friedberg thinks a lot was riding on the success of the Star-Telegram’s Cliburn online coverage. “It represented a turning point for the paper,” said Friedberg, who now regularly creates multimedia presentations for everything from NASCAR races to the Fort Worth Stock Show. “This was the first time the paper had attempted such a large-scale site, and it ended up showing our readers what the possibilities could be from this entirely new media.”

Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jim Witt agrees, particularly as he spearheads the paper’s push toward more online content and exclusives.

“The Cliburn was the beginning,” Witt said. “We took the city’s most beloved arts event and gave readers a richer experience both online and in print. In many ways, it laid the foundation for what we are doing now on a regular basis.” ><

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Who’s Who
Jen Friedberg attended the University of Florida in Gainesville and graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Journalism and a specialization in photography. She interned at former Knight-Ridder newspaper the Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune and later joined the staff. In October 1999, she joined the Star-Telegram’s neighbors section and eventually began working as a general assignment photographer. She began learning multimedia techniques and created her first Flash presentation. She recently became the first multimedia producer for the Star-Telegram.

Rick Press has been features editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for five years and led the paper’s coverage of 12th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition. He has worked at two other Knight-Ridder newspapers (the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Boca Raton News) and is a graduate of the University of Florida.