Capital News Service turns 25
May 1, 2019
Posted in: News
The Capital News Service of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Editors and student reporters celebrated the special occasion with what they do best: reporting the news for more than 100 news outlets across Virginia and beyond.
This spring semester, CNS published around 270 stories about the General Assembly, politics and other news in the capital that were showcased to 30 professional journalists on Monday at a student portfolio review of the Robertson School’s digital journalism sequence.
Founded in 1994 by former journalism professor Wilma Wirt, the CNS class was created to give students the opportunity to report on the General Assembly and give the state's newspapers better access to the legislature.
“Other news outlets around the state might not be able to monitor specifically what their state legislators are doing, but we have the troop strength to do that,” said longtime CNS editor and journalism professor Jeff South. CNS student reporters have also felt the benefits from the program, getting bylines and winning awards for their stories. Several students won Mark of Excellence Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists this spring.
“The beauty for them is the instant payoff at the end of a pressure-filled day; they see their byline in print and on websites throughout the state and nation,” said Alix Bryan, who taught CNS alongside South and adjunct professor Brandon Shulleeta in the spring semester. “They begin to understand the importance of informing Virginians about issues facing their community, and the impact of the state legislature.”
With this mission, CNS has grown significantly over the past decade and has been featured in Virginia Capitol Connections magazine, VCU News, Presstime and other publications for its breaking news coverage. Most recently CNS and South were awarded the 2019 Good Government Award by the Richmond First Club.
Ryan Murphy, a former CNS student and current reporter for The Virginian-Pilot, said, “Having bylines in real newspapers and websites was invaluable for me when I graduated."
For the second year in a row, the Robertson School offered two sections of the class in the spring semester with 25 student reporters. Their articles are sent out to a list of clients including The Associated Press, which often sends the articles out to its subscribers worldwide.
“CNS is a win, win, win,” said South. “It’s a win for the news outlets we serve because they’re getting content they ordinarily would not be able to obtain on their own. It’s also a win for the students because they get bylines often in big news outlets like the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post. And it’s a win for the readers because they are getting news that they would not read elsewhere.”
At the beginning of the semester, the students do intense daily reporting, collectively producing about five to six stories a day. They then continue doing two to four stories a day as they are working more on long-form investigative enterprise stories. By the end of the semester, each student will have completed at least 10 stories.
“The intensive program replicates a working newsroom for students, who not only discover the pressure of deadlines, but also the importance of developing contacts, chasing down sources, confirming information and researching issues they may not know much about,” Bryan said.
“The biggest thing is meeting the deadlines because we couldn't go two weeks without turning in a story,” said Madison Manske, a senior in digital journalism.
“Working with real editors on real stories of importance on real deadlines was a real trial-by-fire and a great stepping stone for those of us rapidly approaching the job market,” Murphy said.
In the class, every student receives a press badge for working at the Capitol. This gives the students access to places where the general public is not permitted.
“It’s kind of empowering; it gives them a sense of being a real reporter,” South said.
“Learning the fundamentals of journalism is vital, but at some point, to get good at journalism, you have to go out there and do it. That's exactly what these young, talented journalists are doing,” Shulleeta said. “Here, the stakes are high, the deadlines are tight, and the expectation is to report with fairness and accuracy.”
The students in CNS are breaking stories all semester, some that may have fallen below the radar for other news outlets. They report on stories that impact the state as well as local communities.
“I think there's a real demand for this kind of reporting that can localize stories for individual news outlets,” South said.
“I wrote a story on ‘banning the box,’” Corrine Fizer, a senior in digital journalism, said, referring to the checkbox on employment forms that asks applicants about their criminal history. “I got a lot of comments on the article that I didn't expect. I thought no one was going to read it. Then people read it, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait, this is actually making an impact.’”
The students in CNS are not the only ones who learn from their experience; the editors, mentors and professors do as well.
“I learned a lot working as an editor in the program; we are responsible too for that final, distributed copy -- so we have to research and fact-check everything,” said Bryan. “Coming from almost a decade in newsrooms, I enjoy the deadline pressure -- but most of all I enjoyed watching students grow as reporters over 16 weeks.”
Shulleeta said his CNS role reaffirmed “the importance of having conversations with young and upcoming journalists.”
“It's obviously important to edit with a keen eye for detail and inspire young journalists to appreciate nuances, but it's also important to have conversations, to work through issues and explain edits,” he said. “That approach serves a couple of purposes: ensuring the best article possible and turning every story into a learning opportunity.”