Connellsville’s massive “Olympic Oak” plays a prominent role in Trib Total Media’s latest documentary, appearing across several scenes in the snow, a rainstorm and the heat of summer.

The 30-minute documentary follows John Woodruff, who grew up in the community and went on to break racial barriers while winning a gold medal — and the oak sapling — at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Woodruff’s oak now rises over the athletic track at Connellsville Area High School, and the story about the tree links Woodruff’s historic run with athletes’ support for social justice causes today. Woodruff died in 2007.

John Woodruff at the 1936 Olympics. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The scenes with the tree work, in part, because of Pittsburgh’s unpredictable weather from March to July — but also because of the producers’ planning and attention to detail.

Sean Stipp, the Trib’s director of visuals who works only on long-term projects, had to place his tripod on the same exact track markings every time he went to shoot video of the tree from the same angle.

“I sit around and look at the radar and then show up in Connellsville,” Stipp says with a laugh. “I watched to see if it’s going to storm today or it’s going to snow today.”

Many people still think of Trib Total Media as a newspaper company with its printed daily publications in Greensburg and Tarentum and weeklies across the region. Those lines start to blur, however, when the news company makes documentaries and wins awards that used to be reserved for television and radio newsrooms.

This month, The Trib won a national Edward R. Murrow Award — which traditionally honors radio excellence — for a project by JoAnne Klimovich Harrop — that chronicles the experience of locking herself in a nursing home with her dying mother during the Covid pandemic. The Trib is also a finalist this year for three regional Emmy Awards, which typically have gone to TV stations.

“If newspapers want to know how to achieve something like this, don’t come up with a massive idea,” Stipp says. “Prove the concept to yourself and to your audience. That’s what really gets you buy-in from your organization.”

The Trib proved its documentary ability with a video on the first anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, and it has produced other multimedia projects, such as an investigation of the Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County.

Rather than counting success by internet clicks or awards, the Trib measures impact by the quality of the work and the company’s ability to innovate with different types of storytelling, says Jason Cato, senior news editor, who wrote the documentary about Woodruff and a companion article.

“I went into it with the clear idea that the documentary needed to be its own thing, and whatever became the written part would be a part of that, but it wouldn’t be the same thing,” Cato says.

The team, which also included video editor Chris Benson, had a small budget for the project. They spent the most money on licensing historic photos and videos and on reporting trips to Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Alonzo Webb, the University of Pittsburgh’s head coach for track & field and cross country, volunteered his time to serve as the documentary’s narrator. Woodruff was a first-year student at Pitt when he won the gold medal.

Productions interns Jordan Schmitt and Zachary Gibson interview 1980 Olympic team member Candy Young. Photo courtesy of Sean Stipp / Trib Total Media.

The Woodruff documentary also underscores the Trib’s efforts to increase the diversity of its newsroom and of its content. Zachary Gibson, 18, of New Castle, who just started his first year at Slippery Rock University, spent the summer interning with the Trib as its first Diversity in Media scholar.

“The first time I met them, they had me run through the documentary,” Gibson says. “I noticed they put a lot of work into doing it justice, but I noticed a couple of extra steps we could take so that when people of color watched it, they would feel it the way it deserved to be felt.”

Gibson suggested the team focus more on the story of Ky’ron Craggette, a Connellsville student athlete, and on the details of Woodruff’s actual Berlin race. He also offered the perspective of his aunt, Candy Young, who qualified for the 1980 summer Olympics, which the U.S. boycotted.

Woodruff’s experiences confronting racism at the Berlin Olympics and as a student athlete in the U.S. directly link to the experiences of Black athletes today who are using their celebrity to call for more racial justice, Stipp says.

“We set out to show how thoughtful the modern-day athlete is,” Stipp adds. “We just hope our community will see at the very least they are not un-American and they’re not thoughtless. … They’re just using the platform to protest something they believe needs to be protested.”

Comings & Goings

  • WTAE-TV reporter David Kaplan is leaving the station, but has not yet said what he plans to do next. He posted on Facebook about how his time in Pittsburgh was impacted by the Tree of Life massacre and other significant moments: “Pittsburgh, I love you and forever will. This town is more than steel, grit, Super Bowls and rivers, it’s a place of love, heart, re-invention, resilience and a reminder that you NEVER give up, you grow.”
  • Trib photographer Nate Smallwood has left the news company to work as a freelance photographer. “A very sincere thank you to all the journalists I was fortunate enough to work with over the past almost 5 years on staff,” Smallwood shared on Twitter.
  • Former KDKA anchor Susan Koeppen will be hosting WPXI-TV’s new 4 p.m. newscast when it launches in September. “We have a great team of experienced, dedicated journalists in our newsroom, so adding someone of Susan’s caliber will only make us better,” Channel 11 News Director Scott Trabandt was quoted as saying in a Patch story.
  • The Butler Eagle has posted openings for positions for a sports reporter, a breaking news reporter and a paginator. For more information, contact Managing Editor Donna Sybert.

The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you can email him