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Capital News Service launches Election Day newsroom

Nov 11, 2019

Posted in: News

By Taylor Burress, Communications Intern

Robertson CNS students on Election Night 2019
Multiple instructors and classes formed a working newsroom to cover Election Day.

Nov. 5 was a significant day for Virginia with all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for reelection. It was also an important day for the student journalists at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. For the first time, multiple instructors and classes formed a working newsroom to cover Election Day from the opening to the polls to the election results and victory parties.

The statewide election was a perfect opportunity to cover breaking news for the first-ever fall semester of the capstone Capital News Service course, instructors said. CNS has been offered in the spring semester for 25 years and usually covers the General Assembly. This fall, CNS is taught by assistant professor Dr. Karen McIntyre, instructor Alix Bryan and instructor Veronica Garabelli, who has worked with the fall class in preparation to teach it again with Bryan in the spring.

The course has more than 100 clients throughout Virginia, and some stories are picked up by the Associated Press and distributed throughout the U.S.

CNS coverage started around 8 a.m. with reporters Jeffrey Raines and Emma North jumping on the GRTC Pulse bus to survey passengers who already voted. Their story “Checking Richmond’s Pulse on Election Day” was published on local news outlet NBC 12.

Robertson CNS on Election Night 2019 with Alix BryanBryan’s students in the multimedia journalism master’s program signed on at 6:30 p.m. to handle a live blog and social media updates, and to cover watch parties for Republican and Democratic candidates.

Associate professor Jeff South, the previous, long time CNS editor, worked with students in his data journalism and visualization class to aggregate incoming election results from precincts across the state by age, geographical region, race, income and compare them to the 2016 presidential votes. To view what students found in their analysis, please click here.

“We didn’t start the course with this plan, but a few weeks in we recognized that elections were a perfect way to provide students a real world opportunity to tackle a breaking news event related to their political focus this semester,” Bryan said.

Robertson CNS students covering the 2019 Election South pointed out that since Virginia has elections every year, “we are a perfect laboratory for students to learn the ropes on doing election stories.”

Aliviah Jones, a senior print and digital journalism student went to three different precincts that day to check in with voters in key House and Senate races in Henrico, Richmond and Fredericksburg. Jones noted the difference in voting demographics between districts and said she enjoyed being out in the field.

"It felt kind of exciting," Jones said. "It was great to learn and also just talk to people out in the field. I feel like I learned a lot more about politics that way."

Imani Thaniel, a print and online journalism senior, also spent her day working at the polls before heading to watch parties in the evening. She said she talked to a variety of people, including some of the candidates such as Delta Bowers who was running for the Henrico County School Board.

"It was a good day of just learning," Thaniel said. "Remembering AP style, remembering all the rules that I've learned throughout this entire semester and putting it all together."

That’s exactly what the Election Day newsroom was intended to do, Bryan said.

“You can talk about something in theory, but you learn it best when you go through the motions,” she added. “Most importantly, you learn how to adapt when plans don’t go as planned.”

For instance, the Virginia Board of Elections website, on which election results are posted, experienced a glitch, went down several times and listed some results as 100% precincts reporting -- which is usually when a winner is announced.

Students were tasked on the fly to join a conference call with the department’s communications team, and report back to the newsroom.

“We needed that info for accurate reporting,” Bryan said. “And students jumped from one task to another to help each other out as needed.”

Students worked with their peers, politicians and public relations specialists to report the most up-to-date election results, Garabelli said.

“I loved watching them have ‘aha-moments’ and implement the concepts we’ve been practicing all semester in a much shorter time frame—from fact checking copy before it goes to press to telling vivid stories through social media,” she said.

Susan and McKenzie covering the 2019 Election Reporters McKenzie Lambert and Susan Shibut attended the watch party of the night, hosted by House and Senate Democrats at the downtown Hilton. With Democrats taking control of the General Assembly and executive leadership for the first time since 1993, the mood was celebratory. Lambert said around 500 people were there, including many local and state leaders such as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Gov. Ralph Northam and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Lambert provided social media updates and Shibut snapped photos for the newsroom.

“Definitely the most exciting political event I've ever been to,” Shibut said.

Both students said CNS is a demanding class.

“Yeah, it's not for the faint of heart,” Shibut said. “We're postulating that it will be rewarding at the end.”

Like most newsrooms on Election Day, students put in a long shift.

“The night wrapped up for many after 2 a.m.,” Bryan said. “Which is typical for such a big election. But we did try to sweeten the long shift with lots of snacks and pizza.”

Other stories posted by the Election Day newsroom were a profile on the controversial politician Joe Morrisey, who returned to the legislature with a victory in Senate District 10, an overview story on the shift in government with Democrats winning control of the House and Senate, an article about women having historic representation in the General Assembly, and a data-driven look at youth and student voter turnout driving Democratic gains.

According to Bryan, the live blog produced by graduate students was a hit.

“I love metrics from my time in newsrooms,” she said. “The live blog had a total of almost 42,000 engagement minutes, almost seven minutes of time spent on page per viewer, almost 6,300 unique views and was featured on the home pages of several clients.”

Instructors think Tuesday night was just the beginning and hope to repeat and expand the strategy in 2020 -- perhaps during the primary election in Virginia and then in the fall presidential election.

“l believe it's important for anybody going into journalism to get experience covering election-night returns -- because it's something they very likely will be doing during their careers,” South said. “My goal would be to get more classes involved, including broadcast students.”

Other CNS stories from the semester are posted here.